List of instruments by Harry Partch

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A selection of Partch's instruments on stage

The American composer Harry Partch composed using scales of unequal intervals in just intonation, derived from the natural Harmonic series; these scales allowed for more tones of smaller intervals than in the standard Western tuning, which uses twelve equal intervals. One of Partch's scales has 43 tones to the octave. To play this music, he built a large number of unique instruments, with names such as the Chromelodeon, the Quadrangularis Reversum, and the Zymo-Xyl.

Partch called himself "a philosophic music-man seduced into carpentry".[1] The path towards Partch's use of a large number of unique instruments was a gradual one.[2] Partch began in the 1920s using traditional instruments, and wrote a string quartet in just intonation (now lost).[3] He had his first specialized instrument built for him in 1930—the Adapted Viola, a viola with a cello's neck fitted on it.[4]

He re-tuned the reeds of several reed organs and labeled the keys with a color code. The first one was called the Ptolemy, in tribute to the ancient music theorist Claudius Ptolemaeus, whose musical scales included ratios of the 11-limit, as Partch's did. The others were called Chromelodeons, a portmanteau of chrome (meaning "color") and melodeon.[citation needed]

Most of Partch's works used the instruments he created exclusively. Some works made use of unaltered standard instruments such as oboe, clarinet, or cello, and Revelation in the Courtyard Park (1960) used an unaltered small wind band.[1]

In 1990, Dean Drummond's Newband became custodians of the original Harry Partch instrument collection, and the group performs with and commissions new pieces for the instruments.[citation needed] These instruments currently reside at the Harry Partch Institute at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey under the care of Charles Corey.[5] In 2004, the instruments crossed campus into the newly constructed Alexander Kasser Theater, which provides a large studio space in the basement. Concerts by Newband and MSU's Harry Partch Ensemble may be viewed several times a year in this hall.[citation needed]

Those who have duplicated partial sets of Partch instruments include John Schneider, whose West Coast ensemble includes replicas of the Kithara, Surrogate Kithara, Cloud-Chamber Bowls, Adapted Guitars, Adapted Viola, Diamond Marimba, Bass Marimba, Chromelodeon, and two Harmonic Canons.[citation needed]

Adapted Guitars[edit]

Partch built two steel-string guitars: the six-string Adapted Guitar I, and the ten-string Adapted Guitar II (played with a slide). Partch first started experimenting with such instruments in 1934, and the Adapted Guitar I first appeared in Barstow in 1941.[6] In 1945, he began using amplification for both instruments.[6]

Adapted Viola[edit]

Tuning of the four strings of Harry Partch's Adapted Viola. It also shows the ratios in which each string is tuned (G=1/1).

The Adapted Viola is earliest extant created by Partch. It is made from a cello fingerboard neck attached to the body of a viola.[7] It also includes a changeable bridge which allows triple stops, i.e. full triads, to be sustained.[8] Partch hammered brads into the fingerboard to aid with finding fingerings.[2] The Adapted Viola was constructed in New Orleans with the assistance of an Edward Benton, a local violin maker. Partch originally called it the Monophone, but by 1933 it had become known as the Adapted Viola.[7]

Partch tuned the Adapted Viola an octave below the violin and the brads inserted into the instrument fingerboard are placed at ratios commonly used in Partch's works. In playing the instrument, Partch called for a "one-finger technique," which is "much closer to the spirit of Indian vina playing than it is to the pipe organ."[9] Specifically, he desired that notes should be approached by gliding from tone to tone:

The finger may start slowly on its move, increase speed, and hit the next ratio exactly. It may move very fast from the first ratio, and then move slowly and insinuatingly into the next—so slowly, sometimes, that one is not sure as to the point where rest has been achieved. Or, all this may be reversed. What the bow is doing meanwhile, in its capacity of providing an infinitude of nuance, is supremely important.

—Harry Partch, Genesis of a Music, page 202

As Partch's first instrument, the Adapted Viola is used heavily in many of his early mature compositions. In works such as Seventeen Lyrics by Li Po and Two Psalms the music is scored only for Adapted Viola and intoning voice.[10]

Bamboo Marimbas[edit]

Boo II

Nicknamed "Boo" and "Boo II", the Bamboo Marimbas are marimbas made of bamboo, using the concept of a tongued resonator to produce the tones.

The Boo I was first built in 1955.[11]

11-key Bass Marimba and the 4-key Marimba Eroica[edit]

have more traditional linear layouts, and are very low in pitch. The Eroica's range extends well below that of the concert piano.[citation needed]


A closeup of a keyboard, whose keys are colorfully painted and marked with numbers
Part of the keyboard of the Chromelodeon

First built in 1941. The Chromelodeon II was built in 1950.[11]

Cloud Chamber Bowls[edit]

The Cloud Chamber Bowls is a set of 12-US-gallon (45 L) Pyrex bowls cut from the carboys of cloud chambers, suspended in a frame.[12] First built in 1950.[11]

Diamond Marimba[edit]

The Diamond Marimba is a marimba with keys arranged in a physical manifestation of the 11-limit tonality diamond.[13] Partch first built it in 1946.[11]

Eucal Blossom[edit]

Close-up of the Eucal Blossom showing tonality ratios

First built in 1964.[11]

Gourd Tree and Cone GongsGourd Tree and Cone Gongs[edit]

Part of the Gourd Tree

Twelve temple bells bolted to gourd resonators on a bar of eucalyptus, and two Douglas Aircraft bomber nosecones.[14] First built in 1964.[11]

Harmonic Canons[edit]

Harmonic Canon

The Harmonic Canons (from the same root as qanún) are 44-stringed instruments with complex systems of bridges. They are tuned differently depending on the piece, and are played with fingers or picks, or in some cases, unique mallets.

Harmonic Canon I (1945), II (1953), III (1965).[11]


Named after their inspiration, the Greek kithara, the Kitharas are 71-by-43-inch (180 cm × 110 cm)[15] upright 72-stringed instruments,[16] tuned by sliding pyrex rods underneath the strings, and played with fingers or a variety of plectra.

The Kithara I was first built in 1938, and restored in 1972. The Surrogate Kithara was built in 1953, and the Kithara II in 1954.[11]

Mazda Marimba[edit]

The Mazda Marimba is made of Mazda light bulbs and named after the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda.

Quadrangularis Reversum[edit]

Partch built the Quadrangularis Reversum about twenty years after the Diamond Marimba. It inverted the key layout of the Diamond Marimba with sets of alto-range auxiliary keys on either side.[13] First built in 1965.[11]

Spoils of War[edit]

The Spoils of War is a collection of several instruments, including more Cloud Chamber Bowls, artillery shell casings, metal "whang-guns", a Pernambuco wood block, and a gourd.[17] First built in 1950.[11]


The Zymo-Xyl is an oak-block xylophone augmented with tuned liquor and wine bottles, Ford hubcaps, and an aluminum ketchup bottle. The name is from the Greek zymo- for "fermentation", and xylo- or xyl- for "wood".[18] First built in 1963.[11]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Harrison 2000, p. 136.
  2. ^ a b Gilmore & Johnston 2002, p. 369.
  3. ^ McGeary 2000, p. xviii; Gilmore & Johnston 2002, p. 366.
  4. ^ McGeary 2000, p. xviii.
  5. ^ "Harry Partch Institute Microtonal Music Studies". Retrieved 10 October 2013. 
  6. ^ a b Schneider 1985, p. 161.
  7. ^ a b Gilmore 1998, p. 72.
  8. ^ Partch 1979, p. 200.
  9. ^ Partch 1979, p. 201.
  10. ^ Gilmore 1998, p. 396-7.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k American Public Media staff 2003.
  12. ^ Rossing 2000, p. 189; Gagné 2011, p. 203.
  13. ^ a b Hopkin 1996, p. 28.
  14. ^ Cott 2002, p. 267.
  15. ^ Harlan 2007, p. 179.
  16. ^ Gagné 2011, p. 203.
  17. ^ Rossing 2000, p. 195; Gagné 2011, p. 203.
  18. ^ Jarrett 1998, p. 87.

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]