A pyrophone is a musical instrument dependent on flame for sound. There have been many variations on the pyrophone's construction, but generally it consists of a console hooked to a keyboard connected to a series of glass or metal pipes, sometimes as many as 300, rising up into a rough pyramid. Think pipe organ, but drunkenly lurching off in all directions into the sky, with flames shooting out the top. Look, it's beautiful: http://artists2.iuma.com/IUMA/Bands/Large_Hot_Pipe_Organ/

In some pyrophones, the flame is applied in a very controlled manner, through a precise computerized mechanism; in others, pyrophonists (?) apply the flame by hand, using propane torches and gas cylinders intended for hot-air balloons. The sounds which result may range from dependably clear, steady tones to more discordant, unpredictable noises, described by one reference as "a menagerie of whoops, shrieks and moans." Probably ghastly - but wouldn't you like to hear it? (I searched for an online recording but could find none.)

In one variant, the flame is not put directly into the tube. Rather, it heats a piece of metal, which is placed into the tube at a specific point. The heat source is removed, and an exchange of heat begins within the tube. This exchange causes a vibration of air within the pipe. The vibration lasts several seconds, which allows a player to make other sounds simultaneously. The resulting harmonies are often described in organic terms, usually as animal noises ranging from terrible screams to slight shallow breaths.

References to a "burning harmonica" or "chemical harmonica" have been traced back to the late 1700s. A century later, physicist Georges Fredric Eugene Kastner published Les Flammes Chantantes (1875), a description of his pyrophone, or "fire organ". Most later references to fire music take Kastner's prototypical pyrophone as a starting point.

There are not many modern pyrophones. They're cumbersome and difficult to control. Air flow and pressure fluctuations within the pipes tend to extinguish the flame. But of course those crazy kids at Burning Man found it worthwhile: http://www.trailertrashman.com

thanks to:


Pyr"o*phone (?), n. [Pyro- + Gr. sound.]

A musical instrument in which the tones are produced by flames of hydrogen, or illuminating gas, burning in tubes of different sizes and lengths.


© Webster 1913.

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