The theremin is a unique and mesmerising musical instrument that is played without physical contact between player and instrument. You'll recognise its sound when you hear it. It was invented in the early 20th century by Russian physicist and musician Léon Theremin, and it quickly gained popularity as a pioneering electronic instrument.
Léon Theremin, born Lev Sergeyevich Termen in 1896, was a Russian inventor with a passion for both physics and music. In 1919, while working on research into proximity sensors for the government at the Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd (now St Petersburg), Theremin developed an electronic instrument that would respond to the movement of the player's hands. He called it the "etherphone", but it later became known as the theremin.
The basic principle behind the theremin is the heterodyning of two radio frequency oscillators. The player's hands control the pitch and volume of the sound by manipulating the electromagnetic fields around the instrument. One hand controls the pitch by moving closer to or further away from an antenna, while the other hand controls the volume by altering the proximity to a separate antenna. This unique method of playing creates an eerie and otherworldly sound that is instantly recognisable.
Theremin's invention made its debut in 1920, and it quickly caught the attention of both the scientific community and the public. He performed demonstrations and concerts throughout Europe and the United States, captivating audiences with the ethereal sounds produced by his invention. After the tour Theremin moved to the United States, where he patented his invention in 1928, subsequently granting commercial production rights to the RCA Corporation.
The theremin's ability to create haunting melodies and unearthly tones attracted the interest of many composers and musicians of the time.
One of the first composers to explore the possibilities of the theremin was Joseph Schillinger, who wrote the first piece of music specifically for the instrument in 1927. Subsequently, several classical composers, including Dimitri Shostakovich and Bohuslav Martinů, incorporated the theremin into their compositions, expanding its repertoire and showcasing its versatility.
In the 1930s, the theremin gained even more popularity, thanks to its appearances in Hollywood films. It became synonymous with science fiction and horror movies, adding an eerie and futuristic ambiance to the soundtracks. Notable films featuring the theremin include Spellbound (1945) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
Despite its early success, the theremin's popularity waned with the advent of more accessible and commercially viable electronic instruments, such as the synthesizer. However, it experienced a resurgence in the late 20th century, thanks to the efforts of musicians and enthusiasts who rediscovered its unique sound. Artists like Clara Rockmore, a virtuoso theremin player who lived until the end of the 20th century and was involved with Theremin from the very early days; and Robert Moog, the creator of the Moog synthesizer, played a significant role in revitalising interest in the instrument.
The Sound of Theremin Spotify playlist HERE.
Interested to learn more? There's a 1993 documentary called Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey which you can currently watch on YouTube HERE.
Story Idea: Remo Giuffré
Theremin exists in printed form as chapter 81 of RR#1 … available to order HERE
1. Leon Theremin, Sputnik
2. Clara Rockmore, theremin virtuoso. Photo: University of New Hampshire/Gado/Getty Images
3. Clara Rockmore by Toppo, 1930
4. Headline announcing RCA’s production of the theremin; Courier Post, Camden, NJ, 23 September 1929. NYPR Archive Collections.
5. The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951 poster
6. Moog Etherware Theremin
7. Movie: Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, 1993