A new mirliton?

Before I tell you about the most awesome musical instrument I’ve had my hands on in a long time, let me get a couple terms out of the way:

Membranophone: “any musical instrument which produces sound primarily by way of a vibrating stretched membrane”

Mirliton: “another kind of membranophone, called the singing membranophone, of which the best known type is the kazoo. These instruments modify a sound produced by something else, commonly the human voice, by having a skin vibrate in sympathy with it.”

Now that our little lesson is out of the way… I have a nifty mirliton candidate to share with you all. Allow me to introduce the “Air Blaster,” which I will refer to erroneously as a “parp whistle” from now on. This is my personal name for it, as it is much more fun, and goes quite a way towards describing its dominant sound– an immediate and striking “PARP!”

I picked my first parp whistle up in Nashville, while visiting a friend. He was intent on dragging me to a Dave & Buster’s, which is something like Chuck E. Cheese for grownups. It combines all the class of an off-the-strip casino with the delightful feeling that someone has a vacuum hose stuck in your wallet. It also seems to attract a lot of guys who wear penny loafers– i.e., not my bag.

Until I discovered the parp whistle, that is…


Basically, it’s a tube within a tube. At one end, the parp whistle’s two tube walls are sealed together, leaving an opening within the smaller tube– about the diameter of a thumb. At the opposite end, a ring-shaped cap holds a thinly-stretched rubber membrane in place, which vibrates as air is blown within the space formed between the walls of the tube pair. There is a hole on the side of the outer tube for you to blow into.

The parp whistle in the picture was my first. I had intended to blog about it a couple weeks back, but as you can see, it had developed a crack in the ring cap. I hadn’t noticed this until just seconds after taking the photo, when it came loose and allowed the membrane to fall off as well. These definitely aren’t well-made instruments by any means– they’re the most brittle plastic imaginable, something like the consistency of old vinyl chaise lounge chair webbing left too long in the sun.

On the other hand, these sure are fun to play! I’ve been able to generate a huge amount of sounds from mine– everything from sax-type honks to near-electronic tonal blasts. I have worked out ringing sounds, a wide variety of harmonics, pitch-bends from pushing the membrane with a finger or inserting my thumb like a trombone slide, and even small percussive pops made by partially allowing a finger to adhere to the membrane while providing a reinforcing barrier of air. Here is a short recording I made of various sounds:

Parp whistle demonstration #1

Naturally, I was fairly upset to have it break on me so suddenly. I looked around online, but only found the “Air Blaster” available in huge lots from China. Luckily, on a return trip to Nashville, my wife and daughter picked me up three more! One was pre-cracked, but the others seem to be holding up just fine. I think I’m definitely going to look into seeing if this is something I could construct on my own, so if anyone has any tips, I’d love to hear them!

As for mirliton status, I think the parp whistle definitely fits the bill. Until now, I thought that the kazoo was the only instrument in this category of instruments, so it’s very interesting to see another example within this unique area of sound.

10 Responses to “A new mirliton?”

  1. a new mirliton?? - The Oddmusic Community Says:

    […] if I’m identifying it correctly or if this instrument actually goes elsewhere. Here’s the link: A new mirliton? Startling Moniker Thanks! –DaveX __________________ Can’t get enough DaveX??? Experimental radio: "It’s […]

  2. Daniel Thompson Says:

    Pretty cool. I’m familiar with the Chinese membrane flute, but this is the first time I’ve seen one of these.

  3. Tiffany Says:

    Pretty cool..loving the whistle

  4. Can’t get enough DaveX? « Startling Moniker Says:

    […] a Dial-a-Story line at the Toronto Public Library. Additionally, I played a recording I made of my “parp whistle.” With Skype in conference mode, I also added Tony’s cell phone to the mix, selecting the […]

  5. Fran Holland Says:

    Your parp whistle, my vestigial organ, and truck-horns are all of the same family, one which cuts across two families (Aerophones, or wind instruments, and membranophone, or drums), which ethnomusicologists believed to be fully unrelated, with the oft-recognized exception of the mirlton, but in this case the human vocal chords are the real “reed”, while the celophane or whatever vibrates sympathetically. Bit in the case of the parp whistle et. al., the reed is a membrane, latex, rubber, mylar, or whatever.
    So I call this family the “Membraerophones”.

  6. Vaulted rooms « Startling Moniker Says:

    […] inserts for my daughter’s lamp shade as the backdrop. It’s the same trick I used in this post, but with a different […]

  7. George Says:

    This is not a membranophone and definitely not a mirliton. It is an aerophone. Membranophones are classified by having the origin of the sound come from the membrane. With this instrument the membrane is not the origin of the sound. The membrane acts as a reed does in a reed instrument: alternating cutting off air pressure and letting it flow freely. The origin of the sound in both this and reed instruments, among all of the aerophone family, is the air itself. Yes the air movement is caused by the membrane, but the membrane itself is not creating the perceived sound. if you were to enact the membrane to vibrate on its own, without its contact with the inner tube, it would sound drastically different. With aerophones the pitch is created by outside factors such as length of tubing and air pressure. With membranophones the pitch is dictated by the membrane itself. A mirliton is considered a membranophone, because the sound heard originates from the membrane. A mirliton, however, is not a musical instrument, it is a musical resonator as it does not create sound by itself, it alters the tone of something else.

  8. startlingmoniker Says:

    Sounds pretty convincing, George. Are there other aerophones that use a membrane like this? What’s the closest example?

  9. Greg Bossert Says:

    Experimental musical instrument master Bart Hopkin calls them ‘membrane reeds’, and says that they are popular as toys and tourist items in Indonesia. See pages 66-69 of his “Musical Instrument Design” for details and ideas for building simpler variants.


    There are many more videos on YouTube of similar instruments. I have a rickety one made out of paper-mache from Hawaii (or at least, I bought it there and it has “Hawaii” painted on it…)

    I concur that it is an aerophone, and belongs to the extended reed family. It shares a number of attributes with ‘traditional’ fingered reed instruments: as George says above, the basic tone is produced by the reed alternating letting air through and stopping it, due to the counteracting forces of the pressure at the input (from the player) and the pressure in the tube (from the resonating air column) along with the springiness of the membrane. And the instrument is a closed pipe. This combination should produce a reed-style odd-harmonic overtone series, skewed somewhat by the membrane “bottoming out” and clipping off the airflow entirely, particularly at low and high blowing pressures.

    The membrane material probably makes a significant difference in the tone. My “Hawaiian” instrument uses balloon rubber, and has a very mellow clarinet-like tone. But I see many examples with less stretchy plastic, which presumably adds both harmonic and non-harmonic overtones. It;s possible in this case that the membrane is simultaneously acting as a reed and as a merliton. Which is cool.

  10. Phyllis Crecelius Says:

    At first I agreed that your instrument was a aerophone rather than a mirliton. One of the main indicators of a mirliton is that the pitch is controlled by the player’s voice. Then I realized, I had never tried playing it as a mirliton. If, instead of blowing, you hum or sing into it, it does act like a mirliton, sort of. The player’s voice controls the pitch, but on certain notes it emits a raucous squeal.

    Phyllis G. Crecelius
    AKA motleyjustmotleynothingbutmotley
    AKA kazoologist@kazoologist.org

    –More information than most people would ever want to know about Kazooz–

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