A Guide To Björk's Custom Biophilia Instruments

<p>Five instruments from the mind of a true artist and the hands of her collaborators.</p>

Abdullah Saeed

Abdullah Saeed

Known for her unconventionality on all artistic fronts, Björk commissioned the design of some seriously unusual instruments for the recording and performance of her album Biophilia. Partly robotic and partly mechanical, each item in her arsenal of music boxes can be viewed as a work of art, beyond it’s musical functionality. Here’s a look at some of the inventions that are getting us excited for Björk’s New York Residency, presented in collaboration with the New York Hall of Science and The Creators Project.

Gravity Pendulum Harp

This instrument, designed by musical robot maker and MIT Media Lab alum Andy Cavatorta, largely relies on the natural motion of four 11-stringed pendulums. Software controls the rotation of each pendulum head to determine the note that’s struck when it passes the equilibrium position. You can hear the eerie harmonies produced by this 25 foot contraption on the song “Solstice” off Biophilia.


The Sharpsicord, also called the pin barrel harp, operates the same way a Player piano or a music box does. Its functionality is really quite simple: a studded cylinder rotates and each stud hits a note, which is amplified through a gramophone bell. This is what sequencing looked like before the advent of music software. The Sharpsicord can be heard on the track “Sacrifice” on Biophilia. Above we see it in action accompanying vocalist Hannah Peel.

MIDI controlled pipe organ

Björk commissioned collaborator Bjorgvin Tomasson to create an instrument combining one of the oldest classical instruments with a MIDI interface. The result is the MIDI-controlled pipe organ, which allows one to program a sequence that’s played on the instrument.


Another instrument built by Tomasson, the Gameleste, derives its name from a combination fusing the classic instrument called the Celesta and the gamelan, a traditional Indonesian percussion ensemble. It’s built like a piano, but the tones have a vibe that can sound almost discordant by the standards of Western music.

Musical Tesla Coils

The arpeggiated bass line heard on “Thunderbolt” sounds like a sawtooth wave, but it was actually synthesized using Tesla coils. Bolts of electricity trigger the sound, making it yet another instrument that adds to the epic visual element of Björk’s performance.

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