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The Hydraulophone: An Instrument Played by Flowing Water

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

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. A sounding mechanism is positioned upstream of each hole. If a person places a finger over a hole, the water is 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.

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. A hydraulophone player is sometimes referred to as a hydraulist.

Origin of the Instrument

In an interview with WaterShapes (which is referenced below), 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 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.

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 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.

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

Hydraulophones used to control organ pipes at the Ontario Science Centre

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 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.

Other Types of Hydraulophones

The design of a hydraulophone can be modified in multiple ways and offers many possibilities with respect to instrument creation. Some varieties of the instrument contain 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 amplify the sound. In these instruments, the 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.

Hot tubs containing hydraulophones are fun for creative relaxation. Since the hydraulist 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. Combinations of a hydraulophone with other instruments have been created.

Applications

The hydraulophone is an interesting invention. The instrument can produce concert music for an audience's enjoyment or provide fun for children and adults in parks and museums. Hydraulophones 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. The flow of water jets over the hands can be soothing for some individuals. Instruments with Braille markings by the holes are useful for visually impaired people. Producing music with a hydraulophone can be a creative and enjoyable process.

References

  • An article about Steve Mann and the hydraulophone from Red Bull Music Academy
  • An interview with Steve Mann from the WaterShapes website
  • Information about the Ontario Science Centre instrument from the wearcam website

© 2011 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 26, 2015:

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

poetryman6969 on April 26, 2015:

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!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 28, 2011:

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 Haruko Smith from San Francisco on December 28, 2011:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 28, 2011:

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 from England on December 28, 2011:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 27, 2011:

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

Cindy Murdoch from Texas on December 27, 2011:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 27, 2011:

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

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 27, 2011:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 23, 2011:

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

S. Mann on December 23, 2011:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 23, 2011:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 23, 2011:

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

drbj and sherry from south Florida on December 23, 2011:

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.

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on December 23, 2011:

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

Awesome and vote up !

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 23, 2011:

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 Elizabeth Morgan from Pennsylvania on December 23, 2011:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 22, 2011:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 22, 2011:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 22, 2011:

Thanks, Jools99. I appreciate your visit and comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 22, 2011:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 22, 2011:

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.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on December 22, 2011:

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 :)

Princess Pitt on December 22, 2011:

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 !

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on December 22, 2011:

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

K Kiss from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK on December 21, 2011:

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

Saadia A on December 21, 2011:

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!!!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 21, 2011:

Thank you for the visit and the comment, pinkish!

pinkish on December 21, 2011:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 21, 2011:

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

oldandwise on December 21, 2011:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 21, 2011:

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 on December 21, 2011:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 21, 2011:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 21, 2011:

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

Eranofu from Europe on December 21, 2011:

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

Marisa Hammond Olivares from Texas on December 21, 2011:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 21, 2011:

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.

JS Matthew from Massachusetts, USA on December 21, 2011:

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~