Ondes Martenot
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Ondes Martenot
Ondes Martenot
Ondes martenot.jpg
An ondes Martenot (seventh generation model, 1975)
Dates 1928-present
Technical specifications
Polyphony none[1]
Oscillator vacuum tube
Synthesis type heterodyne
Keyboard 1 or 2 x 35 note manuals (G2-F5)[]

The ondes martenot ( OHND mar-t?-NOH; French: [d ma?t?no], "Martenot waves") or ondes musicales ("musical waves") is an electronic musical instrument invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot. It is controlled by moving a ring along a wire, which creates wavering, theremin-like sounds; later models can also be played with a keyboard. 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 ondes martenot is used in more than 100 classical compositions, most notably by the French composer Olivier Messiaen, who used it in pieces such as his 1949 symphony Turangalîla-Symphonie. Messiaen's sister-in-law Jeanne Loriod was perhaps the most 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,[2][3][4] patented in the same year as another early electronic instrument, the theremin.[2] It was invented in 1928 by French cellist Maurice Martenot.[2] 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.[2] He hoped to bring musical expressivity associated with the cello to his new instrument.[5] He first demonstrated the ondes martenot on April 20, 1928,[6] performing Dimitrios Levidis's Poème symphonique at the Paris Opera.[7]

Units were manufactured individually to order.[6] Over the following years, Martenot produced several new models, introducing the ability produce vibrato by moving the keys from side to side, a feature adapted in the 1970s by some Yamaha GX-1 synthesisers.[3] He also created a smaller model, the Ondioline.[3] According to the Guardian, "the most familiar model resembles a cross between an organ and a theremin".[2]

In 1983, Martenot's son produced 50 new ondes martenot models; 44 went to a music school in Japan and rest to musicians, including Jonny Greenwood of the English rock band Radiohead.[2] In 2000, Greenwood commissioned the synthesiser company Analog Systems to develop a new version of the ondes martenot, the French Connection, as he was nervous about damaging his model on tour. The French Connection replicates the ondes martenot controller, but does not generate sound; instead, it may be used to control an external oscillator.[3]

Sounds and technique

Au ruban playing technique

The ondes martenot is unique among electronic musical instruments in its methods of control.[8] 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.[2]

Early versions of the instrument had a non-functioning simulacrum of a keyboard below the wire to indicate pitch.[9] Later versions added a real four-octave keyboard;[9] the keys produce vibrato when wiggled from side to side. Volume is controlled with a touch-sensitive glass "lozenge"; the harder the lozenge is pressed, the louder the volume.[2] The instrument can generate sine, triangle, square and pulse waves, or pink noise, controlled by switches in a drawer.[2]

Diffuseurs from left to right: Métallique, Palme, Principal and Résonance

Martenot produced three amplifiers for the instrument. One features a gong instead of a speaker cone, producing a metallic timbre. Another, the palm 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.[2][10]

According to the Guardian, the ondes martenot "can be as soothing and moving as a string quartet, but nerve-jangling when gleefully abused".[2] 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."[10] The New York Times described its sound as a "haunting wail".[6]


Classical music

Messiaen (pictured 1930), a notable composer of the ondes martenot

The ondes martenot is used in more than 100 classical compositions,[3] most notably by the French composer Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen first used it in Fête des Belles Eaux, for six ondes,[11] 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".[6] Messiaen's widow, Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, arranged and edited four unpublished Feuillets inedits for ondes martenot and piano which were published in 2001.[12]

Other composers who used the instrument include Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Edgard Varèse, Charles Koechlin, Florent Schmitt and Jacques Ibert.[6]

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.[6]

The English composer Hugh Davies estimated that more than 1,000 works had been composed for the ondes.[6]Jeanne Loriod estimated that there were 15 concertos and 300 pieces of chamber music.[6]

Popular music

Jonny Greenwood playing a 1980s student-model digital Ondes martenot [13][14] (Glastonbury Festival 2010)

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)[15] and Léo Ferré chante Baudelaire (1967), or in popular dramatic lovesong Jacques Brel's "Ne me quitte pas" (1959).[16] 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?[17] and Si on avait besoin d'une cinquième saison.[18]

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 on Radiohead songs including "The National Anthem", "How to Disappear Completely", and "Where I End and You Begin".[9] Greenwood also composed a piece for two ondes martenots, Smear.[19] Radiohead have performed versions of their songs "How to Disappear Completely" and "Weird Fishes / Arpeggi" using several ondes martenots.[2] On their fifth album, Amnesiac (2001), they used the ondes martenot's palm speaker to add a "halo of hazy reverberance" to Thom Yorke's vocals.[10]

The ondes martenot was used by Bryan Ferry in 1999 on the album As Time Goes By,[20] and by Joe Jackson on his 1988 soundtrack album for Tucker: The Man and His Dream[21] and his 1994 album Night Music.[22] Ondes player Thomas Bloch toured in Tom Waits and Robert Wilson's show The Black Rider (2004-06)[23] and in Damon Albarn's opera "Monkey: Journey to the West" (2007-2013).[24] Bloch performed ondes martenot on the track "Touch" from the 2013 Daft Punk album Random Access Memories.[9]

Film and television

The ondes martenot has featured in many films, particularly science fiction or horror films.[9] In 1936 Adolphe Borchard used it in Sacha Guitry's Le roman d'un tricheur, played by Martenot's sister, Ginette.[25] It was used by composer Brian Easdale in the ballet music for The Red Shoes.[26] French composer Maurice Jarre introduced the ondes martenot to American cinema in his score for Lawrence of Arabia (1962).[27] The English composer Richard Rodney Bennett used it for such scores as Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Secret Ceremony (1968),[28]Elmer Bernstein learned about the ondes martenot through Bennet, and used it in scores for films including Heavy Metal,[29]Ghostbusters,[30][31]The Black Cauldron,[31] and My Left Foot.[31]

Director Lucille Had?ihalilovi? 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".[32] Other film scores that use the ondes martenot include A Passage to India, Amelie, Bodysong,[2]There Will Be Blood (2007) and Hugo (2011).[33]

The ondes martenot is the subject of the 2013 Quebec documentary Wavemakers.[34] 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.[35][36]

The British composer Barry Gray studied the instrument with Martenot in Paris, and used it in his soundtracks for 1960s films including Fahrenheit 451, Dr Who and the Daleks, and Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun.[3] The ondes martenot is sometimes reported as having been used in the original Star Trek theme; in fact, the part was performed was a female vocalist.[2]


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".[6] 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."[9]

According to music journalist Alex Ross, fewer than 100 people have mastered the instrument.[37] 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.''[6]

In 2009, the Guardian reported that the last ondes martenot was manufactured in 1988, but that a new model was being manufactured.[2] 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".[3] In 2017, the Japanese company Asaden began manufacturing the Ondomo, an instrument based on the ondes martenot.[38]

Attempts to construct new ondes martenot models using Martenot's original specifications have been mixed. Its internal 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.[9]


  1. ^ Sibyl Marcuse, "Ondes Martenot", Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary, corrected edition (New York: W. W. Norton 7 Company, Inc., 1975): 377.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o McNamee, David (2009-10-12). "Hey, what's that sound: Ondes martenot". the Guardian. Retrieved . 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Analogue Systems French Connection". www.soundonsound.com. Retrieved . 
  4. ^ Ross, Alex (21 August 2001). "The Searchers: Radiohead's unquiet revolution". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on 25 May 2007. Retrieved 2007. 
  5. ^ Jean Laurendeau: Maurice Martenot: Luthier de l'Electronique (Dervy Livres, 1996)
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Martin, Douglas. "Jeanne Loriod, Who Transformed Electronic Wails Into Heartfelt Music, Dies at 73". Retrieved . 
  7. ^ "The Musical Times: Jeanne Loriod 1928-2001". 2009-12-26. Retrieved . 
  8. ^ Loriod, 1987
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Battaglia, Andy (6 March 2014). "Ondes Martenot: An Introduction". Red Bull Music Academy. Retrieved 2018. 
  10. ^ a b c Reynolds, Simon (July 2001). "Walking on Thin Ice". The Wire. Archived from the original on 4 February 2012. Retrieved 2007. 
  11. ^ Hill, Peter; Simeone, Nigel (2005). Messiaen. Yale. pp. 74-75. ISBN 978-0-300-10907-8. 
  12. ^ Bloch, p. 7.
  13. ^ ONDES MUSICALES BY DIERSTEIN, Thomas Bloch, 2018 
  14. ^ Ondes Martenot, The King of Gear, 2013 
  15. ^ Léo Ferré (10 Apr 2008) [reissue from 1957 album], Les Fleurs Du Mal (CD, Album, Remastered), La Mémoire Et La Mer, 19 956, Track 3. Les Hiboux, 10. La Vie Antérieure, 11. La Pipe' 
  16. ^ Jacques Brel (Nov 1959), N° 4 (Vinyl, Album), Philips, B 76.483 R, Track A5. Ne Me Quitte Pas - Music By [Uncredited] - Gérard Jouannest, Ondes Martenot [Uncredited] - Sylvette Allart 
  17. ^ Beau Dommage (1975), Où Est Passée La Noce? (Vinyl, Album), Capitol Records / EMI, SKAO 70.037, Track B1. En Pleine Face - ... Ondes Martenot - Marie Bernard ... 
  18. ^ Harmonium (1975), Les Cinq Saisons (Vinyl, Album), Celebration, CEL-1900, Track B: Un Incident À Bois-Des-Filions - ... Ondes Martenot - Marie Bertrand, ..." 
  19. ^ Jonny Greenwood's "smear" to Receive US Premiere at New York's SONiC Festival, Nonesuch Records, October 17, 2011, Greenwood's smear is scored for large ensemble and two ondes martenots, early electronic instruments that Greenwood often uses with Radiohead. ... 
  20. ^ Bryan Ferry (1999), As Time Goes By (CD, Album), Virgin, DGVIR89, Credits: Ondes Martenot - Cynthia Millar 
  21. ^ Joe Jackson (1988), Tucker: The Man And His Dream (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (Vinyl, LP, Album), A&M Records, SP-3917, Credits: Ondes Martenot - Arlette Fibon 
  22. ^ Joe Jackson (1988), Night Music (CD, Album), Virgin Records America, 7243 8 39880 2 0, Credits: Ondes Martenot - Jean Laurendeau (tracks: 1,10) 
  23. ^ Robert Simonson (2004-09-09), Tom Waits' Black Rider Extends Again at ACT, Playbill.com, The score of The Black Rider calls for an eclectic pit of such instruments as the toy piano, the pocket trumpet, the Stroh violin, the Ondes Martenot, the glass harmonica, the Cristal Baschet, the drunk piano and the musical saw. 
  24. ^ Ivan Hewett (23 Jun 2007), "A whole new aria for Damon", The Daily Telegraph, He shows me some of the instruments in the ensemble: there's a glass harmonica, which looks like a giant ribbed glass vase tipped on one side, and an ondes Martenot, the tremulous 1920s electronic instrument. ... 
  25. ^ entry at imdb.com
  26. ^ Brian Easdale at the Proms
  27. ^ Mervyn Cooke (2008). A History of Film Music. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 333. 
  28. ^ Ross Care and Lukas Kendall, "FSM Online Liner Notes" Film Score Monthly (n.d.).
  29. ^ Interview with Dan Goldwasser, originally published on SoundtrackNet, July 2000 Archived 2012-02-29 at the Wayback Machine.
  30. ^ Interview with Randall D. Larson, originally published in CinemaScore #13/14, 1985
  31. ^ a b c Bernstein biography from official site
  32. ^ "Evolution: Interview with Lucile Hadzihalilovicz". Electric Sheep. 2016-05-06. Retrieved . 
  33. ^ Howard Shore, Hugo - Original Score, CD booklet, published by Paramount Pictures in the year 2011
  34. ^ Dunlevy, T'cha (13 March 2013). "Review: Le chant des Ondes". Montreal Gazette. Retrieved 2014. 
  35. ^ "New Season of 'Mozart in the Jungle' Features a Unique Performance". WQXR. Retrieved . 
  36. ^ "How 'Mozart in the Jungle' Brought an Obscure, Avant-Garde Piece of Classical Music to Rikers Island". Flavorwire. 2016-12-13. Retrieved . 
  37. ^ Ross, Alex (21 August 2001). "The Searchers: Radiohead's unquiet revolution". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on 25 May 2007. Retrieved 2007. 
  38. ^ "Ondomo is revitalising a 90-year-old electronic instrument". www.soundonsound.com. Retrieved . 

Further reading

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