The Theremin, the very first electronic instrument
The theremin, originally known as the ætherphone/etherphone, thereminophone or termenvox/thereminvox, is an early electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the thereminist (performer). It is named after the westernized name of its Russian inventor, Léon Theremin, who patented the device in 1928.
The instrument’s controlling section usually consists of two metal antennas which sense the relative position of the thereminist’s hands and control oscillators for frequency with one hand, and amplitude (volume) with the other. The electric signals from the instrument are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker.
The theremin was used in movie soundtracks such as Miklós Rózsa’s for Spellbound and The Lost Weekend and Bernard Herrmann’s for The Day the Earth Stood Still and as the theme tune for the ITV drama Midsomer Murders. This has led to its association with a very eerie sound. Theremins are also used in concert music (especially avant-garde and 20th- and 21st-century new music) and in popular music genres such as rock. Psychedelic rock bands in particular, such as Hawkwind, have often used this instrument in their work.
The theremin was originally the product of Russian government-sponsored research into proximity sensors. The instrument was invented by a young Russian physicist named Lev Sergeevich Termen (known in the West as Léon Theremin) in October 1920 after the outbreak of the Russian civil war. After a lengthy tour of Europe, during which time he demonstrated his invention to packed houses, Theremin found his way to the United States, where he patented his invention in 1928 (US1661058). Subsequently, Theremin granted commercial production rights to RCA.
Although the RCA Thereminvox (released immediately following the Stock Market Crash of 1929), was not a commercial success, it fascinated audiences in America and abroad. Clara Rockmore, a well-known thereminist, toured to wide acclaim, performing a classical repertoire in concert halls around the United States, often sharing the bill with Paul Robeson.
During the 1930s Lucie Bigelow Rosen was also taken with the instrument and together with her husband Walter Bigelow Rosen provided both financial and artistic support to the development and popularization of the instrument.
In 1938, Theremin left the United States, though the circumstances related to his departure are in dispute. Many accounts claim he was taken from his New York City apartment by KGB agents, taken back to the Soviet Union and made to work in a sharashka laboratory prison camp at Magadan, Siberia. He reappeared 30 years later. In his 2000 biography of the inventor, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, Albert Glinsky suggested the Russian had fled to escape crushing personal debts, and was then caught up in Stalin’s political purges. In any case, Theremin did not return to the United States until 1991.
After a flurry of interest in America following the end of the Second World War, the instrument soon fell into disuse with serious musicians, mainly because newer electronic instruments were introduced that were easier to play. However, a niche interest in the instrument persisted, mostly among electronics enthusiasts and kit-building hobbyists. One of these electronics enthusiasts, Robert Moog, began building theremins in the 1950s, while he was a high-school student. Moog subsequently published a number of articles about building theremins, and sold theremin kits which were intended to be assembled by the customer. Moog credited what he learned from the experience as leading directly to his groundbreaking synthesizer, the Moog.
Since the release of the film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey in 1994, the instrument has enjoyed a resurgence in interest and has become more widely used by contemporary musicians. Even though many theremin sounds can be approximated on many modern synthesizers, some musicians continue to appreciate the expressiveness, novelty and uniqueness of using an actual instrument. The film itself has garnered excellent reviews.
Today Moog Music, Dan Burns of soundslikeburns.com, Chuck Collins of theremaniacs.com, Wavefront Technologies, Kees Enkelaar and Harrison Instruments manufacture performance-quality theremins. Theremin kit building remains popular with electronics buffs; kits are available from Moog Music, Theremaniacs, Harrison Instruments, PAiA Electronics, and Jaycar. On the other end of the scale, many low-end Theremins, some of which have only pitch control, are offered online and offline, sometimes advertised as toys.
The instrument is distinguished among musical instruments in that it is played without physical contact. The musician stands in front of the instrument and moves his or her hands in the proximity of two metal antennas. The distance from one antenna determines frequency (pitch), and the distance from the other controls amplitude (volume). Most frequently, the right hand controls the pitch and the left controls the volume, although some performers reverse this arrangement. Some low-cost theremins use a conventional, knob operated volume control and have only the pitch antenna. While commonly called antennas, they are not used for receiving or broadcasting radio frequency, but act as plates in a capacitor.
The theremin uses the heterodyne principle to generate an audio signal. The instrument’s pitch circuitry includes two radio frequency oscillators. One oscillator operates at a fixed frequency. The frequency of the other oscillator is controlled by the performer’s distance from the pitch control antenna. The performer’s hand acts as the grounded plate (the performer’s body being the connection to ground) of a variable capacitor in an L-C (inductance-capacitance) circuit, which is part of the oscillator and determines its frequency. (Although the capacitance between the performer and the instrument is on the order of picofarads or even hundreds of femtofarads, the circuit design gives a useful frequency shift.) The difference between the frequencies of the two oscillators at each moment allows the creation of a difference tone in the audio frequency range, resulting in audio signals that are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker.
To control volume, the performer’s other hand acts as the grounded plate of another variable capacitor. In this case, the capacitor detunes another oscillator; that detuning is processed to change the attenuation in the amplifier circuit. The distance between the performer’s hand and the volume control antenna determines the capacitance, which regulates the instrument’s volume.
Modern circuit designs often simplify this circuit and avoid the complexity of two heterodyne oscillators by having a single pitch oscillator, akin to the original theremin’s volume circuit. This approach is usually less stable and cannot generate the low frequencies that a heterodyne oscillator can. Better designs (e.g. Moog, Theremax) may use two pairs of heterodyne oscillators, for both pitch and volume.
Important in theremin articulation is the use of the volume control antenna. Unlike touched instruments, where simply halting play or damping a resonator silences the instrument, the thereminist must “play the rests, as well as the notes”, as Clara Rockmore observed. Although volume technique is less developed than pitch technique, some thereminists have worked to extend it, especially Pamelia Kurstin with her “walking bass” technique and Rupert Chappelle.
Recent versions of the theremin have been functionally updated: the Moog Ethervox, while functionally still a theremin, can also be used as a MIDI controller, and as such allows the artist to control any MIDI-compatible synthesizer with it, using the instrument’s continuous pitch to drive modern synths. The Harrison Instruments Model 302 Theremin uses symmetrical horizontal plates instead of a vertical rod and horizontal loop to control pitch and volume, with the volume increasing as the hand approaches the plate.
Concert composers who have written for theremin include Bohuslav Martinů, Percy Grainger, Christian Wolff, Joseph Schillinger, Moritz Eggert, Iraida Yusupova, Jorge Antunes, Vladimir Komarov, Anis Fuleihan and Fazıl Say. Another large-scale theremin concerto is Kalevi Aho’s Concerto for Theremin and Chamber Orchestra “Eight Seasons” (2011), written for Carolina Eyck.
Maverick composer Percy Grainger chose to use ensembles of four or six theremins (in preference to a string quartet) for his two earliest experimental Free Music compositions (1935–37) because of the instrument’s complete ‘gliding’ freedom of pitch.
Musician Jean Michel Jarre used the instrument in his concerts Oxygen In Moscow and Space of Freedom in Gdańsk, providing also a short history of Léon Theremin’s life.
The five-piece Spaghetti Western Orchestra use a Theremin as a replacement for Edda Dell’Orso’s vocals in their interpretation of Ennio Morricone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West”.
Theremins and theremin-like sounds started to be incorporated into popular music from the end of the 1940s (with a series of Samuel Hoffman/Harry Revel collaborations) and this continued, with varying popularity, to the present.
While The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” features an instrument that sounds much like a Theremin, in fact the sound is made by an instrument called the Tannerin. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin used a variation of the instrument (minus the loop) during performances of “Whole Lotta Love” and “No Quarter” throughout the performance history of Led Zeppelin, an extended multi-instrumental solo featuring theremin and bowed guitar in 1977, as well as the soundtrack for Death Wish II released in 1982. Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones also used the instrument on the group’s 1967 albums “Between the Buttons” and “Their Satanic Majesties Request”.
Lothar and the Hand People, formed in Denver in 1965, used a Theremin (named “Lothar”) onstage and on their LP. The Lothars are a Boston-area band formed in early 1997 whose CDs have featured as many as four theremins played at once – a first for pop music. Although credited with a “Thereman” on the “Mysterons” track from the album Dummy, Portishead actually used a monophonic synthesizer to achieve theremin-like effects, as confirmed by Adrian Utley, who is credited as playing the instrument; he has also created similar sounds on the songs “Half Day Closing”, “Humming”, “The Rip” and “Machine Gun”.
Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the first to incorporate parts for the instrument in orchestral pieces, including a use in his score for the film Odna (Russian: Одна – 1931, Leonid Trauberg and Grigori Kozintsev). While the theremin was not widely used in classical music performances, the instrument found great success in many motion pictures, notably, Spellbound, The Red House, The Lost Weekend (all three of which were written by Miklós Rózsa, the composer who pioneered the use of the instrument in Hollywood scores), The Spiral Staircase, Rocketship X-M, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing (From Another World), and The Ten Commandments (the 1956 DeMille film). The theremin is played and identified as such in use in the Jerry Lewis movie The Delicate Delinquent. The instrument is prominent in the score for the 1956 short film “A Short Vision” which was aired on “The Ed Sullivan Show” the same year used by the Hungarian composer Matyas Seibel. More recent appearances in film scores include Monster House, Ed Wood and The Machinist (both featuring Lydia Kavina). The DVDs for Ed Wood, Bartleby and The Day the Earth Stood Still and Spellbound (Criterion Collection) include short features on the theremin. Robby Virus, the founder and theremin player of the band Project:Pimento, was featured on the soundtrack to the movie Hellboy (2004).
A theremin was not used for the soundtrack of Forbidden Planet, for which Louis and Bebe Barron built “disposable” oscillator circuits and a ring modulator to create the “electronic tonalities” for the film.
Los Angeles-based thereminist Charles Richard Lester is featured on the soundtrack of Monster House and has performed the US premiere of Gavriil Popov’s 1932 score for Komsomol – Patron of Electrification with the L. A. Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2007.
- Apart from a few episodes where an electronic organ or synthesizer was used, the theremin-like sound on the original Star Trek theme was actually provided by renowned studio soprano Loulie Jean Norman until her voice was removed in later seasons. Soprano Elin Carlson sang part of the theme when CBS-Paramount TV remastered the program’s title sequence in 2006. A similar misunderstanding involves the original theme music from the UK series Doctor Who; its Theremin-like sound was accomplished by Delia Derbyshire using electronic equipment.
- The British television series Midsomer Murders uses a theremin in its popular theme tune as well as frequently in underscore. The theremin part is played by Celia Sheen.
- In May 2007, the White Castle American hamburger restaurant chain introduced a television ad featuring a theremin performance by musician Jon Bernhardt of the band The Lothars.
- In October 2008, comedian, musician and theremin enthusiast Bill Bailey played a theremin during his performance of Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, which has subsequently been televised. He has previously also written an article, presented a radio show and incorporated the instrument in some of his televised comedy tours.
- In an episode of the CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory entitled “The Bus Pants Utilization,” the character Sheldon Cooper plays a theremin.
- In an episode of the FX drama American Horror Story: Coven entitled “The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks,” the character Myrtle Snow plays a theremin.
- The theremin is used as a literary device in “Constellations for Theremin” by Andrew Joron.
- Composer Garry Schyman used a Theremin for the musical score of the 2005 videogame Destroy All Humans!
- Lydia Kavina’s solo theremin is featured on the soundtrack for the 2006 MMORPG computer game Soul of the Ultimate Nation, composed by Howard Shore.
- The Ondes-Martenot 1928, also uses the principle of heterodyning oscillators, but has a keyboard as well as a slide controller and is touched while playing.
- The Electro-Theremin (or Tannerin after Paul Tanner who played it in several productions including three tracks for The Beach Boys), built by Bob Whitsell in the 1950s, does not use heterodyning oscillators and has to be touched while playing, but it allows continuous variation of the frequency range and sounds similar to the theremin.
- Trautonium, a monophonic electronic musical instrument by Friedrich Trautwein, invented in 1929.
- The Persephone, an analogue fingerboard synthesizer with CV and MIDI, inspired by the trautonium. The Persephone allows continuous variation of the frequency range from one to 10 octaves. The ribbon is pressure and position sensitive.
- The Electronde, invented in 1929 by Martin Taubman, has an antenna for pitch control, a handheld switch for articulation and a foot pedal for volume control.
- The Syntheremin is an extension of the theremin.
- The Croix Sonore (Sonorous Cross) is based on the theremin. It was developed by Russian composer Nicolas Obouchov in France, after he saw Lev Theremin demonstrate the theremin in 1924.
- The terpsitone, also invented by Theremin, consisted of a platform fitted with space-controlling antennae, through and around which a dancer would control the musical performance. By most accounts, the instrument was nearly impossible to control. Of the three instruments built, only the last one, made in 1978 for Lydia Kavina, survives today.
- The Z.Vex Effects Fuzz Probe, Wah Probe and Tremolo Probe, using a theremin to control said effects. The Fuzz Probe can be used as a theremin, as it can through feedback oscillation create tones of any pitch.
- The Haken Continuum Fingerboard uses a continuous, flat playing surface along which the player slides his fingers to create the desired pitch and timbre values. Describable as “a continuous pitch controller that resembles a keyboard, but has no keys.”
- The MC-505 by Roland being able using the integrated D-Beam-sensor like a Theremin.
- The Otamatone by the Cube Works company which is played by sliding the fingers up and down a stem to control a three-level pitch sound.
- The Audiocubes by Percussa are light emitting smart blocks which have four sensors on each side (optical theremin). The sensors measure the distance to your hands to control an effect or sound.
- A musical saw, also called a singing saw, is the application of a hand saw as a musical instrument. The sound creates an ethereal tone, very similar to the theremin. The musical saw is classified as a friction idiophone with direct friction (131.22) under the Hornbostel-Sachs system of musical instrument classification.
- A three radio theremin (Super Theremin, スーパーテレミン) invented by Tomoya Yamamoto (山本智), composed of three independent radio sets. Radio set #1 is to listen and to record the signal at around 1600 kHz. Radio set #2 is tuned at 1145 kHz so that its local oscillator of around 1600 kHz is to be received by radio set #1. Radio set #3 is also tuned at 1145 kHz so that its local oscillator may produce the beat with radio set #2. Operator’s hand movement around bar antena of radio set #3 may affect the local oscillator to produce tonal change.
- The Chimaera – poly-magneto-phonic theremin is a digital offspring of theremin and touchless ribbon controller and based on distance sensing of permanent magnets. An array of linear hall-effect sensors, each acting as an individual instrument in a changing magnetic field, responds to multiple moving Neodymium magnets worn on fingers and forms a continuous interaction space in two dimensions.