Go to a concert or symphony or opera and your auditory system will be overflooded with the strains of musical instruments whose creation may date back several centuries or even millennia. Most of the instruments available for making music have a long, rich history that date back to when the Catholic Church insisted that the sun revolved around the earth. No, wait, that only takes us back to the 20th century. Well, what the heck, the 20th Century is not without its contribution to the world of musical instruments, too. Aside from making the guitar an electrical force, the 20th Century saw the invention of a number of instruments that have been utilized at the forefront of compositions as well as being used as a creative background sound.
The theremin is surely one of the oddest musical instruments invented in any century. This strange creation was the work of Lev Termin or, as he is better known in the United States, Leon Theremin, and it came into the world in 1924. You use your hand to create musical signals via the magic of oscillation. The volume of a theremin is controlled by the positioning of one hand relative to a metal loop and the pitch is controlled by the other hand via a vertical antenna. The most notable use of the theremin n exists in a series of monster and UFO movies because the sound of this 20th century musical instrument has a definite otherworldy sensation. The theremin came into its own in the world of rock and roll in one of the all-time classic songs ever composed: the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” The facts are these : that theremin sound you hear on “Good Vibrations” is not the product of a theremin, but was rather created by a theremin-type instrument known as a Tannerin. Nevertheless, conventional wisdom has accepted the view that it was a theremin and in the world of rock and roll, it’s less about what is than what seems to be. Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page would often bring out a theremin for use in concert performances of “Whole Lotta Love.”
I wrote an entire article that asked the question whatever happened to rock songs that utilize the farfisa and vox organs. The Hammond organ is another great contribution to some rock songs and it, too, is a 20th century invention. Laurens Hammond created the organ named for himself in 1935 in an attempt to replace the pipe organ. The difference between the Hammond organ and those organs you hear in church is that the Hammond produces its sound electronically. The Hammond organ reached its peak of popularity in the 1960s when rock bands turned to it to create such legendary songs as Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale,” Stevie Winwood’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” and Billy Preston’s “Outa-Space.”
The most revolutionary music instrument of the 20th Century and possibly the last 500 years was the synthesizer. This musical instrument was the result of research conducted at Sarnoff Research Center. The first synthesizer, created in the 1950s, was the Mark I and was so big that it very nearly took an entire room to house it. Like computers, the synthesizer evolved from massive to something you could hold in your hand to a sound replicated easily enough by an app for your smartphone. The leading producers of synthesizers was Moog. The style of the synthesizer includes a keyboard as a means of making it more accessible, but the facts are these: the keyboard controls the pitch as well as the length of the note and the pressure placed upon a key allows the synthesizer to perform a variety of functions. Some modern synthesizers actually feature a completely useless keyboard to give the musician the simulated experience of playing an authentic piano. The Monkees were actually one of the first rock bands to utilize a synthesizer in their music as a Moog was used on one their albums. The Doors followed and then the synthesizer really hit the big time when the Beatles used a synth on the song “Because” on the Abbey Road album. New Age musicians made significant use of the synthesizer, but it was really the New Wave movement of the early 80s that brought this 20th Century instrument to the forefront of modern music.