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.

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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.

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