Exploring the Unique Instruments Used in Shaker Music



Shaker music, with its simplicity and spiritual depth, stands as a distinctive genre within the realm of American musical traditions. Yet, what sets Shaker music apart even further are the unique instruments that accompany its harmonious melodies. In this exploration, we venture into the world of Shaker music to discover the remarkable and often handmade instruments that have played a pivotal role in this spiritual tradition.

A Musical Tradition Rooted in Simplicity

Before we delve into the unique instruments, it’s essential to understand the principles that underlie Shaker music. Simplicity is at the heart of Shaker spirituality, and this ethos extends to their musical expressions. Shaker hymns are characterized by straightforward melodies and lyrics, reflecting the belief that music should serve as a direct conduit to the divine.

The Simplicity of Shaker Instruments

1. The Shaker Hymnal

Central to Shaker music is the Shaker hymnal, a collection of over 10,000 songs. While not an instrument in the traditional sense, the hymnal is worth mentioning because of its unique notation system. Shakers developed their own notation system, consisting of letters and symbols, which allowed them to record their songs in a way that was accessible to all members of the community. This notation system reflects the commitment to simplicity and inclusivity that defines the Shaker way of life.

2. The Shaker Music Box

One of the most iconic instruments associated with Shaker music is the Shaker music box. These handmade wooden boxes produce hauntingly beautiful melodies when their cranks are turned. The simplicity of the design aligns perfectly with Shaker principles. The sound of a Shaker music box evokes a sense of tranquility and spiritual reflection.

3. The Dulcimer

The dulcimer is another instrument that found its way into Shaker music. Often handmade by Shaker craftsmen and women, dulcimers were used to accompany hymns and provide melodic accompaniment to the singing. The dulcimer’s gentle tones complemented the angelic voices of Shaker singers, enhancing the worship experience.

4. The Simple Whistle

Alongside more complex instruments, Shakers also utilized simple whistles. These whistles were crafted with precision and simplicity, producing clear and pure tones that added depth to the music. Shaker children were often taught to play these whistles, reinforcing the musical tradition from a young age.

Preservation of Shaker Music and Instruments

While the Shaker community has diminished in size over the years, efforts have been made to preserve both the music and the unique instruments associated with it. Museums and historical societies house collections of Shaker instruments, allowing visitors to experience the sounds of this remarkable tradition.


The unique instruments used in Shaker music are a testament to the deep spirituality and commitment to simplicity that define the Shaker way of life. From the simplicity of the Shaker hymnal notation to the haunting melodies of the music box and dulcimer, these instruments have played an integral role in conveying the essence of Shaker spirituality through music.

As we explore the world of Shaker instruments, we are reminded that music, like faith, can be expressed in its purest form when stripped of unnecessary complexity. Shaker music and its unique instruments continue to inspire and captivate, inviting us to appreciate the beauty of simplicity in both sound and spirit.

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