Anyone who did All-State Band in high school can tell you that music ensembles are one of those instances in which it pays to be unique: There is generally far less competition for principal viola than for concertmaster violin. Classical orchestras may seem like a dying breed, but there’s still quite a market for antiquated sounds. A lot of new indie artists also pride themselves on cutting-edge, borderline bizarre qualities, so being able to play instruments others haven’t heard of is a plus. Ladies and gentlemen, for your consideration: the water organ.

Attributed to the third century B.C., the water organ, also known as the hydraulis, is one of the earliest known types of keyboard instruments. It uses a manual water pump as a power source instead of a bellows. Water and air are supplied to the wind chamber, where they are separated and the compressed air is driven into the pipes. A lever system controls the sliders, which open or close the pipes’ mouths. According to historian C. F.. Abdy Williams, the wind is actually divided into three channels to supply unison, octave or superoctave levels, giving the water organ the equivalent of three “stops.” With only 19 keys and three stops, the water organ might be easier to learn than a modern keyboard instrument, although pumping wind into the pipes requires a lot of energy.

According to a history of the organ published in 1903, musicologists have studied the mechanics of the hydraulis since the 19th century. A working model was reconstructed based on written accounts by the Hero of Alexandria and Vitruvius, as well as depictions in mosaic. Archaeologist Dimitrios Pandermalis has excavated sites in Macedonia and importantly discovered an early hydraulis. Water organs also experienced a resurgence in popularity during the Italian Renaissance. They were appreciated for their distinct sound due to the constant motion of the water and the modal – rather than harmonic – arrangements.

In ancient Roman times, the water organist was the equivalent of a DJ, playing all sorts of gigs from church services to gladiator games. Emperor Nero was so impressed by the water organ that there was an etching of one on the reverse of medals won by victors in the arena. He dabbled in the water organ a bit himself. Music was important to set the stage for gladiatorial contests, and because of the wide array of occasions that demanded hydraulis music, a water organist was guaranteed a long career. Plus, they got front-and-center tickets to gymnastics events.

Nostalgic groups combine historians and musicians researching and resurrecting archaic sounds, obviously with modern interpretation. Musica Romana, based in Germany, released a CD, “Pugnate,” that reimagines the soundtrack to the gladiator games. The band members have recreated many ancient instruments and taught themselves to play a variety of flutes, lyres and recorders. They’ve mapped music from all over the world, including oriental percussion styles and Celtic shepherds’ bagpipe techniques. They also apply themselves to the traditional accompanying dances. Because there weren’t any recordings back in the day, and sheet music wasn’t a thing yet either, a lot of artistic license must be taken. This means musical re-enactments of this type are a truly academic and creative pursuit.

The music industry has undergone some major changes with the advent of the iPod and the introduction of electronic synthesizers and dub horns. It’s undergone even more drastic changes since the dawn of human history, but music is a universal form of expression. If you’ve always enjoyed quirky tonal instruments, play the keyboard or love history, maybe this type of reenactment is for you. What better way to connect with ancient forebears than through music?


Alyson Yee is a senior majoring in biology and French. She can be reached at