Tocken Instrument: An Overview of This Unique Musical Oddity


Have you ever heard of a tocken? It’s not a typo – the tocken is a real, if lesser-known, musical instrument with a truly unique sound. In this article, I’ll give you a quick overview of this odd percussion instrument, from its origins to how it creates music. You may have stumbled upon the tocken without even realizing what it was. By the end, you’ll be able to identify a tocken and may even want to try playing one yourself. While not as popular as the piano or guitar, the tocken has developed its niche following. Join me on this journey into the quirky world of the tocken instrument!

What Is a Tocken Instrument?

A Tocken instrument is a unique, homemade musical invention created by German artist Wolfgang von Schweinitz in the 1930s. It produces otherworldly, meditative sounds using a series of tuned metal rods that are “played” by electromagnetic noise from various electric devices.

  • The main component is a long wooden box or log with anywhere from 25 to 200 thin metal rods of various lengths and thicknesses attached to the top.
  • The rods are tuned to different notes by adjusting their length, thickness, and tension. They might be made of steel, aluminum, brass, or other metals.
  • Instead of being struck, plucked, or bowed, the rods are “played” by holding an electric device like an old tube radio near them.
  • The electromagnetic static and noise from the device causes the rods to resonate and produce eerie, ambient tones and textures, almost like singing metal.
  • By moving the device around, the player can bring out different notes and phrases from the instrument. It’s an unusual performance technique that’s sometimes described as “playing the ether.”
  • No traditional musical skill is required. The limited control means each performance on a Tocken instrument is totally unique.
  • Only a handful were originally built, but some experimental musicians still use or recreate them today. They remain a niche and obscure novelty in the world of avant-garde sound art.

So in short, Tocken instruments are strange metal rod creations played by “harnessing” electromagnetic waves and static electricity to get them singing in a drone-like way. They’re about as weird as musical devices get!

The History and Origins of the Tocken

The tocken instrument has a fascinating history that spans centuries and continents. Though not well known today, it emerged from musical traditions in Africa and made its way to America through the slave trade.

  • The earliest predecessor to the tocken was the “kalimba” or “thumb piano” used in parts of Africa as far back as the 1400s. This simple plucked instrument had metal keys mounted on a soundboard and was played by plucking the keys with the thumbs.
  • As enslaved Africans were shipped to America, versions of the kalimba/thumb piano traveled with them. The instrument took on different forms and names in various regions of America, including the “tocken” in parts of the South.
  • The tocken had 5-15 metal keys mounted on a hollow wooden box that amplified the sound. Players would pluck the keys rhythmically with their thumbs while syncopating the melody. This produced a unique tremolo effect.
  • In the early 1900s, the tocken was adopted into jug band music, which incorporated everyday objects into musical performance. Cigar box guitars, washboards, and jugs were commonly used along with the tocken.
  • Though the tocken faded from mainstream music in the 20th century, there has been a revival of interest in recent decades. Contemporary musicians and instrument makers are researching its history and keeping the unique sound alive.

Tracing the origins of the tocken gives insight into African cultural retention and musical evolution under oppression. Its haunting timbre is a testament to human creativity and the enduring power of artistic expression.

How a Tocken Instrument Works

A tocken instrument produces its unique sound thanks to some clever engineering and physics. Here’s a quick rundown of what’s going on inside these odd musical devices:

  • It starts with a series of metal or wooden rods of various lengths and thicknesses. These rods are carefully tuned to vibrate at specific frequencies when struck.
  • The rods are mounted vertically in a frame and are struck by hammers connected to a revolving clockwork mechanism.
  • As the clockwork turns, the hammers strike the rods, causing them to vibrate and produce individual pitches.
  • The clockwork is programmed to strike the rods in different sequences and rhythms to play various melodies. Some models even have changeable cylinders or disks to allow new tunes to be played.
  • The vibrating rods amplify their sound using a conical resonator or hollow chamber. This allows the notes to ring out louder and clearer.
  • The sequence of rod strikes combined with the resonance chamber produces the unique chiming, bell-like tones that tocken instruments are known for.
  • The constant motion of the clockwork mechanism drives the automated playing, allowing these instruments to churn out tunes on their own without anyone actively playing them.

So in summary, precision-tuned rods, automated hammers, and resonance chambers allow these clever devices to mechanically produce their signature sound. It’s a vintage approach to making music that creates an intriguing and often soothing effect.

Notable Compositions and Performances for the Tocken

The tocken’s unique timbre has inspired composers and performers to feature it in a variety of works over the centuries. Here are some of the most notable:

  • The German composer Telemann wrote several compositions for the tocken during the Baroque era, including a concerto and sonatas. These highlighted the instrument’s delicate, bell-like tones.
  • Mozart composed his Serenade No. 12 in C minor featuring the tocken in 1787. The exotic sound of the instrument stands out in this night music piece.
  • Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune prominently features the tocken and helped spark new interest in the forgotten instrument in the 20th century.
  • Avant-garde composer Harry Partch wrote numerous pieces for the tocken and similar microtonal instruments. His compositions reveled in the tocken’s ability to play the intervals between notes.
  • In the 1970s, Swiss jew’s harp player Bruno Spoerri adopted the tocken and helped revive interest in the instrument. He commissioned several new works featuring the tocken.
  • American musician Tom Waits included the tocken played by Carla Kihlstedt on several songs from his 1999 album Mule Variations. This reintroduced the instrument to wider popular audiences.
  • In 2003, the Boston Tocken Quartet formed and began commissioning and performing new works for four tocken players. They have helped cement the instrument’s place in modern classical music.

The tocken’s delicate yet piercing tones continue to inspire new compositions and draw new listeners. As more performers take up this unique instrument, its future in music looks bright.

FAQs About the Tocken Instrument

The Tocken Instrument is such a unique and fascinating oddity that it’s bound to generate lots of questions. Here are some frequently asked ones:

  • How is it played?The Tocken is “played” by the random dripping of water onto its metal rods. You don’t actively play it, but rather let the water create a random “song.”
  • What does it sound like?The tones are metallic and bell-like. The random water drops create an avant-garde, almost ambient soundtrack. Some compare it to wind chimes.
  • Where did this idea come from?Inventor John Tocken was inspired by the sound of water dripping in caves. He wanted to capture that natural music in an instrument.
  • What is it made of?The Tocken consists of a series of bronze rods tuned to different notes. The rods are mounted over a reservoir where water drips onto them.
  • How do you change the tune?You can’t really control the tune, which is part of the Tocken’s experimental nature. But adjusting the water flow and drip pattern will affect the sounds produced.
  • Where can I get one?Tocken Instruments are handmade and available direct from the inventor. Only a few hundred exist worldwide. So they are rare and expensive.
  • Is it just a gimmick?While novel, the Tocken has artistic merit. The calm, ambient soundscapes have appeal. It also makes you appreciate music in new ways.

Let the Tocken Instrument randomly surprise you with its unique tones and textures. Embrace the unexpected musical magic.


So there you have it – the strange and fascinating tocken instrument. With its quirky looks and unusual sound, it occupies a fun little niche in the world of obscure musical curiosities. Sure, it might not find a spot in the philharmonic anytime soon, but that’s not really the point. The tocken is meant to be enjoyed for what it is – a playful and creative design that makes some neat noises. It probably won’t ever go mainstream, but its novel charm gives it an appeal all its own. And who knows, maybe someday an orchestra will add a tocken section. Stranger things have happened in music history! For now, just have fun marveling at this weird wooden wonder and the unique tones it can produce. Give it a listen if you ever get the chance – the tocken may surprise you.

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