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The Waterphone: Soundtrack to Your Nightmares

The above video, from user Bob Rockman, shows off one of his original compositions created using a few variations of the waterphone. If you don’t know what that is, but watched any horror film in the past thirty years or so, chances are that you have heard this instrument’s eerie noises running through the soundtrack and background.

If you cannot think of an example, take a moment to watch this short clip from the X-Files episode “Irresistible.” It features some very prominent use of the waterphone:

For years it has plagued many, including myself: How are those sounds made? It was only in writing this story that I was introduced to the rather recent invention that is the waterphone.

Waterphone[Image: waterphone.com]

While it looks more like some kind of medieval torture device than an instrument, the waterphone was created in the 1960s by composer and artist Richard Waters, and was based on cultural instruments that he had come across during his time in school.

The waterphone is a percussive instrument that can also be used with a bow like a string instrument. It is referred to as “inharmonic” since it does not make sounds that stay in one tone. The waterphone consists of two major pieces that contribute to its unique sound. The first is the drum at the bottom, which contains a small amount of water. This is what creates the warping tone as a player drums along the side of, or drags a bow across, the brass pipes along the edge. These pipes are the second component of the instrument.

Now that you know what the instrument is, use that knowledge to wow people at the next party or horror screening you go to. Let us know your favorite horror film soundtrack in the comments below, and if it involves a waterphone make sure to tell us that too!

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