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What is Calliope?

Updated on March 28, 2015

What is Calliope?

Calliope is a rare musical instrument possessing a remarkable history. This instrument produces a very loud sound when steam passes through its whistles. The name for the instrument comes from the Greek goddess with the name Calliope, which means, “beautiful voiced” in Greek. Calliope is popular for its very loud sound, which can be heard several miles into the distance. In terms of the tones and loudness of the Calliope, there are not many variations. This instrument is played for an artistic expression through variation of the duration and timing of the notes.



Use of Calliope

At the time when steam was used as a major power source, the steam Calliope was hugely popular. The most common use of this instrument was in circuses and on riverboats. In this application, the required supply of steam was made available especially for playing calliope. When used in circuses, Calliope was towed and brought into the circus parade, where it traditionally made an entrance in the end. Other than the use of electric power, gilded wagons pulled by horses were also used for towing the Calliope. Considering the incredibly loud sound of calliope, these carved, gilded wagons loaded with calliope were used to announce the entrance of the circus into town.

Calliope The Muse


Playing the Calliope

Maintaining the sound quality of Calliope is considered very important. For this purpose, a chromatic scale is used for tuning the whistles of a calliope. This is a process that is difficult and should be performed repeatedly. The fact that every note’s pitch is dependent on the temperature of the steam makes it hard for the tuning to be completely accurate. For a steam calliope, off-pitch notes have become quite the trademark, especially in the upper register. Playing calliope has always been considered a brave act because the performers had to play in the hot blistering sun, with keys that were hard to push while bearing the hot water and blasts of steam. Not only this, but calliope has a loud, almost deafening sound and playing this instrument took considerable time to master.

A Real Calliope


Construction of Calliope

Originally, the whistles used in the construction of Calliope were locomotive whistles and steam was passed through them for producing the loud sound. Later on, steam was replaced by gas and recently, both have been replaced by compressed air. Traditionally, a calliope may have anywhere between 25 and 67 whistles.

Modern Calliope

Calliope has been a major part of the Mississippi River lore and the original calliope has become very rare. In fact, there are just fourteen original calliopes that are in working condition in the present age. Today, the original calliope has evolved into an instrument with ivory keys and electric valves. Compressed air is used for powering the modern age calliope.

The loudness of the calliope is still the way it originally used to be. One can hear a calliope being played from an 8 miles distance. In the modern music, calliope has become so rare that people experience pure delight whenever they hear a calliope being played.

Delta Queen Calliope Music


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