The bizarre musical instruments behind classic scifi movie sounds

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Some of the strangest sounds in scifi movies and television come out of equally strange musical instruments. Here are three weird instruments you've probably never seen, but have almost definitely heard before.

The Waterphone
The video up top is of a waterphone. If you've seen a science fiction or horror movie in the last fifty years, then the dissonant sounds of the waterphone are almost guaranteed to have sent shivers down your spine at one point or another. Invented by Richard Waters in the late 1960s, the waterphone has been used in film scores and sound effects in movies as diverse as Poltergeist, The Matrix, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And it's easy to hear why; this thing could seriously score your nightmares. Johan Söderqvist, who scored the 2008 version of Let the Right One In, is just one of the countless composers who have found inspiration in the wibbly-wobbly warble of the waterphone:

One of the things I try to do with every new picture is to find a unique sound, a new universe, which will suit the story and give it a musical personality. For Let the Right One In, I discovered an instrument called the bass waterphone, which I recorded endless samples of and then tweaked and worked into the fabric of the score. It defined the musical voice of this particular film.


You can find DIY instructions for building your own waterphone online, but don't be disappointed if you don't get the sounds you're hoping for; the waterphone is more complicated than it looks. Just ask Richard Waters himself, who to this day personally makes, tunes, signs, and dates every waterphone he sells, a production process he claims took him 20 years to master.

The Theremin
As recognizable as the waterphone is, if you really want to talk about an instrument's ubiquity in science fiction cinema and televison, look no further than the theremin. The theremin's invention predates the waterphone's by about 40 years, which means it came into being just in time for some of the earliest scifi flicks. One of the wildest things about the theremin is that it is played without any form of physical contact; rather, the musician controls the pitch and volume of the theremin by moving his or her hands closer or further away from the instrument's two metal antennae, as demonstrated in the video above.

We waxed nostalgic about the iconic sound of the theremin a few years ago:

In the heady days of early science fiction movies, the Theremin (probably one of the coolest instruments ever invented) would provide the "Ooooh-EEEEE-oooooh" sounds of spaceships flitting about in the sky and other spooky paranormal sounds. It tended to be overused, and instantly became identifiable with cheesy scifi. If we ever get our own office Theremin, this is the first sound we'd ever make on it.

The Blaster Beam
The blaster beam is something of an instrumental version of Frankenstein's monster. The thing is absolutely enormous — measuring up to 18 feet in length — and is made of aluminum, bronze strings, and moveable electric guitar pickups. It can be played with a bow, a mallet, or — as the video on the left demonstrates — old artillery shells. Its inventor calls the blaster beam's sound "rich," which I imagine is an adjective only the blaster beam's creator would think of to describe this behemoth. Then again, at a concert in New York City's Central Park back in the 90's, the beam's jarring twang was reported to have brought several audience members to the point of sexual climax. How very rich, indeed?

But the history of the blaster beam isn't all artillery shells and orgasms. The beam's origins are actually heavily steeped in Star Trek lore. It was invented by child-star-turned-musician Craig Huxley, who played Kirk's nephew in the Original Series, and was first used to score the V'Ger's theme in 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which you can hear throughout the beginning of the video on the left. It would later be used to score the nebula battle in The Wrath of Khan, and again in the theme for the Borg in First Contact.


Bonus: The sound-source of Jango Fett's Seismic Charge?

If there's one thing the internet excels at, it's speculation. There is widespread speculation online that the sound of the seismic charges deployed by Jango Fett against Obi-Wan Kenobi in Attack of the Clones was produced with a blaster beam. Ben Burtt, the legendary sound designer and creator of many of the iconic sounds from the Star Wars franchise, used a similar sound for the film, and while he is usually quick to divulge the techniques used to create his sound effects, he has remained uncharacteristically tight-lipped about this particular sound's origins. The video above compares the twang of the blaster beam as featured in Star Trek: TMP with that of Jango Fett's seismic charges in AOTC. Sounds a bit like a higher-pitched blaster beam, wouldn't you say?