Andrej Smirnov
Rhythm ’n’ Light

The rhythmicon (also known as the polyrhythmophone) was the world’s first “rhythm machine.” Developed by Lew Termen1 by the end of 1931, it was first presented at the New School for Social Research on January 19, 1932, where the American avant-garde composer and music theorist Henry Cowell was in charge of musical activities. Three years before, Henry Cowell had been introduced to Lew Termen by the conductor Nicolas Slonimsky. It was a good point in time to develop new approaches to sound and rhythm: Cowell had included in the third movement of his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1929) a passage which combined the rhythms of three, four, six, eight, twelve, and sixteen. It was almost impossible for one person alone to perform this movement entitled “Counter Rhythm” by traditional acoustic means. In 1930 Henry Cowell thus commissioned Lew Termen to create the remarkably innovative rhythmicon. Cowell wanted an instrument on which one could play compositions involving multiple rhythmic patterns. In 1932 Henry Cowell wrote a letter to his stepmother, describing his contribution to the design of the rhythmicon:

“My part in the invention was to invent the idea that such a rhythmic instrument was a necessity to further rhythmic development, which had more or less reached the limit of performance by hand, and needed the application of mechanical aid. […] the relation between the pitch and rhythm is my idea. I also conceived that the principle of broken-up light, playing on a photoelectric cell, would be the best means of making it practical. With this idea I went to Theremin, who did the rest. He invented the method by which the light could be cut, did the electrical calculations, and built the instrument. The purpose of the instrument is twofold: to make possible the production of rhythm and related tone beyond the point where they could be produced before now by any known means; and to be used, first, for making rhythmical melody and harmony for use in musical composition, and second, for the carrying on of numerous scientific physical and psychological experiments with rhythm.”2

The rhythmicon could produce up to sixteen different rhythms – a periodic base rhythm on a selected fundamental pitch and fifteen progressively more rapid rhythms, each associated with one of the ascending notes of the fundamental pitch’s harmonic series. Like the harmonic series itself, the rhythms follow an arithmetic progression, so that for every single beat of the fundamental, the second harmonic (if played) beats twice, the third harmonic beats three times, and so forth. Using the device’s keyboard, each of the sixteen rhythms can be produced individually or in any combination.

Cowell wrote a number of compositions for it, including Rhythmicana (for rhythmicon and orchestra; 1931) and Music for Violin and Rhythmicon (1932). Joseph Schillinger calculated that it would take 455 days, 2 hours, and 30 minutes to play all the combinations available on the rhythmicon, assuming an average duration of 10 seconds for each combination. Nevertheless, the instrument was not really used in musical performance, since it had several serious drawbacks which probably were consequences of a contradiction between a beautiful technical concept and real musical necessity. The rhythmicon could only produce very short sounds, which were almost not audible on low pitches. But the main problem lay in the absolute impossibility to start the rhythm from the first measure, since each time the player pressed a key, he or she only controlled the volume of continuously circulating rhythm patterns.

In the early 1960s Termen built a third, more compact model of the rhythmicon at the Moscow State Conservatory. Built almost entirely out of junk Termen could find at industrial dumps, it now resides in the Theremin Center in Moscow and is still operational.


1 See Albert Glinsky, Theremin – Ether Music and Espionage, Urbana 2000.

2 Leland Smith, Henry Cowell’s Rhythmicana, in: Yearbook for Inter-American Musical Research Vol. 9, 1973, pp. 134–147.