Ondes Martenot

The ondes Martenot ( ; , "Martenot waves") or ondes musicales ("musical waves") is an early electronic musical instrument. It is played with a keyboard or by moving a ring along a wire, creating "wavering" sounds similar to a theremin. A player of the ondes martenot is called an ondist.

The ondes Martenot was invented in 1928 by the French inventor Maurice Martenot. Martenot was inspired by the accidental overlaps of tones between military radio oscillators, and wanted to create an instrument with the expressiveness of the cello.

The instrument is used in more than 100 classical compositions. The French composer Olivier Messiaen used it in pieces such as his 1949 symphony Turangalîla-Symphonie, and his sister-in-law Jeanne Loriod was a celebrated player of the instrument. It appears in numerous film and television soundtracks, particularly science fiction and horror films. Jonny Greenwood of the English rock band Radiohead is credited with bringing the ondes to a larger modern audience. It has also been used by pop artists such as Daft Punk and Damon Albarn.


The ondes Martenot (French for "Martenot waves") is one of the earliest electronic instruments, patented in the same year as another early electronic instrument, the theremin. It was invented in 1928 by French cellist Maurice Martenot. Martenot had been a radio operator during World War I, and developed the ondes Martenot in an attempt to replicate the accidental overlaps of tones between military radio oscillators. He hoped to bring musical expressivity associated with the cello to his new instrument. He first demonstrated the ondes Martenot on April 20, 1928, performing Dimitrios Levidis’s Poème symphonique at the Paris Opera.

Units were manufactured individually to order. Over the following years, Martenot produced several new models, introducing the ability to produce vibrato by moving the keys, a feature adapted in the 1970s by some Yamaha GX-1 synthesisers. According to The Guardian, the ondes Martenot visually resembles a cross between an organ and a theremin.

Jean-Louis Martenot, Maurice Martenot's son, created new ondes Martenot models. In 2000, Jonny Greenwood of the English rock band Radiohead commissioned the synthesiser company Analogue Systems to develop a replica of the ondes Martenot, as he was nervous about damaging his instrument on tour. The replica, called the French Connection, imitates the ondes Martenot's control mechanism, but does not generate sound; instead, it may be used to control an external oscillator.

Sounds and technique

The ondes Martenot is unique among electronic musical instruments in its methods of control. The ondes Martenot can be played with a metal ring worn on the right index finger. Sliding the ring along a wire produces "theremin-like" tones, generated by oscillations in vacuum tubes, or transistors in the seventh model.

The third model of the instrument, unveiled in 1929, had a non-functioning simulacrum of a keyboard below the wire to indicate pitch. This model also had a "black fingerguard" on a wire which could be used instead of the ring. It was held between the right thumb and index finger, which was played standing at a distance from the instrument. When played in this way, the drawer is removed from the instrument and placed on a bench next to the player. Maurice Martenot's pedagogical manual for the ondes Martenot, written in 1931, offers instruction on both methods of playing.

Later versions added a real functioning keyboard; the keys produce vibrato when moved from side to side. This was introduced in the 1930s with the 84-key fourth version of the instrument. Subsequent versions had 72 keys. Combined with a switch that transposes the pitch by one octave, these instruments have a range from C1 to C8.

A drawer allows manipulation of volume and timbre by the left hand. Volume is controlled with a touch-sensitive glass "lozenge", called the "gradation key"; the further the lozenge is depressed, the louder the volume. In his preface to Jeanne Loriod's Technique de l'Onde Electronique Type Martenot., Olivier Messiaen explains that the "gradation key, struck by one or several fingers of the left hand, gives at the same time the sound, its intensity, and the attack itself. The intensity ranges from an almost inaudible pianissimo to the most terrible and painful fortissimo, passing through all intermediate gradations. The conceivable attacks are more numerous than those of the piano, violin, flute, horn or organ – they range from an absolute legato and glissando to the sounds of temple blocks and membranophones. Somewhere beyond the absolute legato exists an extraterrestrial, enchanted voice, and beneath the dry staccato attack my be found sound effects such as cracked bell, a crumbling pile of sand, or an aircraft motor." Early models could produce only a few waveforms. Later models can simultaneously generate sine, peak-limited triangle, square, pulse, and full-wave rectified sine waves, in addition to pink noise, all controlled by switches in the drawer. The square wave and full-wave rectified sine wave can be further adjusted by sliders in the drawer. On the Seventh model, a dial at the top of the drawer adjusts the balance between white noise and the other waveforms. A second dial adjusts the balance between the three speakers. A switch chooses between the keyboard and ribbon.

Further adjustments can be made using controls in the body of the instrument. These include several dials for tuning the pitch, a dial for adjusting the overall volume, a switch to transpose the pitch by one octave, and a switch to activate a filter.

The drawer of the Seventh model also includes six transposition buttons, which change the pitch by a specific interval. These are called -1/4 (lower by one quarter tone), +1/4 (raise by one quarter tone), +1/2 (raise by one semitone), +1 (raise by one whole tone), +3ce (raise by one major third), and +5te (raise by one major fifth. These can be combined to immediately raise the pitch by up to a minor ninth.

Martenot produced four speakers, called diffuseurs, for the instrument. The Métallique features a gong instead of a speaker cone, producing a metallic timbre. It was used by the first ondes Martenot quartets in 1932. Another, the Palme speaker, has a resonance chamber laced with strings tuned to all 12 semitones of an octave; when a note is played in tune, it resonates a particular string, producing chiming tones. It was first presented alongside the sixth version of the ondes Martenot in 1950.

According to the Guardian, the ondes Martenot "can be as soothing and moving as a string quartet, but nerve-jangling when gleefully abused". Greenwood described it as "a very accurate theremin that you have far more control of ... When it's played well, you can really emulate the voice." The New York Times described its sound as a "haunting wail".


Classical music

The ondes Martenot is used in more than 100 classical compositions, most notably by the French composer Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen first used it in Fête des Belles Eaux, for six ondes, and went on to use it in several more works, including Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine and Saint-François d'Assise. For his Turangalîla-Symphonie, Messiaen used to create "shimmering, swooping musical effects". Messiaen's widow, Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, arranged and edited four unpublished Feuillets inedits for ondes Martenot and piano which were published in 2001.

Other composers who used the instrument include Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Edgard Varèse, Charles Koechlin, Florent Schmitt and Jacques Ibert.

According to the New York Times, the ondes' most celebrated performer was the French musician Jeanne Loriod (1928–2001), who studied under Martenot at the Paris Conservatory. She performed internationally in more than 500 works, created 85 works for a sextet of ondes she formed in 1974, and wrote a three-volume book on the instrument, Technique de l'Onde Electronique Type Martenot.

The English composer Hugh Davies estimated that more than 1,000 works had been composed for the ondes. Jeanne Loriod estimated that there were 15 concertos and 300 pieces of chamber music.

Thomas Adès's opera The Exterminating Angel features an ondes Martenot, which Adès says "could be considered the voice of the exterminating angel".

Popular music

One of the first integrations of the ondes Martenot into popular music was done in French chanson during the fifties and sixties. For example in some of Baudelaire's poems set to music by French singer Léo Ferré in his albums Les Fleurs du mal (1957) and Léo Ferré chante Baudelaire (1967), or in popular dramatic lovesong Jacques Brel's "Ne me quitte pas" (1959). During the seventies Beau Dommage and Harmonium, the two most popular musical groups of the Quebec musical scene, made extensive use of this instrument (introduced there by Marie Bernard) in each of their 1975 albums, respectively Où est passée la noce? and Si on avait besoin d'une cinquième saison.

Jonny Greenwood of the English rock band Radiohead is credited with bringing the ondes to a larger audience. He first used it on Radiohead's 2000 album Kid A, and it has appeared in many of their songs, including "The National Anthem", "How to Disappear Completely", and "Where I End and You Begin". Radiohead have performed versions of their songs "How to Disappear Completely" and "Weird Fishes / Arpeggi" using several ondes Martenots. On their 2001 album Amnesiac, they used the ondes martenot palm speaker to add a "halo of hazy reverberance" to Thom Yorke's vocals on the song "You and Whose Army?". Greenwood also composed a piece for two ondes Martenots, Smear.

The ondes Martenot was used by Joe Jackson on his albums Tucker (1988), and Night Music (1994) and by Bryan Ferry on the 1999 album As Time Goes By. Ondist Thomas Bloch toured in Tom Waits and Robert Wilson's show The Black Rider (2004–06) and in Damon Albarn's opera "Monkey: Journey to the West" (2007–2013). Bloch performed ondes Martenot on the 2013 Daft Punk album Random Access Memories.

Film and television

The ondes Martenot has featured in many films, particularly science fiction and horror films. In 1936 Adolphe Borchard used it in Sacha Guitry's Le roman d'un tricheur, played by Martenot's sister, Ginette. It was used by composer Brian Easdale in the ballet music for The Red Shoes. French composer Maurice Jarre introduced the ondes Martenot to American cinema in his score for Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The English composer Richard Rodney Bennett used it for scores for films including Billion Dollar Brain (1967) and Secret Ceremony (1968). Elmer Bernstein learned about the ondes Martenot through Bennet, and used it in scores for films including Heavy Metal, Ghostbusters, The Black Cauldron, and My Left Foot.

Director Lucille Hadžihalilović decided to use the instrument in her film Evolution (2015) as it "brings a certain melancholy, almost a human voice, and it instantly creates a particular atmosphere". Other film scores that use the ondes Martenot include A Passage to India, Amelie, Bodysong, There Will Be Blood (2007) and Hugo (2011).

The ondes Martenot is the subject of the 2013 Quebec documentary Wavemakers. It is used in a performance of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time in an episode from the third season of the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle, where a musician plays the ondes Martenot to inmates on Rikers Island.

The British composer Barry Gray studied the instrument with Martenot in Paris, and used it in his soundtracks for 1960s films including Dr Who and the Daleks, and Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun. The ondes martenot is sometimes reported as having been used in the original Star Trek theme; in fact, the part was performed by a singer.


In 2001, the New York Times described the ondes, along with other early electronic instruments such as the theremin, teleharmonium, trautonium, and orgatron, as part of a "futuristic electric music movement that never went remotely as far as its pioneers dreamed ... proponents of the new wired music delighted in making previously unimaginable noises". The French classical musician Thomas Bloch said: "The ondes martenot is probably the most musical of all electric instruments ... Martenot was not only interested in sounds. He wanted to use electricity to increase and control the expression, the musicality. Everything is made by the musician in real time, including the control of the vibrato, the intensity, and the attack. It is an important step in our electronic instrument lineage." According to music journalist Alex Ross, fewer than 100 people have mastered the instrument. In 1997, Mark Singer wrote for The Wire that the ondes would likely remain obscure: The fact is that any instrument with no institutional grounding of second- and third-raters, no spectral army of amateurs, will wither and vanish: how can it not? Specialist virtuosos may arrive to tackle the one-off novelty ... but there's no meaningful level of entry at the ground floor, and, what's worse, no fallback possibility of rank careerism if things don't turn out.

In 2009, the Guardian reported that the last ondes Martenot was manufactured in 1988, but that a new model was being manufactured. In 2011, Sound on Sound wrote that original ondes Martenot models were "all but impossible to obtain or afford, and unless you can stump up 12,000 Euros for one of Jean‑Loup Dierstein's new reproduction instruments, the dream of owning a real Ondes is likely to remain such". In 2012, the Canadian company Therevox began selling a synthesizer with an interface based on the ondes Martenot pitch ring and intensity key. In 2017, the Japanese company Asaden manufactured 100 Ondomo instruments, a portable version of the ondes Martenot.

The ondes Martenot's electronics are fragile, and it includes a powder which transfers electric currents, which Martenot would mix in different quantities according to musicians' specifications; the precise proportions are unknown. Attempts to construct new ondes Martenot models using Martenot's original specifications have been mixed.