The Pyrophone – Weird and Unusual Musical Instruments Series

by Dave Fox


At some point in your life, you have probably heard or listened to notes that sounded like an explosion or something close to rapid combustion or rapid heating, made by some synthesizer perhaps.

As we all know, a musician that performs with talent or fervour have always been described with words such as burning it up or they are on fire! These words are not meant to be taken literally…in most cases.

The human mind has always been fascinated with fire since humans started messing around with it, 100 000 + years ago.

Sometimes music is accompanied by instruments that are on fire! Music and fire are inseparable.  

Many types of instruments are considered to be on fire but they can never beat the pyrophone. 

The name of this most weird and unusual musical instrument can tell you that the music that you will hear that accompanies the pyrophone will be on fire.  Fire?  Yes, actual fire!

If you’ve never seen a pyrophone in action, here is what it looks and sounds like.

Why the name “pyrophone”?

The name pyrophone means fire-sound. Am sure you are wondering how the fire sound comes about.  The fire sound is made by applying combustion to the pyrophone pipes. 

Differences may have risen over the years between the earliest pyrophone and the modern pyrophone.  The early pyrophone worked similarly to the steam calliopes that were powered by an internal combustion generator.

The modern pyrophone is a bit advanced, and it uses the explosion technology.

Who invented the pyrophone?

Frederic Kastner is believed to have invented the pyrophone in 1873.

What drove Frederic into developing the pyrophone?  The pyrophone was just like any traditional musical instrument were pipes were encased with flames as a way of producing musical notes. 

Having understood the mechanism by which hydrogen produces a sound, he began his invention on the fire organ, Frederic had gained this knowledge of the hydrogen sound by the discovery of Dr. B. Higgins.

This discovery had taken place in 1777 where Dr. Higgins discovered that a note could be produced if a hydrogen flame was placed at the lower end of a tube or a glass.  

The sound produced is as a result of the reaction between the hydrogen and the atmospheric oxygen.

In addition to this, Frederic was also had the skills and knowledge about music. It is assumed that he had gained this knowledge of music from his father Georges Kastner who was a composer.

The combination of the musical knowledge and Dr. Higgins’ discovery had a significant impact on the invention of the pyrophone.

The invention and acceptance of an instrument into the market is not as easy as you may think, or maybe you assumed something like this would not be easy, and then you’d be right.

You do not wake up one day and decide to invent an instrument and the next thing you are recognized for your invention. The invention of anything is a process.

Sadly, the invention of Frederic Kastner was not a great success.

Since Frederic was not a recognized physicist, the connections that Kastner’s family had made a significant impact in bringing acknowledgement to the pyrophone.

Frederic’s mother was a wealthy and influential person in society. With the thoughts of keeping Frederic away from any kind of mischief, she had encouraged him to continue developing the pyrophone as a way of keeping him busy.

Here below is another pyrophone in action.

Henry Dunant, a founder of the Red Cross and also an acquaintance of Kastner’s mother, took a commission from Kastner’s mother to take with him the pyrophone abroad.

Being a social activist, Henry had the eloquence, the social connections and the persuasive skills that would enable him to promote the pyrophone.

In February 1875, Henry secured a chance at the Royal Society of Arts that enabled him to present the pyrophone. The melancholy, the vibration of the eco and the mysterious and passionate sound that the pyrophone produces is remarkable and cannot be ignored!

To our utter disappointment, even with the extra marketing that Henry had done, the pyrophone was not a success. Henry noticed that the pyrophone had started malfunctioning and ended up donating it to the South Kensington Museum.

In 1882, Frederic died, and Henry had already moved on with various projects that had come his way.

With no one to focus on the pyrophone development, the pyrophone fame began disappearing slowly.  A number of attempts have been made to reincarnate the pyrophone, but the insanity and elegance that came with the pyrophone cannot stay matched.

What kind of music was written with the pyrophone?

After the pyrophone organ was invented, some musicians had visited Frederic just to have an experience with this incredible instrument.

Hector Berlioz, a French renown composer, also visited Frederic.

Although the welcoming of the pyrophone was not a great one, musicians and composers, who understood what a useful musical instrument meant sought after the pyrophone.

Among the many other composers who visited Frederic, Charles Gounod had made a consideration of using the pyrophone in Jeanne d’Arc production. 

The only composer who wrote music that was specifically for the pyrophone is Theodore Lack. This included Saving the Queen and Arrangement of God.

Construction of the pyrophone

Taking into consideration that the pyrophone sound is dependent on the flame, the construction process must be taken seriously. 

The general appearance of the pyrophone is a keyboard that is connected to a metal pipe or glass, and it is hooked to a console.

Depending on the sound that you want the pyrophone to produce, the pyrophone can be heated directly using a flame or the flame is controlled through a mechanism that is computerised.  The sound produced range from clear to steady to discordant. 

What are the sources of fuel for the pyrophone?

Propane is the primary source of fuel for the pyrophone.  Gasoline can also be used as a source of fuel for the pyrophone. This can be achieved through the building of mobile units that are powered by gasoline.

Often the hydrogen pyrophones are constructed using test tubes that are upside down. This tubes act as the combustion chambers. 

During Frederic time, the proper colours were not attained but with the addition of salt, this can be achieved in the modern days.

Pyrophone Juggernaut

I don’t think you would want to miss listening to one of the largest pyrophones. The contraption alone leaves you mesmerized. This is the world’s most massive hand operated octave fire organ.

Visit: for more info and tour dates! (yes tour dates)

This flame fueled organ is constructed using copper, aluminium and steel. This pyrophone was built after 250 years of experimental experience. It is an instrument that breathes fire!

You might have taught that the human imagination had reached its peak, you are wrong. The human mind has no limits when it comes to creativity, and this is particularly true when it comes to strange instruments, and things that spew flames. 

Humans always have, and always will get a kick out of flames that spew forth.  And so do ducks, apparently.

With whatever that is around you, given you have the ability to think, you can create various unique things.

Though Frederic pyrophone did not gain much fame, the recent Pyrophone Juggernaut has struck the mind of many.

The pyrophone will always remain to be that one original instrument that breathes fire to music, and that’s something you can never take away from it!

About Dave Fox

Recorder of many songs, haver of many albums. Dave (AKA Young Coconut) has been making music for the past twenty years or so, of varying genres and degrees of quality, to the dismay of listeners and algorithms everywhere. He’s also in the Suburban Bicycle Gang with Jerry Grey.

Dave has a keen interest in studying all aspects of music history, especially experimental / genres like jazz, krautrock, drum n’ bass, and no wave.

Here’s his Spotify:

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