Today is the 31st of July, which means it is Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day. This day is dedicated to the appreciation of uncommon instruments, which means it’s the perfect time to remind music lovers all over the planet that there is a wide variety of wacky and wonderful instruments from all around the world just waiting to be discovered.
From air instruments to violins (a must-bring), epic sax guys to burning fake pianos and drums of all shapes and sizes, Eurovision is the perfect place for a diverse array of instruments to shine.
These are just ten of the most uncommon, unconventional and unique instruments at Eurovision. If one of your favourite instruments missed out on making this list, don’t worry, please stay tuned for part two!
The duduk is a double-reeded wind instrument made from the wood of the apricot tree. This tree is significant to Armenian culture and history, as outlined in their 2010 Eurovision entry ‘Apricot Stone’, where the duduk is played by Djivan Gasparyan.
UNESCO proclaimed the Armenian duduk and its music as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005 and inscribed it in 2008.
From Armenia’s second entry in the Eurovision Song Contest ‘Anytime You Need’ to Ukraine’s winning entry ‘1944’, duduks have featured in a number of classic Eurovision entries throughout the years, despite being an instrument which may be unfamiliar to Western audiences.
A member of the duduk instrument family is the balaban, which is featured in Azerbaijan’s 2014 Eurovision entry ‘Start A Fire’. Another variation of the duduk is known as the Balkan duduk and can be heard in Serbia’s 2018 Eurovision entry ‘Nova Deca’. Russia’s 2003 Eurovision artists t.A.T.u have also used a duduk in their song ‘Zachem Ya’ (or ‘Stars’).
The lyra is the name given to a family of stringed instruments originating in Greece, played with a bow. It has taken the stage many times at Eurovision, from the Pontian lyra in ‘Utopian Land’, Greece’s 2016 Eurovision entry, to the Cretan lyra present in ‘My Number One’, Greece’s winning Eurovision entry from 2005.
While both of these lyras have three strings, the two instruments share a number of differences. The Cretan lyra is pear shaped and considered to be the most popular surviving form of the Byzantine lyra, a medieval instrument which is an ancestor of most European bowed instruments. Who knows, without the Byzantine lyra, we may not have the violin which has been so beloved and popular at Eurovision throughout the years!
Contrastingly, the Pontian lyra is narrower and more oval in shape, and appears to have been created between the 11th and 12th centuries, diverging from the Byzantine lyra which was present at the time.
In ‘My Number One’, Helena Paparizou formed a human version of the Cretan lyra using some ropes and her backup dancers - a very creative move indeed! Helena Paparizou’s impact as a winner of the contest was felt a year later, when Croatia featured a member of the lyra family, the lijerica, in their Eurovision entry ‘Moja štikla’.
Go_A’s Epic Sopilka Guy took Europe and the world by storm in the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest, finishing runner-up in the televote and leading Ukraine to 5th place in the competition with 364 points.
The sopilka is a woodwind instrument similar to a fife or recorder, traditionally made out of wood. A skilled sopilka player can mimic a variety of natural sounds, such as insects and bird calls. This was perfect for Go_A’s 2020 Eurovision entry ‘Solovey’, where the sopilka in the song mimics the calls of the titular nightingale.
From a traditional instrument used in folklore to one still beloved by modern artists, the sopilka has stood the test of time in Ukrainian music. 2004 Eurovision winner Ruslana featured the sopilka in several tracks of her 2004 album ‘Wild Dances’.
Did you know that there are two instruments called the Baglama that have featured in Eurovision? One is the Turkish stringed instrument heard in the introduction of their 1997 Eurovision Song Contest entry ‘Dinle’, and the other is a smaller, related instrument from Greece, played by Agathonas Iakovidis in Greece’s 2013 Eurovision song ‘Alcohol Is Free’. Both instruments are played by plucking them like a guitar.
The kaval is a traditional shepherd’s flute played throughout the Balkans and Anatolia (Turkey and Armenia). While there are multiple kinds of kavals, one defining aspect of kavals is that they are fully open at both ends, unlike transverse flutes, and can be played with a “sideways” embouchure. Miloš Nikolić is the first kaval professor in Serbia and he played the kaval at both the 2004 and 2012 Eurovision Song Contests for the entries ‘Lane Moje’ (representing Serbia and Montenegro) and ‘Nije ljubav stvar’ (representing Serbia) respectively, collaborating with Željko Joksimović on both occasions.
Related to the kaval is the ney, a Turkish flute-like instrument that features in their 1997 entry ‘Dinle’. The ney is smaller than the kaval, and unlike similar instruments, has a flared mouthpiece.
6. Milk Jug
The milk jug is a percussion instrument used as a traditional accompaniment technique in Roma music. Hungary’s 2017 Eurovision entry ‘Origo’ as a whole musically reflects Joci Papai’s Romani culture, and the song is certainly not complete without this instrument.
7. Galician Bagpipes
On first thought, one would think that the United Kingdom would be the nation that has used the bagpipes the most at Eurovision, but actually, that is not the case! Surprisingly enough, Belgium has actually used the wind instrument more frequently than the UK. The Galician bagpipes, otherwise known as the Galician gaita, is smaller than its Scottish cousins. The word ‘gaita’ most likely derives from the Gothic word ‘gait’ or ‘gata’, meaning “goat”, as the bag of a gaita is made from a skinned goat hide.
Yves Barbieux of the band Urban Trad not only plays a flute-like instrument on ‘Sanomi’, but also the Galician bagpipes, lending more uniqueness to an entry famous for its imaginary language.
Lovers of the sound of bagpipes are also encouraged to listen to Romania’s 2012 entry ‘Zaleilah’ and Bulgaria’s 2013 entry ‘Samo Shampioni’.
8. Daði & Gagnamagnið’s Transforming Keytars
While keytars have certainly been no stranger to the Eurovision Song Contest, featuring in many entries throughout the years, what makes this variant rare and special is the fact that three of them can be interlocked to form a circular piano, as seen in the performance of Iceland’s 2021 Eurovision entry ‘10 Years’! Two instruments for the price of one - now that’s genius!
Norway’s 1995 Eurovision-winning song ‘Nocturne’ is famous for its violin solos and even its penny whistle, but did you know that another uncommon instrument plays a part in this classic? The Nyckelharpa (literal translation: “keyed harp”) is a traditional Swedish stringed instrument which is usually played with a strap around the neck, stabilised by the right arm. Although the nyckelharpa resembles a sideways fiddle, it is more closely related to the hurdy-gurdy. It has keys along the length of the instrument which, when pressed, change the pitch of the string, much like a fret on a guitar or violin. The right arm presses the keys while the left arm uses a bow to produce sound.
10. Looping device
A rule change in 2017 facilitated Norway’s JOWST and Alexander Wahlmann’s ability to use pre-recorded processed vocals for their entry ‘Grab the Moment’. Little did they know that this would lead to one of the most unconventional Eurovision-winning songs of all time in Netta’s ‘Toy’, which used a looping device to loop the aforementioned artist's voice. This was the first time that this unique instrument had ever been in the Contest. The looper recorded Netta’s live vocals, playing each recording in a loop as she added new recordings on top of each layer of vocals, as well as harmonising with her own voice.
Happy Uncommon Instruments Awareness Day! We hope you have learnt something new and interesting about some of the many uncommon instruments in the Eurovision Song Contest.