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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Léon Theremin playing an early theremin
Léon Theremin playing an early theremin

The theremin or thereminvox (originally pronounced [teremiːn] but often anglicized as [ˈθɛɹəmɪn] [1]) is one of the earliest fully electronic musical instruments. The instrument was invented by Russian Léon Theremin. The theremin is unusual 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 an array of circuitry including two antennas around which the user moves his or her hands to play.


See also Léon 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 Léon 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 left the United States, though the circumstances are in dispute. Many accounts claim he was taken from his New York City apartment by Soviet agents, returned to the USSR and made to work in a sharashka, although Albert Glinsky's 2000 biography Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage suggests he fled to escape crushing personal debts, and was subsequently caught up in Stalin's political purges. In either case, 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 were introduced that were easier to play. However, interest in the theremin persisted, mostly among electronics enthusiasts.

One such person was Robert Moog. As a high-school student, Moog began building theremins in the 1950s. He subsequently published a number of articles about building theremins, and he also 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 Minimoog.

Since the release of the film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey in 1994 (one year after the death of Léon Theremin), the instrument has enjoyed a resurgence in interest and has become more widely used by contemporary musicians. Even though theremin sounds can be approximated on many modern synthesizers, many musicians continue to appreciate the expressiveness, novelty and uniqueness of using an actual theremin.

Today Moog Music, Wavefront Technologies, and tVox manufacture performance-quality theremins. Theremin kit building remains popular with electronics buffs; kits are available from Moog Music and PAiA Electronics. Antique RCA theremins continue to be in demand, fetching tens of thousands of dollars at auction.

Operating principles

Unique among musical instruments, the theremin is performed without touching it. The musician stands in front of the instrument and moves his or her hands in the proximity of two metal antennae. The distance from one antenna determines frequency (pitch), and the distance from the other controls amplitude (volume). Typically the right hand controls the pitch and the left controls the volume, although some performers reverse this arrangement.

The theremin uses the heterodyne principle to generate an audio signal. The instrument's circuitry includes two radio frequency oscillators. One oscillator operates at a fixed frequency. The other is a variable frequency oscillator, the frequency of which is controlled by performer's movements near the frequency 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 a tuned circuit. The difference between the frequencies of the two oscillators at each moment generates a beat frequency in the audio frequency range, resulting in audio signals that are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker.

To control volume, the performer's hand acts as the grounded plate of another variable capacitor. In this case, though, the variable capacitor takes the place of the variable resistor that is usually used to control the volume of audio equipment. The distance between the performer's hand and the volume control antenna determines the capacitor's impedance, which regulates the theremin's volume.

Performance technique

Easy to learn but notoriously difficult to master, theremin performance presents two challenges: reliable control of the instrument's pitch with no physical guidance (no keys, valves, frets, or fingerboard positions), and minimizing undesired portamento that is inherent in the instrument's microtonal design.

Pitch control is challenging because, unlike most musical instruments, the theremin generates tones of any pitch throughout its entire range, including those that lie between the conventional notes. While some other instruments share this feature, particularly the stringed instruments, those instruments use several (typically four) separate strings to express the instrument's full range of pitches, and positions on the fingerboard corresponding to specific notes become familiar to performers. In the case of the theremin, the entire range of pitches is controlled by the distance of the performer's hand to the pitch antenna in mid-air, and over relatively short range of distances. Very precise control of hand position coupled with an excellent sense of pitch is required.

Also, the theremin's continuous range of pitches lends itself to glissando playing, which is often inappropriate to the piece being performed. Skilled performers, through rapid and exact hand movements, minimize undesired portamento and glissando to play individual notes and can even achieve staccato effects. Small and rapid movements of the hands can create tremolo or vibrato effects.

Although pitch is governed primarily by the distance of the performer's hand to the pitch antenna, most precision thereminists augment their playing techniques with a system called "aerial fingering", largely devised by Clara Rockmore and subsequently extended by Lydia Kavina. It employs specific hand and finger positions to alter slightly the amount of mass relative to the pitch antenna to produce small changes in tone quickly and in a manner that can be reliably recreated.

Equally 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 Ms. Rockmore observes. [citation needed] Although volume technique is less developed than pitch technique, some thereminists have worked to extend it, especially Pamelia Kurstin's "walking bass" technique.

Skilled players who overcome these challenges by a precisely controlled combination of movements can achieve complex and expressive performances, and thus realize the theremin's musical potential.

Some thereminists in the avant-garde openly rebel against developing any formalized technique, viewing it as imposing traditional limitations on an instrument that is inherently free form. These players choose to develop their own highly personalized techniques. The question of the relative value of formal technique versus free form performances is hotly debated among thereminists.

The theremin in use

In art music

The theremin is a popular instrument among avantgarde and new music artists because of its perceived freedom from traditional compositional strictures. It also persists as a classical instrument, and is occasionally used in jazz.

The most recent major classical composition utilizing the Theremin is Lera Auerbach's ballet The Little Mermaid, a 3 hour production featuring the theremin as the mermaid's voice throughout. The Royal Danish Ballet commissioned Russian American composer Lera Auerbach to create a modern rendition of this fairy tale. It was choreographed by John Neumeier and premiered on April 15, 2005 with Lydia Kavina as the theremin soloist.

Russian musician Lydia Kavina is widely regarded as the greatest living theremin virtuoso. She is a distant relative of Léon Theremin and was his protégé. Her repertoire consists primarily of classical and neo-classical compositions, many of which were written for the instrument. Many thereminists have studied under Ms. Kavina, including German thereminists Barbara Buchholz and Carolina Eyck, English thereminist Bruce Woolley, and Japanese thereminist Masami Takeuchi.

Pamelia Kurstin is a New York-based thereminist whose eclectic styles and innovations continue to expand the instrument's range. She performs solo in the classical and jazz idioms, as well as in ethnic and avant-rock music with the band Barbez.

American Armen Ra specializes in performing ethnic Armenian music. Other performers of note include American Eric Ross, Canadian Peter Pringle, and Eri Ii of Japan.

Within improvised music UK based Beatrix Ward-Fernandez is one of the more notable practitioners from the younger generation of experimentalists.

Project: Pimento, based in San Francisco, is a well-known theremin band on the west coast of the United States. The music ensemble consisting of theremin, vocals, guitar, bass, and drums is the world's only theremin-fronted lounge music band. Robby Virus, the band's founder and theremin player, was featured on the soundtrack to the movie Hellboy.

Throughout the theremin's use in film music from the 1940's to the 1960's, its sound was equated with the bizarre and alien. Because of Clara Rockmore's professed distaste for such projects, the thereminist most commonly enlisted to perform anything from haunting melodies to eerie sound effects was Dr. Samuel Hoffmann, whose performances can be heard most prominently in the soundtracks for Spellbound and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In popular music

Jimmy Page of English rock band Led Zeppelin playing a theremin at Kezar Stadium in 1973
Jimmy Page of English rock band Led Zeppelin playing a theremin at Kezar Stadium in 1973

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

One of the most persistent theremin myths is that The Beach Boys used one in the 1966 recording of "Good Vibrations". Brian Wilson did request that a theremin be included in the studio orchestra for this recording, but neither the instrument nor a musician to play it were available at the time. Instead, Paul Tanner was brought in with his homemade device called an Electro-Theremin, which featured mechanical controls that could mimic the theremin sound. For concert appearances, a slide-controlled oscillator was designed and built for Wilson by Robert Moog.

Another myth is that the theremin is featured on the album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. The instrument used is in fact the bowed or singing saw (played by Julian Koster) which has a sound similar to that of a theremin but which is in fact an idiophone and not electronic at all. It is featured most noticably in the background of the title song "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea".

A theremin solo was featured in live versions of the song "Whole Lotta Love", a hit for English rock band Led Zeppelin. The band's guitarist Jimmy Page also played the instrument during live performances of "No Quarter".

Simon and Garfunkel used the theremin on their 2003-2004 "Old Friends Tour" for the instrumental on the song "The Boxer." The instrument was played by keyboardist Rob Schwimmer.

Marilyn Manson uses a theramin, played by band member Madonna Wayne Gacy, in the song "Dope Hat." This can be seen in the video for the song.

Patrick Wolf is known for using a theremin prominently in his music, as is Ninki V, whose live performance techniques include playing with her hair or foot as well as precision playing. UK Band Pram also use the theremin exstensively in their work. Alison Goldfrapp uses theremins in many of her songs, and is famous for her unique, sexually provocative way of playing them during live performances. Theremins have also been used in live concerts and in the studio by artists such as Tripod, Incubus, An Albatross, Add N to (X), Mark Lanegan Band, Yvonne Lambert (The Octopus Project), Chris Funk (The Decemberists), The Polyphonic Spree, Rocket Science, DeVotchKa, Fishbone, Detroit's The Amino Acids, Jean-Michel Jarre, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Charlie Clouser (Nine Inch Nails), Natalie Naveira (Lendi Vexer), Bill Bailey, Pere Ubu, Gabby La La, Tyson Ritter of The All American Rejects, Keller Williams, Wolf Parade, Sleeo, Lacrimosa, Aerosmith, Mötley Crüe, Phish, John Otway, Portishead, La Oreja de Van Gogh, Brand New, One Ring Zero, Edan, Fifty Foot Combo, and Russian duo Messer Chups, Guillemots.

The theremin is part of the fictional mythology and live performances of sci-fi band The Phenomenauts. According to an early biography,[citation needed] when a ceiling fan accidentally chopped off the top of Corporal JoeBot's head, Professor Greg Arius saved JoeBot's life by building a Therematic Helmerator, essentially a skateboard helmet with a wireless theremin attached, to cover the opening. During live performances of the song "Robot Love," Professor Greg would extend the theremin on top of JoeBot's head and perform the solo. The version of "Robot Love" on the Rockets and Robots album included a theremin solo. Updated versions of JoeBot's Helmerator resemble the Therematic Helmerator, but it is unclear if they include an actual theremin.

It is also included in Brand New's song "Luca" on their new album The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me.

In movies and movie soundtracks

The Russian Dmitri Shostakovich was the first composer to include parts for the theremin in orchestral pieces, including a use in his score for the 1931 film Odna.

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 Red House, The Lost Weekend, The Spiral Staircase, The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Thing (From Another World), The Ten Commandments (the 1956 DeMille film), Ed Wood and Mars Attacks!. The theremin is used as a melodic solo instrument, rather than as a sound effect, in the soundtracks of Hellboy, Bartleby and Monster House. The DVDs for Ed Wood and Bartleby both contain short features on the theremin.

A theremin appears and is played in the Argentine movie La Niña Santa. A theremin is heard when the sword sings in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Knighty Knight Bugs.

The theremin is sometimes employed by comedian Bill Bailey in his music themed comedy shows, usually in reference to the theremins association with science fiction and horror film music from the 1950s and 1960s.

It is often believed that the theremin was used for the soundtrack of Forbidden Planet. In fact, a ring modulator was used to create the 'electric tonalities'.

A beautifully designed version of the theremin was seen and heard in the movie Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1970 Great Britain)

In television shows

  • Star Trek: The Original Series (1966–1969) used the theremin in some versions of its theme music by Alexander Courage.[citation needed]
  • Futurama uses a theremin synthesizer in some of its score, composed by Christopher Tyng. Both Tyng and the shows's creator Matt Groening have expressed a deep fascination with and desire to learn the instrument.
  • For the opening sequence and levitation scenes, the theremin was an important instrument in the TV show My Favorite Martian
  • The theme song for Midsomer Murders, a popular British TV show, features a theremin[4]
  • The Theremin plays a major role in the I am Weasel cartoon I are Music Man, in which the character I.R. Baboon is given this instrument and turns out to be a virtuoso in its usage.

Similar instruments

  • The Ondes-Martenot uses also the principle of heterodyning oscillators, but it is touched while playing.
  • The Electro-Theremin (or Tannerin) 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.
  • The Persephone, an analogue fingerboard syntheziser with CV and MIDI, inspired from Les Ondes Martenots or the Trautonium. The Persephone allows continuous variation of the frequency range from 1 to 10 octaves. The ribbon is pressure and position sensitive.
  • 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 Theremen 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.



  • Eyck, Carolina (2006). The Art of Playing the Theremin. Berlin: SERVI Verlag. ISBN 3-933757-08-8.
  • Glinsky, Albert (2000). Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-02582-2.

Film and video

  • Martin, Steven M. (Director). (1995). Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey [Film and DVD]. Orion/MGM.
  • Olsen, William (Director). (1995). Mastering the Theremin [Videotape (VHS)]. Moog Music and Little Big Films.

External links

  • theremin page
  • Armen Ra - contemporary theremin player Armen Ra
  • Eri, Theremist
  • Art's Theremin Page - complete construction plans for solid state and vacuum tube theremins
  • TECI - Theremin Enthusiasts Club International
  • Charles Richard Lester, thereminist
  • Spellbound, a brief program of music for theremin - weekly webcast and podcast featuring theremin performances
  • Kevin Kissinger, thereminist - original theremin compositions and transcriptions
  • Rupert Chappelle, thereminist - theremin music video
  • Theremins For Every Budget
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