Theremin, First Electronic Musical Instrument

The Theremin, an electronic musical instrument invented in 1920, became the foundation for synthesized music. Much of the music we hear today—in movies, commercials, stores—is synthesized, which is cheaper to produce than hiring musicians to play instruments. The electronic music revolution took off in the 1950s and 60s, but right after the Soviet Revolution, Lev Theremin (Termen in Russian) was tinkering with a government-sponsored research in radio frequencies. The young physicist discovered that he can modulate frequencies by the distortion from our bodies, like we get in the old days when came close to the rabbit ears of our television. He controlled modulation through two antennas for pitch and volume. As a hand comes close to the antennas the frequencies change. The human body acts as a variable capacitor, a modulation that can be amplified, creating the ghostly sounds associated with the instrument. Shake the hand, and you add vibrato. With a skilled thereminist, it sounds like an emotive violin.

            The world was in the chaos of post WWI, but Theremin took his invention on tour, and it fascinated everyone who had never hear an electronic noise before, not even a radio. Phonographs had become popular, but radio transmission was in its infancy. Theremin eventually granted RCA the rights to produce the instrument, and many others started to play it. You can find on the internet a group of 273 Tereminists setting a world record in Japan. They create a beautiful sound, full of harmonies. They chose to play Amazing Grace, not what you would expect from an auditorium of Japanese musicians.

            Theremin himself came to New York in the late 1920s and married an African-American dancer. He left abruptly in 1938 in circumstances that to this day are unclear, with charges of KGB abduction or murder being tossed around. His friends in the US heard that he was killed, but someone tracked him down in Moscow in the late 1960s. He had possibly been working on a secret electronics project for the government.

            The instrument is devilishly hard to play. Whereas a string instrument has a fingerboard, with a Theremin your hands are in the air without a reference point. I have been bringing out the instrument at the Museum of Science in Boston. People love it. I can tell right away by the way people approach my demonstration if they are musicians. Musicians want to understand it, try to make a tune. For others, it’s a fun toy, making sci fi sounds without touching anything. I eventually learned to play the scale, but since I only play it when I’m on the floor of the museum, I don’t get enough practice time.

            Theremins have been used by musical bands such as the Beach Boys but it was made famous by the Star Trek theme. There are now many other electronic instruments that are easier to play and offer a broader range of sounds, but as far as I know the Theremin is the only instrument played without touch.

1 Comment

  1. Bill MacAlister says: Reply

    I’m a musician, and I tried playing the theremin. It’s a very interesting instrument, and I had no idea about this history, but it’s really difficult to play. On any other instrument, a violin, for example, there’s a fingerboard where your fingers slide up and down. With a theremin, your fingers are in air with no guide.
    What is interesting is that this instrument gave rise to the synthesized instruments we have today.

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