The ‘Theremin’ or ‘Thereminvox’. Leon (or Lev) Sergeivitch Termen, Russia. 1922

Leon Termen plays the 'Theremin' or 'Thereminvox' . Paris, 1927
Leon Termen plays the ‘Theremin’ or ‘Thereminvox’ . Paris, 1927

The principles of beat frequency or heterodyning oscillators were discovered by chance during the first decades of the twentieth century by radio engineers experimenting with radio vacuum tubes. Heterodyning effect is created by two high radio frequency sound waves of similar but varying frequency combining and creating a lower audible frequency, equal to the difference between the two radio frequencies (approximately 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz). the musical potential of the effect was noted by several engineers and designers including Maurice MartenotNikolay ObukhovArmand Givelet and the Russian Cellist and electronic engineer, Leon (or Lev) Sergeivitch Termen .

One problem with utilising the heterodyning effect (heterodyning is the effect where two high frequency signals are added producing a third audible tone which is the difference of the two high frequencies. This effect was the basis of many vacuum tube based electronic instruments.”) for musical purposes was that as the body came near the vacuum tubes the capacitance of the body caused variations in frequency.


Leon Termen realised that rather than being a problem, body capacitance could be used as a control mechanism for an instrument and finally freeing the performer from the keyboard and fixed intonation. Termen’s first machine, built in the USSR in 1917 was christened the “Theremin” (after himself) or the “Aetherophone” (sound from the ‘ether’) and was the first instrument to exploit the heterodyning principle.

The original Theremin used a foot pedal to control the volume and a switch mechanism to alter the pitch. This prototype evolved into a production model Theremin in 1920, this was a unique design, resembling a gramophone cabinet on 4 legs with a protruding metal antennae and a metal loop. The instrument was played by moving the hands around the metal loop for volume and around the antennae for pitch. The output was a monophonic continuous tone modulated by the performer. The timbre of the instrument was fixed and resembled a violin string sound. The sound was produced directly by the heterodyning combination of two radio-frequency oscillators: one operating at a fixed frequency of 170,000 Hz, the other with a variable frequency between 168,000 and 170,000 Hz. The frequency of the second oscillator being determined by the proximity of the musician’s hand to the pitch antenna. The difference of the fixed and variable radio frequencies results in an audible beat frequency between 0 and 2,000 Hz. The audible sound came from the oscillators, later models adding an amplifier and large triangular loudspeaker. This Theremin model was first shown to the public at the Moscow Industrial Fair in 1920 and was witnessed by Lenin who requested lessons on the instrument. Lenin later commissioned 600 models of the Theremin to be built and toured around the Soviet Union.


Termen left the Soviet Union in 1927 for the United States where he was granted a patent for the Theremin in 1928. The Theremin was marketed and distributed in the USA by RCA during the 1930’s as a DIY kit form or as a finished instrument ( later aficionados of the instrument included Robert Moog who made and sold transistorised Theremins in the 1950s). The heterodyning vacuum tube oscillator became the standard method of producing electronic sound until the advent of the transistor in the 1960’s and was widely used by electronic musical instrument designs of the period.

The Theremin became known in the USA as a home ‘novelty instrument’ and featured in many film soundtracks of the 1940-50’s, it also appeared in several pop records of the 1960’s but never overcame it’s novelty appeal; used for effect rather than as a ‘serious instrument’, most recordings employ the Theremin as a substitute string instrument rather than exploiting the microtonal and pitch characteristics of the instrument. Leon Sergeivitch Termen went on to develop variations on the original Theremin which included the “Terpsitone“, The “Rhythmicon“, the “keyboard Theremin” and the “Electronic Cello”.

Theremin Orchestra, Carnegie Hall. C1930
Theremin Orchestra, Carnegie Hall. C1930


Images of the Theremin

Promotional brochure for the RCA Theremin

NKVD Photograph of Lev Sergeyevich Termen (Russian: Ле́в Серге́евич Терме́н) (27 August [O.S. 15 August] 1896 – 3 November 1993),
NKVD Photograph of Lev Sergeyevich Termen (Russian: Ле́в Серге́евич Терме́н) (27 August [O.S. 15 August] 1896 – 3 November 1993),

Biographical Information: Leon Sergeivitch Termen. 1896 – 1993

The story of Lev Sergeivitch Termen is like some nightmarish John LeCarre novel. Prof. Termen was born in the Russian city of St Petersberg in 1896, he would become one of the most important pioneers in the development of electronic music through his instrument the Thereminvox (commonly referred to as the Theremin). Prof. Termen first invented a prototype Thereminvox in 1920, he worked upon his invention for the next few years, whilst also relocating from Russia to New York. A US patent was granted to Termen for the invention of the Thereminvox in 1928. Termen set up a studio there catering to high society patrons from whom he would extract the moneys he used to continue his experiments. His New York studio apparently was kitted out with a variety of devices, that in the late twenties must have seemed like pure science fiction: a variety of electronic audio devices; electronic lighting shows; an electronic dance platform; even a prototype colour television system.

Lev Termen and Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore
Lev Termen and Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore

In 1938 Termen was rumoured to have been kidnapped in the New York apartment he shared with his American wife (the black ballet dancer, Iavana Williams) by the NKVD (forerunners of the KGB). Infact he returned to Russia for tax and financial problems in the USA as well as his concerns over the coming war.

“I left New York because at that time the war was coming. The military troops of the fascists were approaching Leningrad, and so on. I asked to be sent to the Soviet Union so as to make myself useful, I asked many times. For a whole year I asked to be sent back. The war had already started, and they didn’t send me, they didn’t send me. Then at last they permitted me. They assigned me to be an assistant to the captain of a large motor ship. So I went home, but they did not take my wife.”


Termen's American born second wife, the dancer Lavinia Willaims
Termen’s American born second wife, the dancer Lavinia Willaims

On his return He was accused of propagating anti-Soviet propaganda by Stalin. Meanwhile reports of his execution were widely circulated in the West. In fact Termen was not executed, but interned in Magadan, a notoriously brutal Siberian labour camp.

 “I was arrested, and I was taken prisoner. Not quite a prisoner, but they put me in a special lab in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. There I worked in this lab just as others worked. [Airplane designer] Andrei Tupolev was imprisoned in such a way too, if you know about that. He was considered to be a prisoner, and I was considered a prisoner too…At one time, on the way to the laboratory, I was sent to a camp, where they did road construction. I was assigned to be supervisor over the prisoners. From there, after eight months on road construction, I was sent with Tupolev to the Aviation Institute. Many important people worked there: [Missile designer] Sergei Korolyov worked there for me.”

Leon Termen interview By Olivia Mattis and Robert Moog 1992

Termen was put to work on top secret projects by the Soviet authorities  (together with Andrei Tupolev, Sergei Korolev, and other well-known scientists and engineers)  which culminated in his invention of the first “bug,” a sophisticated electronic eavesdropping device. Termen supervised the bugging of both the American embassy, (and perhaps, Stalin’s private apartment). For this ground-breaking work he was awarded the Stalin Prize (first Class), Russia very highest honour.

After his rehabilitation Termen took up a teaching position at the Moscow conservatory of music. However he was ejected for continuing his researches in the field of electronic music. Post war Soviet ideology decreed that modern music was pernicious. Termen was reportedly told that electricity should be reserved for the execution of traitors. After this episode Termen took up a technical position, and worked upon non-music related electronics . Ironically his invention the Thereminvox, was becoming vastly influential in America, a development of which he was completely unaware.Before his death in 1993 Prof. Termen made one final visit to America lecturing, and demonstrating his Thereminvox.



“PULLING MUSIC OUT OF THIN AIR: AN INTERVIEW WITH LEON THEREMIN”By Olivia Mattis and Robert Moog. February 1992 issue of Keyboard Magazine.

‘Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture’. 2008 by Thom Holmes

‘Sound in Z: Experiments in Sound and Electronic Music in Early 20th Century Russia’. 2013. by Andrey Smirnov.
‘Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage (Music in American Life)’. Feb 2005. Albert Glinsky

The ‘Staccatone’. Hugo Gernsback & C.J.Fitch. USA, 1923

Hugo Gernsback’s ‘Staccatone’ c 1923
Hugo Gernsback, perhaps better known as the ‘Father of Science Fiction’  (and currently eponymously celebrated in the ‘Hugos’ Science Fiction Awards) also invented and built an early electronic instrument called the Staccatone in 1923 (with Clyde.J.Fitch)  which was later developed into one of the first polyphonic instruments, the Pianorad in 1926. Gernsback was a major figure in the development and popularisation of television, radio and amateur electronics, his multiple and sometimes shady businesses included early science fiction publishing, pulp fiction, self-help manuals and DIY electronics magazines as well as his own science fiction writing.
The Staccatone was conceived as a self-build project for amateur electronics enthusiasts via Gernsback’s ‘Practical Electrics’ magazine. The instrument consisted of a single vacuum tube oscillator controlled by a crude switch based 16 note ‘keyboard’. The switch based control gave the note a staccato attack and decay – hence the ‘Staccatone’. Gernsback promoted the instrument through his many publication and on his own radio station WJZ New York:
The musical notes produced by the vacuum tubes in this manner have practically no overtones. For this reason the music produced on the Pianorad is of an exquisite pureness of tone not realised in any other musical instrument. The quality is better than that of a flute and much purer. the sound however does not resemble that of any known musical instrument. The notes are quite sharp and distinct, and the Pianorad can be readily distinguished by its music from any other musical instrument in existence.”
Hugo Gernsback
Self-build instructions for the Staccatone from ‘Practical Electrics’ magazine 1924:


Hugo Gernsback: “The Staccatone” Practical Electrics. March 1924. P.248

Holmes, T. (2020). Electronic and experimental music: Technology, music, and culture (Sixth ed.). New York: Routledge.

The ‘Pianorad’, Hugo Gernsback, Clyde.J.Fitch, USA, 1926

Gernsback’s ‘Pianorad’ at the WRNY radio studio, New York, USA in 1926.Image: Radio News, vol. 8, no. 5, November 1926

The Pianorad, designed by Hugo Gernsback and built by Clyde Finch at the Radio News Laboratories in New York was a development of Gernsback’s Staccatone of 1923. the Pianorad had 25 single vacuum tube oscillators, one for every key for its two octave keyboard making the instrument the first valve based electronic instrument to achieve full polyphony*. The sound from the tubes was passed through a rudimentary mechanical filter that removed harmonic distortion producing virtually pure sine tones. The instrument played sound through a top mounted speaker or could be connected directly for radio broadcast.

Hugo Gernsbacks' Pianorad
Hugo Gernsbacks’ Pianorad’ showing the cabinet containing 25 vacuum tubes – one for each note. Image: Radio News, vol. 8, no. 5, November 1926

Theory of the Instrument

The Pianorad has a keyboard like an ordinary piano, and there is a radio vacuum tube for each one of the piano keys. Every time a key is depressed, there is energized a radio-oscillator circuit which gives rise to a pure, flutelike note through the loud-speaker connected to the device. It is possible to connect any number of loud-speakers to the Pianorad if it is desired to flood an auditorium with its tones. Also, by arranging suitable outlets for loud-speakers on different floors or different rooms, the sounds of the Pianorad can be heard all over any large building.

The musical notes produced by the vacuum tubes in this manner have practically no overtones. For this reason the music produced on the Pianorad is of an exquisite pureness of tone not realised in any other musical instrument. The quality is better than that of a flute and much purer. the sound however does not resemble that of any known musical instrument. The notes are quite sharp and distinct, and the Pianorad can be readily distinguished by its music from any other musical instrument in existence.

Electric, Not Sound Waves

The loud-speaker arrangement makes it possible for an artist to play the keyboard while the music emerges, perhaps miles away from the Pianorad. It is thus possible for the pianist to play the instrument in absolute silence while the music is produced at a distance. This requires simply that a wire line must connect the output end of the Pianorad instrument with the loud-speaker at some distance away. It is quite feasible for the Pianorad to be played in New York while the music will be heard at the Chicago end, with any number of loudspeakers connected by amplifiers to a long-distance telephone wire line.

A novel idea is the connection of the Pianorad direct to the broadcast-station transmitter. In this case, instead of using a loud-speaker in the studio, the Pianorad is connected electrically to the broadcast transmitter. The artist now plays the Pianorad in the studio in absolute silence. No sound is heard. The radio audience, however, will enjoy the music, although no one in the studio can hear it. In order that the pianist may hear what he is playing, he will wear a set of head receivers attached to an ordinary radio set. The music, therefore, is picked out from the air by the receiver and thus only the artist hears it. In the studio itself, no sound is audible for the Pianorad itself is silent.

Developments Still Continuing

The Pianorad has as yet not entered the commercial stage. The instrument illustrated in this article has 25 keys and therefore, 25 notes. A full 88-note Pianorad has as yet not been constructed, but will be built in a short time. The larger instrument could have been built at once, but it would occupy almost as much space as a piano; and as this amount of room was not then available in the studio of WRNY, for which the first Pianorad was especially constructed, the smaller instrument was built instead.

The Pianorad at WRNY is usually accompanied by piano or violin or both; very pleasing combinations are produced in this manner. At present it uses a single stage of amplification, giving volume enough, in connection with one loud-speaker, to more than fill a fair sized room. By adding several stages of audio-frequency amplification, sufficient volume can be obtained to fill a large church or auditorium.

The Pianorad was first demonstrated publicly Saturday, June 12 at 9 P.M., with a number of brilliant selections played on it by Mr. Ralph Christman; the concert being broadcast over WRNY at The Roosevelt, New York.

The principle embodied in this instrument was first demonstrated in 1915 by Dr. Lee de Forest, inventor of the Audion. At that time Dr. de Forest was able to produce musical tones by means of vacuum tubes, but the radio art at that time had not progressed sufficiently to make possible the Pianorad.

An article by Clyde J. Fitch describing the construction of the Pianorad will appear in the December issue of Radio News.

Each one of the twenty five oscillators had its own independent speaker, mounted in a large loudspeaker horn on top of the keyboard and the whole ensemble was housed in a housing resembling a harmonium. A larger 88 non keyboard version was planned but not put into production. The Pianorad was first demonstrated on june 12, 1926 at Gernsback’s own radio station WRNY in New York City performed by Ralph Christman. The Pianorad continued to be used at the radio station for some time, accompanying piano and violin concerts.

Pianorad’s 25 units designed to eliminate harmonics.Image: Radio News, vol. 8, no. 5, November 1926

*The Telharmonium at the beginning of the 20th century earlier was a polyphonic electronic instrument but, because it generated sound using tone-wheels, it can be considered an eletro-acoustic instrument.


Hugo Gernsback: “The ‘Pianorad’ a New Musical Instrument which combines Piano and Radio Principles” Radio News, vol. 8, no. 5, November 1926

The ‘Dynaphone’, René Bertrand, France, 1927


The French electrical engineer, mechanic and doll modeller, René Bertrand, who had been experimenting with electronic instruments as early as 1914, was a long time friend and collaborator with Edgard Varèse and with Varèse’s support Bertrand developed the “Dynaphone” (not to be confused with Cahill’s “Dynamophone” or “Telharmonium“).

Promotional photograph of Bertrand and the Dynamophone. from an article ‘future Music/ Zukunft Musik’ in Die Buhne 1928
A review of a Dynaphone concert ‘Angelic Music’ from the ‘Le Petit Parisien’ 14-04-1928

The Dynaphone was a portable, monophonic instrument controlled not with a keyboard but played with a pitch-lever and volume switch. The instrument was semi-circular in shape with a diameter 0f 30 cm played on top of a table. The Dynaphone belonged to a family of dial-operated non keyboard electronic instruments developed around the 1930’s such as Mager’s ‘Spharaphon. The right hand controlled the pitch using a circular dial on a calibrated disc (cardboard cut-out templates of music could be inserted). The total rotation of the dial was equal to seven octaves but only the five highest or lowest could be selected at any one time by the means of a switch, giving an overlap of three octaves common to both ranges.

René Bertrand,
René Bertrand and the Dynaphone in 1928 (image : ‘L’Afrique du Nord illustrée’ 1928-05-05))

Additional vibrato effects could be added by moving the right hand to and fro slightly and the machine also included a push button for articulating the sound. The left hand controlled the volume and timbre – described as similar to a cello, low flute, saxophone or french horn. The Dynaphone generated sound by the by-now standard method of a heterodyning vacuum tube pair, originally used in Leon Termen’s ‘Theremin‘.


A later development of the Dynaphone (known as the ” Radio-electric-organ” used a five octave keyboard on which the note played could be doubled at the fifth and octave. The first public demonstration of the instrument in 1928 was a performance of Ernest Fromaigeat’s ‘Variations Caractéristiques’ for six Dynophones and later in ‘Roses de Metal’ a ballet by the swiss composer Arthur Honegger

In 1932 Varèse applied to the Guggenheim memorial fund for a grant towards continuing the development of the Dynaphone:

Edgard Varese
Edgard Varese

“…..The Dynaphone (invented 1927-28) is a musical instrument of electrical oscillations similar to the Theremin, Givelet and Martenot electrical instruments. But its principal and operation are entirely different, the resemblance being only superficial. The technical results i look for are as follows:

  • To obtain pure fundamentals
  • By means of loading the fundamentals with certain series of harmonics to obtain timbres which will produce new sounds.
  • To speculate on the new sounds that the combination of two or more interfering Dynaphones would create if combined as one instrument.
  • To increase the range of the instrument to reach the highest frequencies which no other instrument can give, together with adequate intensity.

The practical result of our work will be a new instrument which will be adequate to the creative needs of musician and musicologist…..”

Despite Varèse’s assertions, the Dynaphone was not distinctly different from its close competitors and the Guggenheim Foundation did not sponsor Bertrands work despite several further attempts by Varèse.

In 1941, Edgard Varèse, in the hope to resume his collaboration with Léon Theremin, wrote him the letter reported below (courtesy of Olivia Mattis ), but the inventor wasn’t able to read it until 1989, when musicologist Olivia Mattis, during an interview with Theremin (first emerged from Russia after 51 years), presented a copy of it. The letter is dated May 5, 1941.

Dear Professor Theremin,

On my return from the West in October I tried to get in touch with you. I wanted very much to see you again and to learn of the progress of your work. I was sorry – on my account – that you had left New York. I hope that you have been able to go on with your experiments in sound and that new discoveries have rewarded your efforts.

I have just begun a work in which an important part is given to a large chorus and with it I want to use several of your instruments – augmenting their range as in those I used for my Equatorial – especially in the high range. Would you be so kind as to let me know if it is possible to procure these and where … and in case of modifications in what they consist. Also if you have conceived or constructed new ones would you let me have a detailed description of their character and use. I don’t want to write any more for the old Man-power instruments and am handicapped by the lack of adequate electrical instruments for which I now conceive my music.

Mr. Fediushine has kindly offered to forward this letter to you. Please let me hear rom you as soon as possible. With cordial greetings and best wishes in which my wife joins me,


Edgard Varese

P.S. If any of your assistants or collaborators are continuing your work in New York would you kindly put me in touch with them.

Review from 'Numéro Le Gaulois' February 12th 1982.
Review of a concert of six Dynaphones from ‘Numéro Le Gaulois’ February 12th 1982.



Edgard Varèse L.E.Gratia: ‘La Musique des Ondes éthérées’ , Les ménestrel, xc (1928)

‘L’Afrique du Nord illustrée’ 05-05-1928.

‘Le Petit Parisien – journal quotidien du soir’ 1928 04 24

‘René Bertrand’s Dynaphone: Roses de Metal by Arthur Honegger’. GloryLynn Foster Van Duren. 1983.

‘Numéro Le Gaulois’ February 12th 1982.

The ‘Ondes-Martenot’ Maurice Martenot, France, 1928

Ondes Martenot
Ondes Martenot

Maurice Martenot a Cellist and radio Telegraphist, met the Russian electronic engineer Leon Termen in 1923, this meeting lead him to design an instrument based on Termens ideas, the first model, the “Ondes-Martenot” was patented on the 2nd of April 1928 under the name “Perfectionnements aux instruments de musique électriques” (improvements to electronic music instruments). His aim was to produce a versatile electronic instrument that was immediately familiar to orchestral musicians. The first versions bore little resemblance to the later production models: consisting of two table mounted units controlled by a performer who manipulated a string attached to a finger ring (using the bodies capacitance to control the sound characteristics in a manner very similar to the Theremin) this device was later incorporated as a fingerboard strip above the keyboard.

Female Ondes Orchestra
Female Ondes Orchestra

Later versions used a standard keyboard.The Ondes-Martenot became the first succesfull electronic instrument and the only one of its generation that is still used by orchestras today, Martenot himself became, 20 years after its invention, a professor at the Paris Conservatoire teaching lessons in the Ondes-Martenot. The Ondes-Martenot’s success was the Theremins loss, although both used the vacuum tube oscillator as a sound source and were both monophonic, where the Theremin had a sliding scale and no fixed preset notes the Ondes-Martenot had a keyboard and a strip control for glissando and vibrato, organ like stops for preset timbres and an appearance that was familiar to any keyboard player.

Pre-set sounds on the later Ondes Martenot were:

  • Onde (O): A simple sine wave timbre. Similar in sound to the flute or ocarina.
  • Creux (C):  A peak-limited triangle wave. Similar in sound to a clarinet in high registers.
  • Gambe (G):  A timbre somewhat resembling a square wave. Intended to be similar in sound to string instruments, as the French title would suggest.
  • Petit Gambe (g): A similar but less harmonically-rich timbre than Gambe. The player can control the number of harmonics present in the signal by using a slider situated in the control drawer.
  • Nasillard (N): A timbre resembling a pulse wave. Similar in sound to a bassoon in low registers.
  • Octaviant (8): A timbre with a reinforced first harmonic whose intensity in the signal can be controlled by using a slider. This setting is analogous to the 4 foot stop in organ terminology.
  • Souffle (S): A timbre often described as white noise, but in fact pink noise of indefinite pitch.

The sound from the instrument could be output to a number of speakers or ‘Diffuseurs’ who’s physical properties further coloured the sound, the were:

  • ‘Principal’ A traditional, large loudspeaker.
  • ‘Résonance’ A loudspeaker which uses springs to produce a mechanical reverb effect.
  • ‘Métallique’ A small gong is used as the loudspeaker diaphragm to produce a ‘halo’ effect rich in harmonics.
  • ‘Palme’ An iconic lyre-shaped loudspeaker, using strings to produce sympathetic resonances.
loudspeakers or Diffuseurs of the Ondes Martrnot: the Métallique, the palm and the Principal

The instrument also had a bank of expression keys that allowed the player to change the timbre and character of the sounds. A later (1938) version of the instrument featured microtonal tuning as specified by the Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore and the musician Alain Danielou. The Ondes-Martenot was quickly accepted and became one of the few electronic instruments to be admitted to the orchestra (at least in France) and had a wide repertoire by prominent composers such as Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messian (The “Turangalîla Symphonie” and “Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine” amongst others ), Darius Milhaud , Arthur Honegger, Maurice Jarre, Jolivet and Koechlin.


The ‘Trautonium’ Dr Freidrich Trautwein. Germany, 1930

Dr Freidrich Adolf Trautwein (b Würzburg 1888, Germany; d Düsseldorf 1956)

The Trautonium was an important electronic musical instrument developed by the electrical engineer Freidrich Trautwein in Germany in 1930. Trautwein designed the first version of the instrument with the aim of freeing the performer from the restrictions of fixed (Piano) intonation. To achieve this, he removed the usual piano-style manual in his design and replaced it with a fingerboard consisting of a metal wire stretched over a rail, marked with a chromatic scale. By pressing the wire, the performer touches the rail below and completes a circuit generating a tone. A similar technique, copied by the Trautwein, was a feature of Bruno Hellberger’s Hellertion in 1929 and some time later in the Ondes Martenot.

Trautwein demostrating the early Trautonium, showing the pressure sensitive resistant finger-wire controller.
Trautwein demostrating the early Trautonium c1933, showing the pressure sensitive resistant finger-wire controller.

The position of the player’s finger on the wire determines the resistance in the wire which in turn controls the pitch of the oscillator. This unusual approach allowed a great deal of expressive flexibility; by pressing harder on the wire, the player could subtly change the volume, and by moving the finger from side to side the instrument could produce violin like glissandi or more subtle vibrato effects. Overall volume was controlled by a foot-pedal allowing the performer to vary the volume and envelope of the notes.

Early version of the Trautonium
An early 1930’s version of the Trautonium at the Deutsches Museum, Berlin
The first Trautonium was a fairly simple monophonic vacuum tube ‘synthesiser’  generating sound from a single thyratron RK1 tube oscillator. However, by passing this tone through a series of resonant filters this simple sawtooth waveform could be coloured with a wide range of timbre characteristics. This unique form of subtractive synthesis (i.e. filtering down an existing complex waveform rather than creating a complex waveform from combinations of simple sine waves) produced a tone that was distinctive and unusual when compared to the rather plain sound of other valve instruments in the 1920-30’s.
Telefunken advert of the 1930 version of the Trautonium
Advert of the Telefunken Volkstrautonium model Ela T42 showing the 380 Reichs Mark price

The commercial version of the Trautonium or ‘Volkstrautonium’ was manufactured and marketed by Telefunken in 1932. But, probably due to the unpopularity of a new, somewhat complicated keyboard-less instrument and high purchase price (c400 Reichs Marks;  equivalent of two and a half months of a worker’s salary  or more than five times the price of radio), only around thirteen items were sold and by 1938 it was discontinued. Despite the lack of domestic commercial interest, a number of composers wrote works for the instrument including Paul Hindemith ( who, switching allegiances from Jörg Mager’s Sphäraphon, learnt to play the Trautonium)  ‘Concertina for Trautonium and Orchestra’ , Höffer, Genzmer, Julius Weismann and most notably Oskar Sala. Sala became a virtuoso on the machine and eventually took over the development of the Trautonium producing his own variations- the ‘Mixtur-Trautonium’, The ‘Concert-Trautonium’ and the ‘Radio – Trautonium’. After the commercial failure of the instrument Trautwein abandoned further development to Oskar Sala who continued to work with the Trautonium until his death in 2002. Trautwein also produced an ‘Amplified Harpsichord’ in 1936 and ‘Electronic Bells’ in 1947.

Trautwein (L) and Oskar Sala with the Trautonium Berlin, c 1933
Trautwein (L), Paul Hindemith and Oskar Sala playing the Trautonium. Berlin, c 1933
Telefunken 1932 Volkstrautonium model Ela T 42 at the Deutsche Museum, Berlin
The Trautonium in 'Popular Mechanics' magazine USA 1939
The Trautonium in ‘Popular Mechanics’ magazine USA 1939
The Trautonium in 'Popular Mechanics' magazine USA 1939
The Trautonium in ‘Popular Mechanics’ magazine USA 1939

Dr Freidrich Adolf Trautwein (b Würzburg 1888, Germany; d Düsseldorf 1956) seen here in 1930.

Biographical notes: Dr Freidrich Adolf Trautwein (b Würzburg 1888, Germany; d Düsseldorf 1956)

Trautwein studied electrical engineering at the Technical University of Karlsruhe and later, law in Berlin. In the First World War he was a lieutenant in the German Army and led a mounted radio squad. After the war in 1919 he studied Physics in Heidelberg and Karlsruhe where he received his PhD in engineering. The following year he started working for the State Telegraph Service where he was involved in the establishment of the first German radio station in Berlin.

In 1929 he took a teaching position at the Berlin State Music Academy where he started early development of the Trautonium with the patronage and guidance of the composer Paul Hindemith. The first version of the Trautonium was completed in 1930 and a commercial version produced in 1933 by Telefunken; the Telefunken Volkstrautonium model Ela T42. After the commercial failure of his invention, Trautwein abandoned the instrument to composer and Trautonium virtuoso, Oskar Sala

The Trautonium played by Oskar Sala, incorporated into the 'Das Orchester der Zukunft (The Future Orchestra), alongside a Hellertion, Thereminvox and Elektrochord.
The Trautonium played by Oskar Sala, incorporated into ‘Das Orchester der Zukunft (The Orchestra of the Future), alongside a Hellertion, Thereminvox and Elektrochord c 1932

In 1949 Trautwein worked in briefly at the Bikla School for Photography and Film in Düsseldorf and then established the sound engineering course at the Düsseldorf Conservatory (now the Robert-Schumann-Hochschule in Dusseldorf ) which still forms the basis of the current sound engineering training unit. In 1952 Trautwein developed an evolved version of the Trautonium for WDR Electronic Music Studio, the Electronic Monochord. Trautwein died in Düsseldorf in 1956.


Peter Donhauser: Electric sound machines Böhlau, Vienna 2007.

Donhauser, P.: “Technical gimmick or fantastic reality Telefunken and the first electronic instruments in Germany?”, Lecture at the DTM Berlin, 03.11.2006

Peter Badge “Oskar Sala: Pionier der elektronischen Musik” Edited by Peter Friess Forword by Florian Schneider Satzwerk Verlag. ISBN 3-930333-34-1

“Oskar Sala-Die vergangene Zukunft des Klanges” A film by Oliver Rauch and Ingo Rudloff. Upstart Filmproduktion Wiesbaden

The ‘Ondium Péchadre’ Henri Camille Robert Péchadre. France, 1929

The Ondium played by
The Ondium played by the Pianist Gaston Wiener. (‘L’Ouest Eclair’ 1931)

The Ondium Péchadre was developed in France by  Henri Camille Robert Péchadre in 1929. The instrument was a monophonic heterodyning vacuum tube oscillator based instrument built into a light and portable heart shaped box, in performance the base of the instrument rested on the players knees and the instrument was supported against a table.

The seven octave range of the instrument was controlled – in a way similar to Jorg Mager’s Sphäraphon of 1924 – by moving a pointer around a circular calibrated dial while the left hand controlled the volume of the sound with a velocity sensitive push button device. This allowed the instrument to create a continuous pitch similar to a violin or cello, or by using the volume control, the sound wave’s envelope could be altered to give a more staccato effect.

The indium described in 'Le Menestrel' in 1933
The Ondium as described in ‘Le Menestrel’ in 1933

As with other similar instruments, The Ondium output sound to an amplifier and loudspeaker but, uniquely, was also able to transmit sounds directly via radio waves to a radio receiver or network.

“The Ondium we can report, is of the family of radio-electronic instruments similar to developments by Martenot and others. It differs however in by some points, in particular by this one; The Ondium is the only device of this kind that can be picked up  by radio.”

Gaston Wiener quoted from ‘L’Ouest-Éclair’ 1935.

Péchadre toured with the Ondium throughout France in the 1930s where, accompanied by an orchestra, he commissioned well known musicians (Gaston Wiener, pianist, Jacques Serres, cellist and Georges Hugo, pianist)  to perform popular classical works by Saint-Saëns, Mozart, Delibes and others as well as surprising the audience with the instruments versatility by imitating bird song.

The Ondium Péchadre played by it's inventor Msr Péchadre in 1930 (from 'Un appareil de musique radioélectrique; l'ondium Péchadre' by E.-WEISS.)
The Ondium Péchadre played by it’s inventor Msr Péchadre in 1930 (from ‘Un appareil de musique radioélectrique; l’ondium Péchadre’ by E.-WEISS.)
The Ondium with back cover removed showing control levers and tone generators. (from 'Un appareil de musique radioélectrique; l'ondium Péchadre' by E. WEISS.)
The Ondium with back cover removed showing control levers and tone generators. (from ‘Un appareil de musique radioélectrique; l’ondium Péchadre’ by E. WEISS.)


Telecoms Minister M. Mallarmé in front of boxed commercial versions of the Ondium at the ’21st Radio Salon’ Paris, 1934. Image: ‘Paris Soir’ September 1934.


‘Le Ménestrel’ Paris 1933.

‘L’Ouest Eclair’ Rennes. 29/10/1931 number 12775.

‘Un appareil de musique radioélectrique; l’ondium Péchadre’ by E. WEISS. La Nature N° 2837 – 15 juillet 1930 Pages 64-65

The ‘Rhythmicon’ Henry Cowell & Leon Termen. USA, 1930

Henry Cowell and the Rhythmicon
Henry Cowell and the Rhythmicon

In 1916 the American Avant-Garde composer Henry Cowell was working with ideas of controlling cross rhythms and tonal sequences with a keyboard, he wrote several quartet type pieces that used combinations of rhythms and overtones that were not possible to play apart from using some kind of mechanical control- “un-performable by any known human agency and I thought of them as purely fanciful”.(Henry Cowell) In 1930 Cowell introduced his idea to Leon Termen, the inventor of the Theremin, and commissioned him to build him a machine capable of transforming harmonic data into rhythmic data and vice versa.

“My part in its invention was to invent the idea that such a rhythmic instrument was a necessity to further rhythmic development, which has reached a limit more or less, in performance by hand, an needed the application of mechanical aid. The which the instrument was to accomplish and what rhythms it should do and the pitch it should have and the relation between the pitch and rhythms are my ideas. I also conceived that the principle of broken up light playing on a photo-electric cell would be the best means of making it practical. With this idea I went to Theremin who did the rest – he invented the method by which the light would be cut, did the electrical calculations and built the instrument.”

Henry Cowell

“The rhythmic control possible in playing and imparting exactitudes in cross rhythms are bewildering to contemplate and the potentialities of the instrument should be multifarious… Mr. Cowell used his rythmicon to accompany a set of violin movements which he had written for the occasion…. The accompaniment was a strange complexity of rhythmical interweavings and cross currents of a cunning and precision as never before fell on the ears of man and the sound pattern was as uncanny as the motion… The write believes that the pure genius of Henry Cowell has put forward a principle which will strongly influence the face of all future music.”
Homer Henly, May 20, 1932

The eventual machine was christened the “Rythmicon” or “Polyrhythmophone” and was the first electronic rhythm machine. The 17 key polyphonic keyboard produced a single note repeated in periodic rhythm for as long as it was held down, the rhythmic content being generated from rotating disks interrupting light beams that triggered photo-electric cells. The 17th key of the keyboard added an extra beat in the middle of each bar. The transposable keyboard was tuned to an unusual pitch based on the rhythmic speed of the sequences and the basic pitch and tempo could be adjusted by means of levers.Cowell wrote two works for the Rythmicon “Rythmicana” and “Music for Violin and Rythmicon” (a computer simulation of this work was reproduced in 1972). Cowell lost interest in the machine, transferring his interest to ethnic music and the machine was mothballed.

Rhythmicon Discs
Rhythmicon Discs
After Cowell, the machines were used for psychological research and one example (non working) of the machine survives at the Smithsonian Institute. The Rhythmicon was re-discoverd twenty-five years after its creation by the producer Joe Meek (creator of the innovative hit single ‘Telstar’, 1961) apparently discovered abandoned in a New York pawnbrokers. Meek brought it back to his home studio in London where it was used on several recordings. This Rhythmicon was used to provide music and sound effects for various movies in the Fifties and Sixties, including: ‘The Rains of Ranchipur’; ‘Battle Beneath the Earth’; Powell and Pressburgers’ ‘They’re a Weird Mob’; ‘Dr Strangelove’, and the sixties animated TV series ‘Torchy, The Battery Boy’.The Rhythmicon was also rumoured to have been used on several sixties and seventies records, including: ‘Atom Heart Mother’ by Pink Floyd; ‘The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’ by Arthur Brown, and ‘Robot’ by the Tornadoes. Tangerine Dream also used some sequences from the Rhythmicon on their album ‘Rubicon’.
Rhythmicon Discs
Rhythmicon Discs


“Henry Cowell: A record of his activities” Compiled June 1934 by Olive Thompson Cowell.

The ‘Terpsitone’ Leon Termen, USA & Russia,1932

Termen's Terpsitone 1936
Termen’s Terpsitone 1936

The Terpsitone, named after the muse of dance Terpsichorè, was a dance controlled instrument using the same capacitance principles of the Theremin. The Terpsitone was designed built by Leon Termen for his wife who was a dancer. The Terpsitone removed the control antena of the Theremin and replaced it with a large metal sheet hidden under the floor. Movements of the dancers in the area above the sheet caused variations in pitch of the Terpistone’s oscillators due to the capictance of the dancers bodies. This instrument was used for several ‘exotic’ dance, music and light shows throughout the 1930’s.


“During his long and bright life, Leo Sergeyevich Termen made numerous discoveries and inventions. Among the different kind of brilliant inventions was the Terpsitone – which makes it possible for dancers to combine movement of body with music and light. Idea of the Terpsitone occured to L.Termen at the beginning of the 20th century, probably, immediately after the creation of Thereminvox. But as opposed to the Thereminvox where the pitch of tone and loudness depends on the position of the hands of the musician, the Terpsitone frequency and amplitude of sound are determined by a change in the position of entire body of a dancer. The operating principle of the Terpsitone is very similar to the operating principle Thereminvox, based on obtaining audio beat-frequencies, formed by theinteraction of high-frequency fluctuations of two oscillators. One has frequency rigidly fixed, while in the second is variable. In the second oscillator the frequency depends on a change in the distance between the capacitor plates of oscillatory circuit. One of the capacitor plates is an isolated, metallic plate placed on the floor of dancing hall, and second facing the body of the dancer. By moving through the space the dancer affects a change in the capacity of oscillatory circuit and, correspondingly, a change in the difference audio frequency. This signal is amplified and sent to the loudspeaker. Thus the motions of the dancer is converted into sound, which change synchronously with a change in the position of body.

The possibility of adding automated colour is an additional special feature of the invention. The “visual sound display” is a panel with  lamps, painted in different colours where the lamps light up to the motion of the dancer, moreover lamps with the specific colour corresponds to each note. However, this is ensured partially mechanically.

The Terpsitone in the acoustic laboratory, Moscow, 1966 consists of:

1) the electronic-music block, which works on the principle of Thereminvox with heterodyning high frequencies, with the device for vibrato and by a change in the loudness of sounding loudspeaker

2) An  electrical capacitance dancing platform with the size of 2 X of 1,8 X of 0.2 meters with that placed under it along entire its length and width by the electrode, connected through the resonance involving system with one of the high-frequency generators of musical block;

3) A dynamic loud-speaker with control of intensity and timbre. A Range-tool for the performance of melody by the motions of arms, head and legs of the dancer who stands on the platform – 2 octaves. More low-pitched sounds correspond to the locked position of hands and housing of that dancing, high to a maximally opened position, with the large external overall sizes. This experimental device adapts for training the executors of this new form of choreographic- musical skill. Are developed also the electrical circuits of the additional devices:

3.1) movement of executor forward gives audio gain, and its presence in the background ceases sound by means of the electrical capacitance influence on the electrode, fastened on the rear wall of dancing platform

3.2) the invariability of the pitch of tone with the displacement of that dancing and the appearance of that corresponding to the position of the executor of the new height of sounding with the cessations of motion.

Executors: Heads by the laboratory of acoustics and sound recording – Yurchenko A.D, the supervisor of sector – Termen L.CH., engineer – Rudakov YE.A., engineer – Matveyev V.N., technician

Termen’s “Terpsitone” by gimazutdinov K.N., Kazan, NII – SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH INSTITUTE “Prometheus”, 1996



The ‘Sonar’ Nikolai Anan’yev , Russia, 1933

The Sonar 1933
The Sonar 1933

The “Sonar” was a monophonic heterodyning vacuum tube instrument developed by Nikolai Anan’yev at the GIMN Acoustic Laboratory in the USSR from 1930. The Sonar used the same  heterodyning principles of Termen’s Thereminvox but with the addition of a fretted fingerboard to vary the pitch of the oscillator. This addition made the Sonar more popular (at the time in the early Soviet period) with musicians than the Thereminvox due to it’s familiarity and playability. The Sonar was said to have been able to reproduce violin like timbres as well as simple speech phrases such as “mama”, “papa” as well as conventional instrumental sounds and became known for it’s use in ‘proletarian’ outdoor events. Anan’yev  gave over six hundred concerts to around five hundred thousand people with the Sonar during his lifetime.


Sensor Technology and the Remaking of Instruments from the Past. Emmanuelle Gallin, Marc Sirguy

Sound in Z: Experiments in Sound and Electronic Music in Early 20th-century Russia. Published by Walther König, Köln. Edited by David Rogerson, Matt Price. Foreword by Jeremy Deller. Text by Andrei Smirnov.