Haunting Sounds of the Waterphone

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX



You’ve heard it hundreds of times; the distant wailing that accompanies nightmares on the television screen. The not-quite-human sound has been haunting movie audiences and music lovers for more than forty years. It’s not a synthesizer, but the very real and unsettling call of the waterphone.  

What is a Waterphone?

The Waterphone was invented in the 1980’s by American artist, Richard Waters (1935-2013) and is a cross “between a Tibetan War Drum, an African Kalimba (thumb piano), and a 16th century Peg or Nail Violin (Waters).” The Waterphone, which looks exactly like the (baseball) World Series trophy, is actually a complex percussion instrument that uses moving water to create its characteristic wail; the sound of looming danger. The metal prongs protruding from the base of the instrument are “tuned to a combination of micro-tonal and diatonic relationships presented in two distinct scales (Waters).” These prongs are played with a bow (from a stringed instrument) while the body of the instrument is either suspended by a cord or held gently by its neck (Hubbert). These vibrations, when combined with the unsettled water inside the base (resonator), create the Waterphone’s iconic whining sounds.

Since the 1980’s, Waterphones have been employed in numerous thrillers like Poltergeist, Dark Water, and ALIENS to create tension and alert audiences that the movie characters are in imminent danger (Hooton). The instrument has also been prominently featured in multiple art museums including The Renwick Gallery (Smithsonian Institute), the Oakland Museum of California, and The Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Mississippi (Hubbert). Currently, the leading craftsman of waterphones is Brooks Hubbert, a close friend and admirer of Richard Waters.

Groundswell Terra Nova

Terra Nova, or “new land” in English, is a contemporary musical ensemble whose aim is to attempt uncommon combinations of musical instruments and genres in order to create something completely new. The members of the California-based group include Chip Dunbar (violin, mandolin, vocals, waterphone, udu drum), Sara Winge (vocals, guitar, guiro, waterphone), Ted Dutcher (electric bass, vocals, waterphone), and Peter Van Gorder (Drumset, didgeridoo, djembe, talking drum, conga). Follow Terra Nova here.

“Groundswell” is one of the most unique pieces from Terra Nova’s latest album of the same title (order here). The Middle-Eastern-inspired work lasts approximately five minutes and is made up of three distinct portions. The introduction of the piece is made up mostly of the chiftetelli rhythm (most often associated with belly dancing), performed primarily by balilika (stringed instrument) and dumbek drum (Terra Nova). The waterphone begins humming quietly in the background and gradually crescendos while the rhythmic voices fade away. Listeners are presented with a moment of quiet chaos as the pulse and melody of the work are temproarily suspended. This ethereal transition period transports the work into its final portion which is characterized primarily by a violin soli and an abrupt ending.  

Water Music Tan Dun

Tan Dun is a Chinese composer from the Hunan village who specializes in blending traditional music of various cultures and the avant garde movement of the 20th century. He currently lives in New York City and writes primarily orchestral and choral works. Tan Dun’s works have earned him numerous international honors including the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, the Academy Award for Best Original Score (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition (Marco Polo), Musical America Composer of the Year (2003), the Shostakovich Award (2012), and many more. Follow Tan Dun here.

Water Music (2004) is an atonal composition for percussion ensemble that explores the numerous sound possibilities of water-based instruments (or instruments submerged in water). The work begins with an unsettling waterphone solo that howls and shrieks into the open air. Slowly, the musicians begin dipping their hands in a bin of standing water and allowing the excess water droplets to trickle gently back into the container; this changes the mood of the performance from eerie to a more tranquil experience. Next, the ensemble begins sloshing around, creating a variety of rhythms with their hands and props like cups and hollow PVC pipes. This is the most traditionally percussive portion of the work and also appears to be the most fun to perform. Near the end of the work, the waterphone is reintroduced in tandem with small gongs which are struck while partially submerged in water. These unpredictable whines manage to be simultaneously spooky and beautiful. The finale of the work takes place after sixteen minutes of experimental sounds when all four members of the ensemble gather a medium sized container full of water from the large bin and pour it loudly back into the container, simulating a rushing waterfall.



Editors. (2018). About Tan Dun. Tan Dun Official Website. Web. 22 September, 2018.



Editors. (2018). About. Terra Nova. Sebastopol, California. United States of America. Web. 22

September, 2018. <http://www.terranovatunes.com/about.html>


Hooton, Christopher. (2015). The Waterphone: This is the Instrument Used to Create Creepy

Scores in Horror Movies. Independent. Independent Digital News and Media. London.

United Kingdom. Web. 22 September, 2018. <https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-




Hubbert, Brooks. (2015). About. Waterphone Online. Web. 22 September, 2018.



Waters, Richard. (2018) Waterphone Online: The Official Website of the Waterphone. Web. 22

September, 2018. <https://www.waterphone.com>