Culture & Art

Apr 1, 2015

The Forgotten Instrument

Russian physicist and inventor Lev Termen created the Theremin, the first electronic musical instrument in history. Unknown to many people, its unique sound is embedded in the world's pop-culture.

The theremin was invented in 1919 by a Russian physicist named Lev Termen (in the United States his name was Leon Theremin). Today, this marvelous instrument is once again in the musical spotlight. Besides looking like no other instrument, the theremin is unique in that it is played without being touched. 

The theremin works on the principles of heterodyning and capacitance. When you wave your hands near the antenna, you form a capacitor between your hand and the antenna.  A capacitor's properties vary by distance between its two "plates" and by the material between them (in this case, air).  The hand/antenna capacitor is part of a circuit known as an oscillator.  The output from this oscillator is mixed with the output from a fixed oscillator (one that does not vary), and the difference between the two is extracted.  For the volume circuit, this signal is converted to control the loudness of the instrument, and for the pitch circuit, the signal is amplified into the tone you hear.

Two antennas protrude from the theremin - one controlling pitch, and the other controlling volume. As a hand approaches the vertical antenna, the pitch gets higher. Approaching the horizontal antenna makes the volume softer. Because there is no physical contact with the instrument, playing the theremin in a precise melodic way requires practiced skill and keen attention to pitch.

In the early 1920's, Leon Theremin went to the United States to promote his invention. He was given a studio to work in, and he trained several musicians to help bring the theremin into the public eye. Then, in 1938, Leon Theremin returned to the Soviet Union where he worked for the government designing among other things, the "bug" and methods for cleaning up noisy audio recordings. Some of his methods and the technology he developed are still used today.

The Theremin in Music & Film

Originally, the theremin was intended to play classical music and even replace entire orchestras with its "music from the aether." While that never quite happened, it has been used in many recordings over the years. Several big band conductors featured the theremin in numerous specialty ablums. During the 60's and 70's, bands such as Lothar and the Hand People, the Bonzo Doo Dah Dog Band, and Led Zeppelin brought the theremin into the public eye for a short time. (However a theremin did not play in the song "Good Vibrations", but the instrument used was based on it.) Then, the theremin slipped back into obscurity until the instrument's revival of the 1990s. Since then, lots of bands use theremins, though many unfortunately limit themselves to using the theremin as a novelty.

The spooky sound of the theremin was used in several movie soundtracks during the 1950's and 1960's. It provided background mood music for such sci-fi classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, where it played a serious musical role, and It Came From Outer Space, as well in classic, well composed, thriller soundtracks such as Spellbound and The Lost Weekend.

In 1993, Steven M. Martin produced a documentary entitled Theremin - An Electronic Odyssey. This incredible film provides an in-depth look into the history of the instrument and its inventor. The film features rare footage and interviews with music industry legends such as Robert Moog, Todd Rundgren, and Brian Wilson as well as Prof. Leon Theremin himself!

The Theremin's first star

One of Prof. Theremin's original students was a Russian-born musical prodigy named Clara Rockmore. By age 5, Clara was already an accomplished violinist. But then a problem with her hands forced her to give up the violin in favor of the theremin. Clara went on to become the world's best thereminist, developing a unique method of "aerial fingering" to play the theremin with unparalleled precision. You can hear Clara perform on the album, The Art of the Theremin, accompanied on piano by her sister, Nadia Reisenberg.

A Family Tree of Theremins

In the late 1920's, american company RCA produced approximately 500 theremins, manufactured by General Electric and Westinghouse. Today, it is estimated that only half of these still exist. An effort is underway to track down the remaining models. You can read more about these theremins in our RCA Theremin Registry.

Electronic music pioneer Robert Moog built theremins long before he built synthesizers. In the 1960's, he produced such models as the wedge-shaped Vanguard theremin and the shoe box shaped Moog Melodia theremin. Today, Moog Music Inc. produces the popular Etherwave and Etherwave Plus theremins and kits as well as the new MIDI-enabled Theremini theremin. Other popular models today include PAiA's Theremax and Burns' line of B3 theremins.

More Articles

FeaturedArticles

  • Vector001

    Science & Nature

    Jul 1, 2017

    ARTIFICIAL (SHORTLY) INTELLIGENCE

    Officially launched on Toronto, Canada, on March 30, the Vector Institute already attracted an investment of over 150 million dollars from companies such as Facebook and Google, communications technology multinationals particularly...

  • #Formato_Certo_para_Site_YVP_Imagens

    Home & Design

    Oct 17, 2018

    LEGO PLANTS FROM PLANTS

    "Last March, Lego announced that it will produce the brand, using plant-based plastic in a movement to use sustainable materials in most products and packaging until 2030."

  • C86tlqkWAAEasub

    Science & Nature

    Jul 1, 2017

    AND MAN CREATED THE APP

    Who remembers the movie Minority Report, of 2002, in which Tom Cruise was passing the hand and the fingers in a screen with information to organize, to extend or to discard it, realizes that between that future and reality, it was...


  • 1

    Helthcare & Wellness

    Nov 5, 2018

    BIONIC PROSTHESES

    "Such as in Star Wars movies, the bionic prostheses have a robotic aspect and with silicone covers identical to reality, they seem to be real. Through the movement reading sensors, these prostheses allow various activities that's...

  • _MSS8814

    Business & Industry

    Jun 20, 2018

    NEW CYCLE OF INVESTMENT IN ANGOLA

    The economy of Angola is starting a new cycle of recovery, taking into account the steady increase of the price of crude oil and the technical assistance of the International Monetary Fund

  • 42-160319-AFRIC-ESIA-070-credit-Deakin-University

    Science & Nature

    Aug 1, 2017

    CLEARDRUM SILK IMPLANT LISTEN VERY CAREFULLY

    Revolutionary techniques are reshaping the world in every area and every subject. When we look around, we see all sorts of proposals and gadgets to fulfil the needs we didn't know were needed.


  • 01 cafe

    Food & Beverage

    Sep 1, 2016

    COFFEE OF PRIVILEDGED CRADDLE

    Very few people could imagine their lives without coffee. At breakfast, or after lunch, either an expresso, or a double – black, no sugar, coffee has won pride of place in the day-to-day life of great part of the World's population....

  • 01

    Luxury & Fashion

    Jan 1, 2017

    ACCESSIBLE LUXURY

    If you have the idea that a stupidly expensive watch is an exceptional, unique and exclusive watch, put it aside. The good watch is the one that makes you feel good in your own skin, keeps up with you at all times, more or less formal...

  • 1

    Science & Nature

    Jun 1, 2015

    Gardening exotic straight from Africa

    Exotic plants are sought by gardeners all over the planet, making them part of a global business where beauty is more important than cost. South African flora is very unique in the world. Many species of succulents only grow in South...