What is a Theremin?

S. Mithra

As an unusual musical instrument, the theremin has many claims to fame. It is both the first electronic instrument and the only instrument that is played without the musician touching the device. Leon Theremin, with a background in electronics, invented this strange sound generator in 1918. Famous to popular listeners through spooky science fiction film soundtracks and Beach Boys pop ditties, it remains active in symphonies and rock 'n' roll alike.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

Leon Theremin is honored as the father of electronic music, since he invented many instruments. Originally, he patented his theremin as the "Etherphone" in Russia in 1921. He felt that the musical sounds appeared as if by magic out of the air. He wanted musicians to integrate its otherworldly music into traditional orchestras, but encountered some discrimination from "classical" composers.

The theremin works by using the body's capacitance, through hands and arms, to disturb electromagnetic fields. A theremin looks like a medium-sized box with two extending radio antennas, one looped and one straight. The box, usually wood, encloses the electrical components that generate the proper electromagnetic fields and the amplifier that makes the signal audible. One antenna controls the volume, or intensity, and the other controls the pitch, or tone. Oscillators create waves with a certain frequency surrounding the instrument. When hands are introduced to the field, they change the capacitance and thus affect the frequency.

The theremin is played by careful control of hands and fingers while keeping your body and head perfectly still. The right hand controls the tone with the straight antenna and the left hand varies the volume with the closed antenna. When your left hand is close, the pitch is higher, and as it moves away, the pitch lowers to deep octaves. Moving your right hand closer softens the volume to mute and moving it farther away increases the output. The variation can be somewhat controlled in certain theremin models.

Clara Rockmore, a classically trained violinist, devoted her life to composing and playing serious compositions using the theremin. She toured the world as an internationally renowned performer, winning audiences to the strange box during the mid-20th century. After electronics companies ceased production of theremins, Bob Moog entertained himself by making his own theremins as a teenager. Later, his famous music company invented the seminal synthesizer, and took up the cause of reintroducing production of the inspirational theremin for a new generation.

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