First imagined by brothers Masamichi and Nobumichi Tosa of the Maywa Denki design firm, the Otamatone was first developed in 1988 by Japan’s CUBE toy company. Made to resemble a “Tadpole” (or “otamajakushi”) music note, the Otamatone is played with two hands, and makes a quirky, electronic “hum” that can be converted to an “ahh” or “wah” by squeezing the base of the note (which was of course given a face for added cuteness).
Often categorized as an electronic synthesizer, the Otamatone is capable of being played quite adeptly (as many YouTubers have already demonstrated!) as a musical instrument – and yet has the appearance and overall silliness you’d expect from a toy. The stem switch functions much like the fretboard of a string instrument, which perhaps explains why some of the internet’s most talented Otamatonists are also skilled violinists.
Capable of being played using techniques like the “wah-wah” effect and vibrato, the Otamatone is every bit as much a true instrument as it is an oddity – and just like any other instrument – it can be extremely difficult to master!
The Otamatone’s popularity – we think – can be attributed to the fact that it’s got a little something for everyone. It gets a laugh out of almost everyone – young or old - who hears it for the first time, and mastering it presents an often irresistible challenge to musicians all over the world.
The relative seriousness/silliness with which one approaches playing the Otamatone is entirely up to its owner, and it’s this, in short, that gives the Otamatone both its uniqueness and its wide appeal.