The ‘Melochord’, Harald Bode, Germany, 1947

Harld Bode's Melochord
Harld Bode’s Melochord of 1947
The Melochord was a post-war  development of  Bodes’ earlier Melodium, which, due to it’s complexity and unorthodox design wasn’t suitable for mass production. After the war, Bode cannibalised parts from the Melodium to build the Melochord, a monophonic keyboard instrument based on vacuum tube technology. The keyboard used pitches derived from the traditional equal-tempered 12 note scale with switches extending the 37 note range from three octaves to seven. A foot pedal allowed overall control of the volume and a novel electronically operated envelope shaper could be triggered for each key.
“…So from 1939 to 1945 I didn’t do anything other than writing a few publications on the field of electronic music. In 1947, when we finally got out of the mess of the post-war period, I created the Melochord. It was originally intended as an instrument which combined melody and chord capability all in one manual, but I then decided to use two voices on this one manual and split up a five-octave keyboard in such a way that the upper three octaves were assigned to one generator and the lower two octaves assigned to another generator. It was designed so that those two portions of the keyboard were independent, so they went to separate tone shaping means and to separate expression pedals, and the voices were arranged to allow for voice crossings. It was used on the German Broadcasting System, especially in Munich. It was not a production instrument (commercial product, that is), it was built and used by myself and was leased out to movie companies and for use in recordings with bands. It was also featured in a band I travelled with (as well as recorded with) in Germany. A second Melochord was commissioned by the Bonn University through Meyer-Eppler, who also initiated the work of Dr. Enkel at the Cologne Electronic Music Studio. This is how the Melochord was commissioned by the Cologne Electronic Music Studio. It was used by Karlheinz Stockhausen thereafter. Also, a Melochord was built for use by the NWDR in Hamburg and for a theatre in Munich, and a few others but it was not a mass production item.”
Interview with Harald Bode, 1980 by SYNE magazine
Later version Melochord
Later version Melochord

A later version incorporated two keyboards the second keyboard being able to control the timbre of the other, a technique used in later modular type synthesizers.The Melochord was used extensively in the early days of the electronic studio at Bonn University by Dr Werner Meyer-Eppler and was later installed at North West German Radio studios in Köln (alongside a Monochord and a simple oscillator and filter system) where it was used by the Elektronische Musik group throughout the 1950’s. Artists who used the Melochord and Monochord at the studio included Herbert Eimert, Robert Beyer, Karel Goeyvarts, György Ligeti, Henri Posseur, Karlheinz Stockhausen and others.

Bode playing the Melochord
Bode playing the Melochord

Despite the instruments technical drawbacks, the Melochord was destined to play a historic role in the future of electronic music, Meyer-Eppler’s visionary and influential work “Klangmodelle” and lectures at Darmstadt New Music School were all based on the Melochord and in 1961 Harald Bode, recognizing the significance of transistor based technology over valve based synthesis, wrote a paper that was to revolutionise electronic musical instruments. Bode’s ideas of modular and miniature self contained transistor based machines was taken up and developed in the early 1960’s by Robert Moog and Donald Buchla amongst others.

Biographical notes

Harald Bode; October 19, 1909 Hamburg Germany – January 15, 1987 New York USA.
Harald Bode; October 19, 1909 Hamburg Germany – January 15, 1987 New York USA.

Bode Studied  mathematics, physics and natural philosophy at Hamburg University, graduating in 1934. In 1937, with funding support provided by the composer and band-leader, Christian Warnke, Bode produced his first instrument the ‘Warbo-Formant Orgel’ (‘Warbo’ being a combination of the names Warnke and Bode). Bode moved to Berlin in 1938 to complete a postgraduate course at the Heinrich Hertz Institute where he collaborated with Oskar Vierling and Fekko von Ompteda. During this period Bode developed the ‘Melodium’ ;  a unique monophonic touch-sensitive, multi-timbral instrument used extensively in film scores of the period.

When WWII started in 1939 Bode worked on military submarine sound and wireless communication projects “…We had the only choice in Germany, to go to military service or do work for the government. I praise myself lucky, that I was able to go to the electronic industry” and moved to the  small village Neubeuern in southern Germany, where in 1947 Bode built the first European post-war electronic instrument, the ‘Melochord’. In 1949 Bode joined the AWB company where he created the  ‘Polychord’ a simpler, polyphonic version of the ‘Melochord’ which was followed by the ‘Polychord III’ in 1951 and the  ‘Bode Organ’, a commercial organ which became the prototype for the famous Estey Electronic Organ. After leaving AWB, Bode’s designs included the ‘Tuttivox’, a miniature electronic organ and collaborated on a version of Georges Jenny’s ‘Clavioline’, both big sellers throughout Europe.

In 1954 Bode moved to the USA, settling in Brattleboro, Vermont where he lead the development team (and later, Vice President)  at the Estey Organ Corporation. In 1958, while still working at Estey, Bode set up the Bode Electronics Company where in March 1960 he created another unique instrument; a modular synthesiser “A New Tool for the Exploration of Unknown Electronic Music Instrument Performances” known as the  ‘Audio System Synthesiser’ which Robert Moog used as the basis for his line of new Moog synthesisers.

After the Estey Organ Company foundered in 1960, Bode joined the Wurlitzer Organ Co and moved to Buffalo, New York where he was one of the first engineers to recognise the significance of transistor based technology in electronic music.  Bode’s concepts of modular and miniature self-contained transistor based machines was taken up and developed in the early 1960’s by Robert Moog and Donald Buchla amongst others. 1962 saw the beginning of a long collaboration between Bode and the composer Vladimir Ussachevski at the  Columbia Princeton Center for Electronic Music which lead to the development of innovative studio equipment designs such as the  ‘Bode Ring Modulator’ and ‘Bode Frequency Shifter’. The commercial versions of these inventions were produced  under the Bode Sound Co and under license Moog Synthesisers.

Harald Bode retired in 1974 but continued to pursue his own research. In 1977 he created the ‘Bode Vocoder’ (licensed as the ‘Moog Vocoder’). In 1981 he developed his last instrument, the ‘Bode Barberpole Phaser’.

Harald Bode’s sketchbooks




Bode’s Melodium and Melochord by Thomas L. Rhea. Contemporary Keyboard magazine (January 1980, p. 68) 

One thought on “The ‘Melochord’, Harald Bode, Germany, 1947”

  1. I met Harald through my parents many years ago as a young adult. He truly was magical with his love of discovery. We listened to him play the Barberpole Phaser in his basement.
    Happy to have known a great invented.

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