10 Obscure Electronic Musical Instruments

Dracoswinsauer / Dracoswinsauer

You are no doubt familiar with the Moog synthesizer, the 1960s instrument that came to represent electronic music for most people, and the Theremin, which gave us spooky electronic sounds since the 1920s. But along the way, there were dozens of other instruments using various technologies that combined talent and technical developments to synthesize music. Here are a few you may not be familiar with.

1. Orchestrion 1805

Photograph by Jayron32.

Orchestrion is a name for an instrument that reproduced the sounds of many instruments. These music machines were powered by electricity and read music from a roll, much like a player piano. The first such instrument was the Panharmonicon, invented in 1805 by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, a friend of Ludwig van Beethoven. The idea was expanded on by companies like Wurlitzer and Seeburg, until they became huge music machines that contained multiple instruments such as pipe organs, percussion, violins, and pianos. Large and expensive, they were used in saloons and other public places, where they were the precursors of the jukebox. Although they were electric, they produced music mechanically, so do not really fit the definition of electronic music. However, it’s a good starting place, as these instruments inspired others to recreate orchestral sounds by machine.

2. Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer c. 1890

The Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer is a steampunk wonder. Controlled by a tiny keyboard, it generated sound by manipulating tuning forks with magnets. It was designed by German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz sometime in the late 19th century while he was working on many other things. By combining overtones and varying the frequencies, he was able to mimic the sound and tone of a human voice, as well as other instruments. This particular model, from 1905, will go up for auction in October. 

3. Telharmonium 1897

Thaddeus Cahill invented the instrument he called the Telharmonium in 1897. The huge instrument produced music electronically by turning different-sized tone wheels with electric generators (dynamos). The tones generated were sent down telephone lines. The tone wheels could be adjusted to sound like different musical instruments, so the player at the keyboard could imitate an entire orchestra. The Teharmonium took up a lot of room: the first version weighed over 200 tons and required twelve train cars to move it! But the Telharmonium didn’t have to be moved often; concerts were arranged to be heard over telephones. There were only three Telharmoniums ever built before it was eclipsed by other, less expensive instruments. Unfortunately, no recording of the Telharmonium exists.

4. Ondes Martenot 1928

Maurice Martenot invented the Ondes Martenot in 1928. The electronic sound was generated by oscillation inside vacuum tubes, the frequency of which was varied by a keyboard or a band stretched across the keyboard. Above is a 1934 performance by Martenot himself.

5. Trautonium 1929

Photograph by Matthias Kabel.

German engineer Friedrich Trautwein introduced the Trautonium in 1929. It is played by pressing one’s fingers on a resistance wire onto a metal bar, with the volume depending on the pressure. The sound is reminiscent of a theremin. The sound was produced by frequency oscillations in vacuum tubes, which were later changed to transistors. In fact, Trautwein’s colleague Oskar Sala continued to develop and improve the Trautonium until 2002! Hear the Trautonium in this video

6. Clavivox 1956

Photograph by Flickr user Brandon Daniel.

Composer Raymond Scott was a pioneer of electronic music. He patented the Clavivox in 1956, which was a synthesizer containing a theremin built by his young assistant Robert Moog. Scott built several version of the Clavivox, each with different features.

7. Electronium 1969

Scott started working on a machine that would compose its own music in the late ’50s. The only working model of his Electronium was unveiled in 1969. It could not play written music, and indeed had no keyboard, but it was programmed to compose music on the fly and play it simultaneously. Berry Gordy bought it for Motown, and ended up hiring Scott to run Motown’s electronic music division. During those years, Scott never actually finished working on the Electronium, and it is unknown whether the instrument was ever actually used in any Motown recording. The Electronium now belongs to Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, but it’s not in working order.

8. Eigenharp 2001

Photograph by Thomas Bonte.

The Eigenharp is promoted as a replacement for a piano, guitar, and woodwind all in one instrument. The Eigenharp has only been in use by the public since 2009. John Lambert began research on the electronic instrument in 2001, with the expressed goal of creating an instrument that would be more expressive than conventional electronics, and more versatile than the array of instruments that musicians have to haul to live performances. The Eigenharp is close to a classic instrument in that the keys respond to pressure and velocity and the breath pipe can also be used to control the sound. It also has the advantages of electronic instruments in that there are controllers that add effects and drums and a sequencer that can be programmed for accompaniment. There are three models available with different levels of features, priced accordingly. Hear an Eigenharp trio at YouTube.

9. Zeusaphone 2007

Photograph by Dracoswinsauer.

A Zeusaphone is what you get when you create music with Tesla coils, although some called this instrument a Thoremin. Both names are puns made by applying mythological gods' names to earlier instruments (Sousaphone and Theremin). The best-known Tesla coil band is ArcAttack. They use two homemade Tesla coils to send arcs up to twelve feet long between them, and lately they even include humans wearing Faraday suits in the coils' performances. Hear a variety of tunes at the band's website.

10. Otamatone 2009

The Otamatone is an electronic instrument that resembles a musical note with a cartoon face. It was invented by Novmichi Tosa of Maywa Denki, an art collaboration of the Tosa family that specializes in nonsense machines. You can buy an Otamatone here. Hear this cute little instrument in this video