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Musician Thomas Bloch playing the waterphone, 19 September 2009 at the Mittersheim pond in France
Musician Thomas Bloch playing the waterphone, 19 September 2009 at the Mittersheim pond, France

A waterphone (also ocean harp) is a type of inharmonic acoustic tuned idiophone consisting of a stainless steel resonator bowl or pan with a cylindrical neck and bronze rods of different lengths and diameters around the rim of the bowl. The resonator may contain a small amount of water giving the waterphone a vibrant ethereal sound that has appeared in movie soundtracks, record albums, and live performances. The instrument was invented, developed, and manufactured by American Richard Waters (1935–2013).[1]

The waterphone was available in four sizes: the Standard (7" diameter), the Whaler (12" diameter), the Bass (14" diameter), and the MegaBass (16" diameter).[2] It is generally played in a seated position by a soloist and either bowed or drummed, played as a friction or struck idiophone, with movements to affect the water inside. This combines the resonant characteristics of the bowl and rods in combination with the movement of the water. The sound of the waterphone is often used to evoke mystery and suspense. A superball mallet has become the prime way of drumming the waterphone.

The waterphone is a modern invention influenced by a Tibetan drum—encountered by the inventor in the early sixties—containing a small amount of water affecting its timbre.[3] It is also related to the nail violin, which also used a resonator and rods (nails), and is struck or bowed.[4]


Percussionist Alex Wong bowing a Standard waterphone

The waterphone has been exhibited in museums and galleries and is the subject of several short documentaries including "Art Notes," aired on public television in San Francisco, and "Celestial Wave," a movie short.[5] Over recent decades the waterphone has become popular with symphonies, touring bands, and recording studios. Contemporary classical composers who have written parts for waterphone in compositions include Sofia Gubaidulina,[6] Jerry Goldsmith,[7] John Mackey, Christopher Rouse, Colin Matthews, John Woolrich, Carson Cooman, Andi Spicer, Ludovico Einaudi, Andrew Carter, Jörg Widmann,[8] Bernie Krause of Beaver & Krause, and Todd Barton.

The instrument has also been used prominently by rock musicians. Tom Waits is a waterphone collector and player as is Mickey Hart.[citation needed] Other users include Richard Barone (both solo and with The Bongos) and Alex Wong (when playing with Vienna Teng), and it can be heard in music by The Harmonica Pocket.[citation needed] Classical/rock crossover percussionist Tristan Fry of the fusion band Sky used a waterphone on the band's composition 'Meeheeco' (the original version is on 1981's Sky 3, although the instrument can be heard much more prominently on the live version from Sky Five Live).

Canadian musician and composer, Robert Minden, has been composing for his collection of five vintage waterphones on many recordings since the mid-1980s. His ensemble, The Robert Minden Ensemble,[9] formed with daughters Andrea and Dewi Minden and colleagues Carla Hallett and Nancy Walker in 1986, features the waterphone as a central instrument within their 'found object' orchestra.

The waterphone is used to great effect in Howard Goodall's The Dreaming, a musical commissioned by The National Youth Music Theatre of Great Britain, based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.[citation needed] Goodall uses its ethereal sounds to evoke the mystery of the woods. In Derek Bourgeois' Symphony No 59 – Percussion symphony, which requires 16 percussion players there is a very prominent part for Waterphone.

The waterphone has been featured in the soundtracks to many movies, including Poltergeist,[7] Let the Right One In (2008),[10] The Matrix,[10] Star Trek: The Motion Picture,[11] Dark Water,[citation needed] Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,[10] ALIENS,[citation needed] The Spirit,[citation needed] Female Perversion,[citation needed] as well as TV production 24.[citation needed] Tan Dun's opera The First Emperor (2006) & "Water Music" feature the waterphone.[citation needed][12] A sound sample can be found at The FreeSound Project.[13] There is a yearly "Waterphone Music Competition" sponsored by Richard Waters.[citation needed] It has also been featured heavily as a sound effect in shows such as Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares[14] and Hell's Kitchen (though only in the US versions), which was also used in the Bravo (UK) idents between 1997 and 1998.

As the waterphone may be taken into the water, on several occasions the waterphone has been used successfully to call whales and other cetaceans, especially by Jim Nollman of Interspecies Communication.[15] The true story of such interspecies communication was the basis of the stage show and album The Boy Who Wanted To Talk To Whales by The Robert Minden Ensemble in 1989.[citation needed]

The waterphone was also used in a live performance of "Violently Happy" by Icelandic singer Björk on an episode of MTV Unplugged in 1994,[16] which is featured on the DVD MTV Unplugged/Live and the album Debut Live.

Jean-Michel Jarre has used the Hyperstellar Waterphone on his album "Oxymore" (2022). [17]

Waterphone development and innovation[edit]

Hyperstellar Sailophone [18][edit]

The Hyperstellar Sailophone, developed by Sławek Janus in 2018, stands out as a unique variation of the waterphone. In contrast to the traditional waterphones pioneered by Richard Waters, the Sailophone integrates bent rods, resulting in a deeper timbre due to their elongated length. The longest rod, when fully extended measures approximately 70cm, a notable departure from classic Hyperstellar model, with its longest rod spanning around 40 cm.

Furthermore, the curved design of the rods plays a pivotal role in defining the sound characteristics. Janus strategically bends the rods to exert control over the second harmonic.

Sailophone boasts fewer rods with wider spacing between them, further influencing the sonic profile. The angled positioning of the rods introduces diverse movements that introduce subtle lower frequency modulations.

Evelyn Glennie Hyperstellar Waterphone[edit]

The Evelyn Glennie hyperstellar Waterphone is the first double chambered waterphone. Two sound chambers are connected with a pipe and one of them has also additional pipe, which is open. Each sound chamber has a set of rods attached. The instrument is characterized by very deep bass sound and very long reverberation. It was designed by Sławek Janus and Evelyn Glennie who come up with the idea and provided some initial drawings.

Recordings (partial list)[edit]

  • Richard Waters & Friends – Water Dreams (The Orchard Records, 2000)
  • Gravity Adjusters Expansion Band – One (Nocturne Records, 1973)
  • Gravity Adjusters Expansion Band – Hole In The Sky (Nocturne Records, 1981)
  • John Carter Octet – Dauwhe (Black Saint, 1982)
  • Jim Nollman – Playing Music With Animals (Folkways Records, 1982)
  • Robert Minden Ensemble – The Boy Who Wanted To Talk To Whales (Otter Bay Recordings, 1989)
  • Skinny Puppy — "Choralone" (Nettwerk Records, 1989)
  • Robert Minden Ensemble – Long Journey Home (Otter Bay Recordings, 1993)
  • Robert Minden Ensemble – Whisper In My Ear (Otter Bay Recordings, 1994)
  • Robert Minden & Carla Hallett – Are You Now (Otter Bay Recordings, 1999)
  • Tan DunWater Passion (after Saint Matthew) (Sony Classical, 2002)
  • Toshiyuki Hiraoka – Waterfone (Hard Disc Intl, 2015)
  • Toshiyuki Hiraoka – Waterphone II (Edgestone Records, 2021)
  • Sérgio Mendes & Brasil '77 – Primal Roots (A&M Records, 1972)
  • Cheri Adams – Sweet & Sour Songs (Watermelon Records, 1977)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Waters, Richard. "The Waterphone Story". Archived from the original on 9 October 2016. Retrieved 9 October 2016.
  2. ^ "Waterphone Online – The Official Website of The Waterphone". www.waterphone.com. Archived from the original on 19 March 2012.
  3. ^ Journal SEAMUS: The Journal of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States, Volume 17, 2005, p.41.
  4. ^ Heron-Allen, E.; Davies, Hugh (2001). Nail violin. Vol. 1. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.19539. ISBN 978-1-56159-263-0.
  5. ^ Nyrix, Jason Maurer. "Waterphone Online – The Official Website of The Waterphone". www.waterphone.com. Retrieved 16 May 2017.
  6. ^ nileforest. "Waterphone". waterphone.digiprolocal.com. Retrieved 14 March 2016.
  7. ^ a b "Richard Waters and the eerie sound of the WATERPHONE". Cool Music Instrument. 17 September 2013. Retrieved 27 October 2013.
  8. ^ "Danse macabre". Schott Music (in German). Retrieved 4 August 2023.
  9. ^ "Robert Minden Duo", LostSound.com. Accessed 16 August 2014.
  10. ^ a b c 6/24/11 2:40pm 6/24/11 2:40pm. "Waterphone News, Videos, Reviews and Gossip". io9. Retrieved 27 October 2013.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ Bond, Jeff (1999). The Music of Star Trek. Lone Eagle Publishing Company. p. 106. ISBN 9781580650120.
  12. ^ Davies, Hugh; Libin, Laurence (2011). "Waterphone | Grove Music". www.oxfordmusiconline.com. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.l2215099. ISBN 978-1-56159-263-0. Retrieved 23 February 2019.
  13. ^ "Waterphone 1.wav", FreeSound.org. Accessed 16 August 2014.
  14. ^ Ramsay_Dramatic_Violin.WAV, retrieved 9 May 2022
  15. ^ "Interspecies Sound System". Interspecies.com. Retrieved 27 October 2013.
  16. ^ "Bjorkist on TikTok". TikTok.com. Retrieved 8 August 2023.
  17. ^ "Jean-Michel Jarre: Producing Oxymore". www.soundonsound.com. Retrieved 3 March 2024.
  18. ^ Evelyn Explores... | Hyperstellar Sailophone Waterphone | Pt 2 - Hands, retrieved 3 March 2024

External links[edit]