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 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.
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: