Instruments | Theremin | Electric & Electronic

The theremin (or ‘thereminvox’) is one of the earliest examples of a purely electronic instrument, and enjoys the distinction of being the first instrument designed to be played with no physical contact.

The theremin was invented in 1919 by Russian cellist and physicist Lev Sergeivitch Termen (Leon Theremin). Growing out of research into proximity sensors, the theremin exploits the capacitance properties of the human body. Movements near antennae mounted on the instrument cause changes in the audio signal. A similar phenomenon can be observed when someone moving near a radio or television aerial alters the reception.

Playing Technique

The theremin is a wooden cabinet, containing a loudspeaker facing the audience, from which protrude two antennae – a horizontal loop to the left and a vertical pole to the right. Movements of the left hand around the loop alter the volume of the sound, while the right hand is used to control pitch, according to distance from the pole. A good sense of pitch and physical memory are pre-requisites for playing the theremin! The instrument emits a continuous, monophonic tone, similar in character to a violin.

Theremin in Performance

The ethereal, other-worldly sounds of this peculiar instrument can be heard on some classic recordings, including Bernard Heremann’s score for the 1951 science-fiction movie The Day The Earth Stood Still and Led Zeppelin’s live version of ‘Whole Lotta Love’. Interestingly, The Beach Boys did not use a theremin on ‘Good Vibrations’ (a common misconception) as none was available for the session. The trademark sound of that track was created by a similar instrument, the tannerin. Though no longer in production, the theremin has a loyal following of aficionados and DIY kits are available.

Introduction | Electric & Electronic Instruments
Instruments | Ondes Martenot | Electric & Electronic

Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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