The Hydraulophone: An Instrument Played by Flowing Water

Updated on January 11, 2018
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton has loved music since childhood. She plays the piano and recorder, sings, and listens to classical, folk, and early music.

Ryan Janzen playing a hydraulophone in a concert rehearsal
Ryan Janzen playing a hydraulophone in a concert rehearsal | Source

An Unusual and Interesting Instrument

A hydraulophone is a musical instrument in which sounds are created by flowing water. It's an unusual and interesting device that can be very expressive when played by a skilled musician. The general public can also create music with the instrument. It's fun and easy to play, although a skilled player can produce a wider variety of sounds than a beginner.

In a hydraulophone, water is pumped into a curved, horizontal tube and spurts out of a series of small holes on the top of the tube. There is a sounding mechanism positioned upstream of each hole. If a person places a finger over a hole, the water can be directed past the associated sounding mechanism and diverted to another part of the instrument. Each sounding mechanism creates a different note, allowing music to be played. If more than one hole is covered at the same time, multiple notes can be played simultaneously to create polyphony.

Greensleeves Played on a Hydraulophone

The hydraulophone was created in the 1980s by Steve Mann, an engineering professor at the University of Toronto. He explores wearable computers as well as unusual instruments. Ryan Janzen is a leading hydraulophone player and composer.

Origin of the Instrument

In an interview with WaterShapes, Steve Mann says that the idea for creating a hydraulophone developed gradually in the 1980s. He remembers a specific event that was important in the genesis of the new instrument. He was watching a truck filling some tanks with liquid nitrogen and was intrigued by the sounds produced as the fluid flowed through the pipes. Since then he has built hundreds of hydraulophones. He says that that they aren't identical with respect to operation but are actually a family of instruments.

The sound is almost otherworldly, a singing voice of a very special sort. And with practice, you can learn to bend and squeeze notes by the way you press the jets, which allows you to expand the range and create notes that don’t exist on standard instruments.

— Steve Mann, via the WaterShapes website

Creating the Sound

The hydraulophone is played like a keyboard instrument but is actually more closely related to a woodwind instrument. In fact, it’s sometimes called a “woodwater“ instrument.

The water is pumped through the instrument by an electric pump, a water or wind powered pump, or a hand pump operated by another person. The water flowing out of the holes is generally collected in a trough to be recirculated.

A variety of sound-producing devices are used in hydraulophones. The diverted jet of water may pass through a valve, a shaft, or a spinning disk containing holes in order to make a sound. Some instruments contain a device similar to those found in wind instruments, such as a single or double reed or a fipple. An example of a fipple is the mouthpiece of a recorder.

Pachelbel's Canon Played on a Hydraulophone

Embouchure

Another similarity between hydraulophones and wind instruments is the application of embouchure. Embouchure refers to the shape and position of the lips as they contact the mouthpiece of a wind instrument. The embouchure affects the nature of the sound that's produced.

In a hydraulophone, the fingers can act like the lips of a wind instrument. The sound can be modified by the position of the fingers over the holes as well as by the pressure and velocity of a finger. These factors affect the water current hitting the sounding device, just as embouchure in a wind instrument affects the current of air entering the instrument. For example, the sound of a hydraulophone is slightly different depending on whether a finger approaches a hole from the side or from above. It's also influenced by whether the finger partially or fully closes the hole. The sound created at a hole can be "sculpted" and may have a polyphonic quality.

Range of a 45-jet hydraulophone
Range of a 45-jet hydraulophone | Source

Range of a Hydraulophone

Hydraulophones are sometimes installed in parks for anyone to use. These generally have twelve holes arranged in a single row and are known as 12-jet diatonic hydraulophones. They have a one and a half octave range, starting on the A below middle C and going up to E. Key valves provide an extended range on some instruments.

More advanced hydraulophones used in concerts have forty-five holes arranged in two rows. They are known as 45-jet chromatic hydraulophones and have a three and a half octave range.

Playing a Hydraulophone While Wearing Digital Eyeglasses

There are three categories of traditional musical instruments, string, wind and percussion. Steve Mann thinks that water instruments should be a fourth category.

Hydraulophones used to control organ pipes at the Ontario Science Centre in Canada
Hydraulophones used to control organ pipes at the Ontario Science Centre in Canada | Source

Outdoor Instruments

The two hydraulophones outside the Ontario Science Centre in Canada are part of a sculpture. The stainless steel instruments produce their own sounds and also send water out through the openings in large organ pipes, which are driven by hydraulic action. The instruments are available twenty-four hours a day. They form the world's largest outdoor hydraulophone that can be accessed by the public.

An outdoor instrument allows people to have fun creating music even if they don't have an instrument at home. One advantage of water running out of the holes in a public hydraulophone is that it helps to clean the instrument. In fact, hydraulophones are often said to be "self-cleaning".

A Hydraulophone With Acoustic Enhancements

A Nessie for Creating Music

Some hydraulophones are covered by a colourful material. One end is enlarged and has an opening that resembles a mouth. The other end has an extra curve and resembles a tail. The hydraulophone looks like a strange water creature. It's nicknamed "Nessie" after the Loch Ness Monster. Nessies are especially fun for children to play, especially when the player can take the instrument into the water with them as shown in the video above.

All hydraulophones work in the same fundamental way, but they vary considerably in their sound producing devices. The Nessie shown in the video above has acoustic enhancements to make the sound more musical.

Coldplay Clocks Played on Hydraulophones

Other Types of Hydraulophones

Some hydraulophones containing solenoid-operated valves. The valves control the release of water from the holes and enable sounds to be produced with no human player involved. If the valves are disabled the instrument can be played in the usual manner.

Some instruments use electronics to ampify the sound. In these instruments, the water turbulence created when a person presses on a hole and changes the water current produces a sound of its own, but this sound is weak. It's picked up and amplified by a hydrophone (an underwater microphone) and then sent to a computer, which plays the sound.

A hydraulophone in a hot tub
A hydraulophone in a hot tub | Source

Hot tubs containing hydraulophones are fun for creative relaxation. Since the hydraulist (the musician) is immersed in the liquid used to make the sound, the instrument is often called a balnaphone. This name is derived from "balnea", an Ancient Greek word for bath.

The Callioflute: A Hydraulophone Combined With a Calliope

A calliope is an instrument that sends steam into whistles. A row (or rows) of whistles of different sizes makes up the instrument. The calliope plays a tune based on the whistles that receive the steam. Both pitch and duration of the sound can be controlled. Some calliopes are driven by compressed air instead of steam.

A callioflute is a combination of a calliope and a hydraulophone. The player stops a jet of water with a finger, as in a regular hydraulophone. The water is then rapidly heated and converted to steam. The steam travels into a whistle to produce a sound. Like the hydraulophone, the callioflute was created by Steve Mann.

A callioflute with twelve mouths
A callioflute with twelve mouths | Source

Applications

Hydraulophones can produce concert music for an audience's enjoyment or provide fun for children and adults in parks and museums. They can be used by professional musicians and by people who don't know how to play an instrument. A public hydraulophone allows everyone to play music, even if they can't afford to buy a musical instrument of their own. The instrument also allows a player to be expressive as they learn how to vary the sound that's produced by each hole.

Hydraulophones are used in water and music therapy. Many people find playing in water relaxing and the flow of water jets over the hands can be soothing. Instruments with Braille markings by the holes are useful for visually impaired people. Producing music with a hydraulophone can a creative and enjoyable process for almost everyone.

References

An article about Steve Mann and the hydraulophone from Red Bull Music Academy

An interview with Steve Mann from the WaterShapes website

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Linda Crampton

    Comments

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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, poetryman. Thank you very much for the comment. I can understand your reaction to the hydraulophone. It certainly is a strange instrument!

      • poetryman6969 profile image

        poetryman6969 

        3 years ago

        Voted up as the most different looking and sounding thing I will see all day. Another one of those things that initially makes you check the calendar to see if it's April 1st!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Simone. It is awesome that instruments like hydraulophones are being created! The new sounds that inventors are producing can make a wonderful addition to a piece of music. Thank you for the visit.

      • Simone Smith profile image

        Simone Haruko Smith 

        6 years ago from San Francisco

        This is SO NEAT! I had never heard of hydraulophones before! What a strange world we live in- strange and AWESOME.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the visit and the comment, Nell. The hydraulophone is wonderful fun for children and for adults. It's great that some types can be used as concert instruments too.

      • Nell Rose profile image

        Nell Rose 

        6 years ago from England

        Hi, amazing, I have never heard of one of these before, sounds like great fun, especially for the kids, really good idea, you learn something new everyday on here! lol! thanks, nell

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the comment, homesteadbound! I agree - the hydraulophone is a cool instrument. The sounds that it makes are very interesting.

      • homesteadbound profile image

        Cindy Murdoch 

        6 years ago from Texas

        I have never heard of this before, but it is so cool. I really liked the playing of greensleeves. Thanks so much for sharing.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Peggy. I hope that more parks install hydraulophones too - it would be fun to play one!

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        6 years ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Alicia,

        Like others have already commented, I had never heard of a hydraulophone but listening to the music created by using them via the videos...it is nice. Would be fun trying to play one. Perhaps more public parks will start installing them. Thanks for this useful, informative and interesting hub.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the comment and for the information, S. Mann. I'm looking forward to hearing the sound of the waterhammer hydraulophone!

      • profile image

        S. Mann 

        6 years ago

        Yes, some hydraulophones sound like singing bowls. Waterhammer hydraulophone "rings true" in that sense, e.g. like chimes or church bells.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Yes, drbj, I do agree! The sound of the hydraulophone is other-worldly. I've read that many people are attracted to the instrument by its haunting sound. Thank you for the visit and the comment.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, kashmir56. Thank you for commenting and for the votes! I'm glad that you enjoyed the hub and the videos.

      • drbj profile image

        drbj and sherry 

        6 years ago from south Florida

        What a fascinating instrument you have shown us, Alicia. The sound to me is somewhat other-worldly. I'm thinking it would provide a wonderful backaground for sci-fi movies of extra terrestrials. Would you agree?

        Thanks for this educational treat and the videos.

      • kashmir56 profile image

        Thomas Silvia 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Alicia this was a very interesting hub about the Hydraulophones and how it works, loved the videos !

        Awesome and vote up !

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Maren Morgan. Yes, I agree - playing the hydraulophone does look like fun, and the sound is a bit like that of Tibetan singing bowls! I've never thought of that before. Thanks for the idea and the comment.

      • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

        Maren Elizabeth Morgan 

        6 years ago from Pennsylvania

        Looks like fun and sounds slightly like a bunch of Tibetan water bowls all in one instrument.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I like the sound of the instrument too, Martie. People who play the hydraulophone seem to love it, but I don't know how widespread the instrument is. Thanks for the visit.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Princess Pitt. I play instruments too, but I only heard about the hydraulophone recently. Thank you for the comment.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks, Jools99. I appreciate your visit and comment.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, K Kiss. Thanks for the comment. The hydraulophone is a bizarre instrument, but I think it has an interesting sound.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the comment, learner365. Yes, the hydraulophone is certainly a different kind of instrument! It will be interesting to see how it develops over time.

      • MartieCoetser profile image

        Martie Coetser 

        6 years ago from South Africa

        Awesome. Love the sound of the hydraulophone. I can't believe I've never heard of this instrument before, while I know all wind instruments. I am flabbergasted.

        Thanks, Alicia, for teaching me something brand new :)

      • profile image

        Princess Pitt 

        6 years ago

        absolutely bookmarked this! I was curious....never heard of it. But I know that one pic is from canada....but didn't know it was a music instrument.

        I enjoy playing my instrument at the church...hence i know quite kinds of instrument..

        Thanks for sharing really...voted awesomest !

      • Jools99 profile image

        Jools Hogg 

        6 years ago from North-East UK

        Alicia, This is a great hub with great videos and photos. I wasn't aware of its existence. Amazing!

      • K Kiss profile image

        K Kiss 

        6 years ago from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

        This is really fantastic. I had no idea of the existence of such a bizarrely awesome musical instrument. Thanks for sharing AliciaC.

      • learner365 profile image

        Saadia A 

        6 years ago

        This is very interesting.I never knew about the Hydraulophone but thanks to you now i do. :) A very different kind of music instrument indeed.Loved learning about it !!! Good job!!!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the visit and the comment, pinkish!

      • pinkish profile image

        pinkish 

        6 years ago

        Looks really cool! I never thought this kind of music instrument exist. Thank you for sharing. :)

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, oldandwise. I think that adults would have a ball with a hydraulophone too - I know that I would!

      • profile image

        oldandwise 

        6 years ago

        Never heard of such a thing!lol Never too old to learn. My grandkids would have a ball with one of those. Great hub.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, mljdgulley354. Yes, I think the instrument would be a great addition to a play park for children. The children in the second video certainly seem to be having fun! Thank you for the comment.

      • mljdgulley354 profile image

        mljdgulley354 

        6 years ago

        I can just see kids playing with one of these in a park. Great hub

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Playing a hydraulophone does look like great fun! Thanks for the comment, Eranofu.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, missolive. Thanks for commenting. Yes, hydraulophones are interesting instruments!

      • Eranofu profile image

        Eranofu 

        6 years ago from Europe

        Aaaaaa, sounds a bit weird but looks like so much fun. : ))))

      • missolive profile image

        Marisa Hammond Olivares 

        6 years ago from Texas

        What an interesting instrument. I enjoyed learning something new today - thank you for sharing.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the share, J.S.Matthew! Hydraulophones are strange instruments, but I agree with you - they're cool! I'd love to try playing one too.

      • J.S.Matthew profile image

        JS Matthew 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

        This is awesome! Steve Mann is a genius! I enjoyed the video that did a cover of Coldplay's "Clocks". What a cool instrument! And you're even cooler because you showed it to me! I would love to try one of these. I had never heard of Hydraulophones until reading this Hub. Nice job and thanks! Voting up and sharing.

        JSMatthew~

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