From Academic Kids

Missing image
Lon Theremin playing an early theremin

The theremin or thereminvox (originally pronounced /tay-ray-meen/ but often anglicized as /there-uh-min/ [1] ( is one of the earliest fully electronic musical instruments. Invented in 1919 by Russian Lev Sergeivitch Termen (also Termin, later gallicized to Lon Theremin, /l-on tay-ray-meen/), the theremin is unique in that it requires no physical contact in order to produce music and was, in fact, the first musical instrument designed to be played without being touched. The instrument consists of a box with two projecting radio antennas around which the user moves his or her hands to play.



To control the theremin, the musician stands in front of the instrument and moves his or her hands in the proximity of two metal antennae, the distance from the antennae determining frequency (pitch) and amplitude (volume). Small movements of the hands can create a tremolo or vibrato effect. Typically the right hand controls the pitch and the left hand is used for the volume although some left-handed thereminists exist.

Based on the principle of heterodyning oscillators, the theremin generates an audio signal by combining two different but very high frequency radio signals. The capacitance of the human body close to the antennas causes pitch changes in the audio signal, in much the same way that a person moving about a room can affect television or radio reception. By changing the position of the hands relative the vertical antenna, a performer can control the frequency of the output signal. Similarly, the amplitude of the signal can be affected by altering the hand's proximity to the looped antenna.

A careful combination of movements can lead to surprisingly complex and expressive performances. Typically, theremin sounds mostly consist of glissandi, however it is possible for a skilled performer to produce staccato notes. Although theremin players do not need to have perfect pitch, the thereminist must rely on memory and careful listening to accurately play the instrument, which is considered difficult to master.


See also: the life of Lon Theremin

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 Sergeivich Termen (most commonly known in the West as Leon Theremin) in 1919, followed closely by the outbreak of the Russian civil war. After rave reviews at Moscow electronics conferences, Theremin demonstrated the device to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin personally. Lenin was so impressed with the device that he began taking lessons in playing it, commissioned 600 of the instruments for distribution throughout the Soviet Union, and sent Theremin on a trip around the world to demonstrate the latest Soviet technology and the invention of electronic music. After a lengthy tour of Europe, during which time he demonstrated his invention to packed houses, Theremin found his way to America, where he patented his invention in 1928 (US1661058 [2] ( 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, widely considered the greatest thereminist ever, toured to wide acclaim, performing a classical repertoire in concert halls around the United States, often sharing the bill with Paul Robeson. In 1938, Theremin was kidnapped from his New York apartment by Soviet agents, and forced to return to the USSR and made to work in a sharashka. Theremin would not return to the United States until 1991. [3] (

After a flurry of interest in America following the end of the Second World War, the theremin soon fell into disuse with serious musicians mainly because newer electronic instruments that were easier to play became available. Still, among a small group of enthusiasts, interest in the theremin remained high.

As a high-school student, future synthesizer guru Robert Moog began his career building theremins in the 1950's. Moog published a number of articles about building theremins and also sold theremin kits that were intended to be assembled by the customer. Moog credits what he learned from the experience as leading directly to his groundbreaking Moog synthesizer. Today Moog Music is the leading manufacturer of performance-quality theremins.

The theremin in use

In movie soundtracks

Although it has never been a widely-played instrument, the theremin was the basis from which all twentieth-century electronic musical instruments were later developed. While not enjoying the wide use in classical music performance for which it was originally designed, the instrument found great success as the 'eerie' background sound in countless motion pictures, notably Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, and The Day The Earth Stood Still. Despite such efforts of serious virtuoso performers as Clara Rockmore, the instrument fell into novelty status, largely because of the extreme difficulty in playing it, as well as a lack of instruments and instructors.

In popular music

Theremin sounds have been incorporated into many popular music songs from the 1960s through the present.

When Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys requested a theremin be included in the studio orchestra for the recording of "Good Vibrations", none were available, nor a musician to play one. Paul Tanner was brought in with his homemade device called an Electro-Theremin (also referred to as a Tannerin) that featured mechanical controls which could mimic the theremin sound. For concert appearances, a slide-controlled oscillator was designed and built for Wilson by Robert Moog. The Tannerin was later used to test hearing.

The theremin has also been used by other modern groups such as in One Ring Zero, a modern genre defying group. With its unique sound it facinates any who watch play, even more so than the groups' other interesting intrument choices. The theremin provides a interesting background to the groups' sound and is actually not used to provide an eerie or strange feel.

The Western-influenced punk band Murder By Death (band) uses a theremin in their live show, along with their usually array of instruments, which include an electric cello, custom-made guitars, and a startling variety of bass guitar pedals.

Along with a recording of Dvorak's New World Symphony, Neil Armstrong took a recording of the theremin album Music Out Of The Moon by Dr Samuel Hoffman on Apollo XI.

Russian musician Lydia Kavina (a distant relative of Theremin) is today regarded as the greatest living theremin virtuoso, having been a protg of Lon. Pamelia Kurstin is a present-day New York-based thereminist whose eclectic style and innovations continue to define the unique nature of the instrument.

After the release of the film, Theremin—An Electronic Odyssey in 1994 (one year after the death of Lon Theremin), the instrument has enjoyed a resurgence in interest and became more widely used by contemporary musicians. Even though theremin sounds can be reproduced easily on modern-day synthesizers, many musicians continue to appreciate the novelty and uniqueness of using an actual theremin.

Some musicians who have used the theremin

(There is also a complete list of bands/tracks [4] ( using a theremin)


  • Glinsky, Albert. Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. ISBN 0252025822.
  • Mastering the Theremin. Big Briar Inc., 1995
  • Martin, Steven M. Theremin- An Electronic Odyssey, Orion/MGM, 1994

External links

es:Theremin fa:ترمین fr:Thrmine it:Theremin ja:テルミン no:Theremin pl:Theremin


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