The Ondes Martenot was invented by Maurice Martenot (1898-1980), professor at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris and later director of the Ecole d'Art Martenot. Martenot, a cellist, manned a wireless station during WWII and became interested in the sounds made by radio tubes. He met Leon Termen, the inventor of the theremin, in 1923, and several years later produced the Ondes. It was the first keyboard-based electronic instrument, and rapidly became popular amongst experimental composers of the time, including Milhaud and Honegger. One of the early virtuosi of the Ondes was Martenot's sister, Ginette Martenot.

The Ondes combined great responsiveness to touch with distinctively eerie and ethereal electronic tones and worked well as a solo instrument, for example, in Marcel Landowski's chilling Jean de la peur. It was also used as part of an orchestra, as in Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie. Messiaen also composed an ensemble for eight Ondes featuring his wife Yvonne Loriod, another virtuoso Ondes player. There are still a few surviving instruments and a few modern players, Tristan Murail (who studied composition with Messiaen) being the most notable.