What is a Theremin and How Does it Work?

What is a Theremin and How Does it Work? What is a Theremin and How Does it Work?

Have you ever dreamt of an musical instrument that could be played without any physical contact? Thankfully, the theremin exists. A musician plays the illusive theremin simply by moving his hands over an electromagnetic circuit, thereby adjusting volume and pitch control depending on the positioning.

While this instrument isn't super well known, it's paved the way for many of the synthesizers and sounds we love today. In this article, we'll provide answers to, "What is a theremin?" and "How does a theremin work?" so that you can enjoy this mysterious and magical instrument.

What Is A Theremin?

The theremin is a mysterious instrument, a relic of vintage horror and sci-fi soundtracks, and an out-of-the-box choice that could add just the right touch to your next production. It's considered the world's earliest electronic instrument and paved the way for digital music as we know it today.

This instrument uses electricity to produce two primary circuits-- One that alters pitch, and another that alters volume. These parameters are controlled by two antennae, with one loop antenna and another upright straight antennae, similar to that on a radio.

Each circuit produces a series of electromagnetic waves. In order to produce pitch, the one circuit utilizes a pair of tuned radio frequency oscillators, including a a fixed oscillator and a variable oscillator. Moving your hands in a particular away around the antenna controls produces an audio output that is oftentimes compared to a saxophone and string instrument hybrid.

While this instrument can be difficult to identify, you'll find that it's used in a number of musical scores, songs, and performed by classical composers today.

How Does A Theremin Work?

The theremin is unique among electronic instruments; the performer does not touch the instrument while performing. The setup is relatively simple and consists of two antennas connected to a wooden box with two knobs: one for pitch and one for amplitude or volume.

The performance concept is also relatively simple but requires skill and great ears to master. The performer adjusts pitch and volume by moving their hand closer or farther away from the antennas. Here is a classic example of the haunting theremin from Bernard Herrmann’s groundbreaking score, the 1951 sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still . No, not the Keanu Reeves remake.‍

The Inner Workings of the Machine

The human body is itself an electromagnetic organism. Everybody has a measurable electromagnetic field circulating it. Thus, our bodies are capable of conducting electricity and storing electric charges.

The theremin’s two antennas connect to oscillating circuits at radiofrequency. One oscillator has a fixed frequency, while the other has a variable frequency. By interjecting their own electromagnetic field, the performer disrupts the oscillations of the theremin. The theremin measures the difference between the fixed and variable frequency oscillators and translates it into an audio signal. If that sounds like magic, that is because it basically is.

A Brief History of The Theremin

To understand the theremin, we need to travel back in time to two places: the USSR and Queens, New York, in 1954. Leon Theremin was a young Russian scientist studying the density of gasses in a chamber . As the story goes, he was curious what would happen if he added an audio signal to indicate the device’s measurements. Hence, the musical device was originally intended to utilize radio frequency to measure the properties of gas.

Upon doing so, Theremin realized that the device was reacting to more than just the density of the gases in a chamber. The device responded to his body’s relative position, and he could produce an eerie, disembodied timbre by waving his hand back and forth. Thus, by the magic of electromagnetism, the enigmatic theremin was born! Here is the maestro himself playing his creation.

Little did Europe and America’s audiences know, but Mr. Theremin led a double life: that of an inventor and Soviet spy. When Theremin presented his magical device to Vladimir Lenin, Lenin was unimaginably impressed. Shortly, Theremin began to tour the European countries and the United States, where his invention’s novel nature put him in such important places as factories and patent offices. He could then report activities back to the officials at home.

Eventually, however, Theremin’s double life began to catch up with him. The FBI had him on a watchlist, and in 1938 he fled the USA without a trace, not to return until 1991, shortly before his death in 1993.

Four years before Russian Theremin fled the USA, Robert Moog was born in New York City. In 1949, the teenage Moog built a theremin from plans found in a copy of Electronics World magazine.  Moog was fascinated by the theremin, and this fascination was the seed that germinated the groundbreaking inventions Moog would dream up, including the modular synthesizer and many others. So you could say, without Theremin, there would be no Bob Moog .

In fact, Moog ended up creating some mass produced versions of the instrument. You can enjoy models like the Moog Etherwave theremin to this day. Moog also created the spinoff thereminophone.

Not So Fast, Virtuoso

Shortly after Theremin arrived in the USA, the instrument was licensed to RCA for mass production. RCA determined that anyone could perform the theremin and marketed it as such, while the truth was anything but so.

The theremin has no frets, no strings, no keys, or tuning pegs. It is about as far from a conventional instrument as you can get, which is part of its attraction. With that in mind, the theremin player is incredibly skilled since he or she can only rely on their personal sense of pitch to guide their playing. Your pitch and volume controls are altered with a quick switch of the hand, so it's incredibly difficult to play this instrument with precision.

Sadly, the theremin did not pick up a large audience of users, primarily due to the instrument's inherently difficult nature. It's incredibly difficult to master the device's pitch control and volume control parameters, and the instrument's unconventional sound doesn't give it a large share of the music market.

While RCA may have been a bit in over their head about the mass market appeal of this instrument, it's still highly regarded by composers today and loved by performers willing to put in the time an effort it takes to create music with this device.

The Popularization of the Theremin

The theremin has found quite a home in film scores, contemporary classical music, and rock bands. While in New York, Theremin taught the virtuoso of his instrument, Clara Rockmore. Here is Clara Rockmore performing the famous cello solo, “The Swan” by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns:

Pay close attention to the motions of her hands in this excerpt. See how her right hand mimics the vibrato of a string instrument on the fingerboard? Her left hand controls the volume, or expression in MIDI, of the instrument. Beautiful! Clara Rockmore is highly regarded as the world's most celebrated theremin musician.

Bernard Herrmann was not the first composer to call upon the theremin’s mysterious powers to illicit disembodied responses in film scores. The great Hungarian composer Miklos Rózsa incorporated the theremin in his cues for the 1945 Alfred Hithcock film Spellbound. Apparently, Hitchcock gave two pieces of advice to Rózsa, one of which was to find “a ‘new sound’ for the paranoia which formed the subject of the picture.” That new sound came in the form of the theremin.

Still, the theremin’s bizarre timbre has always called to the weird and wild at heart. The White Stripes, one of the most impactful rock bands to emerge at the turn of the last century, incorporated the sweeping sound of the theremin in their tune “Little People” from their eponymous 1999 album. Take a listen to the theremin’s subtle sweeps during the verse sections of this tune.

You can still find modern players today in people like Carolina Eyck and Lydia Kavina, though admittedly find a contemporary player can be a challenge.

How To Play A Theremin

Many novice players incorrectly assume that playing a theremin should be fairly easy. After all, the instrument only consists of two antennae across an electromagnetic field and is played with the human body alone.

However, this instrument is incredibly difficult to play with control. The proximity sensors, pitch circuit and volume circuit are all very delicate. In order to master pitch, tone, and volume, you need to master fine muscle coordination and have a strong ear.

Learning the basics of the instrument can take plenty of practice hours. Once you've built a foundational understanding of the hand movements necessary to create music, you can start working with your hands to create more precise articulation and dynamics.

Theremin players recommend that your feet are approximately 12-inches apart while playing. Don't forget that a slight movement of the head, arms, or back can also affect the fixed oscillator and variable oscillator, so you'll need to be still and focused while interacting with the radio frequency field.

Theremin Types

There are different types of theremins, and the instrument has prompted a wave of DIY instruments made from vacuum tubes to LEGO bricks. Since the device utilizes common radio waves, it's sound can be accomplished in many ways.

The most popular theremin on the market today is by Moog and is called Standard Moog Etherwave. This can be purchased in a kit version, allowing users to customize circuitry or bought fully formed. These theremins are considered analog theremins. You'll also find other types of theremins such as:

Optical Theremins

These theremins are similar to the traditional type, though instead of an electromagnetic field, they utilize light sensors. This is one of the easiest types of theremins to make from home.

Video Theremins

Interactive video game companies like Wii and Xbox Connect utilize theremin-like technologies so that users can use the human body as the controller.

Solar Theremins

Solar theremins work by utilizing the amount of light coming in to create music. These DIY kits are relatively inexpensive and are perfect for the budding theremin sound hobbyist.

Theremin FAQs

Do you still have unanswered questions about this unique musical instrument? Here are some common questions and answers to satisfy your inner thereminist.

‍What is a theremin and how does it work?

A theremin is an electronic musical instrument that is notably played without physical contact. A thereminist creates sound by moving hands and fingers around the instrument’s antenna to manipulate pitch and tone. The instrument was invented Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (later known as Theremin) around 1920.

Is a theremin dangerous?

Theremins aren’t typically dangerous, but DIY theremin creators need to be careful to create their devices with an acceptable voltage level. DIY theremin kits crafted with excess voltage can be lethal, as these delicate instruments need to be crafted with utmost care and background knowledge.

How much does a theremin cost?

Theremins can vary greatly in cost, and are usually on the more expensive side since they are considered more of a specialty instrument. A theremin or theremin-like instrument typically costs anywhere between $300 and $2000 at today’s current rates. DIY devices can be created, but making a theremin on your own can be somewhat dangerous.  

Is the theremin hard to play?

Like any other instrument, the theremin takes time to master. If you’re hoping to become an artful theremin player, you’ll need to practice on a regular basis, and truly immerse yourself within the art form itself. The theremin is unique in that you don’t have a guide to aid your learning-- You’ll need to rely on your sense of pitch.

Does a theremin require electricity?

Theremins rely on electricity to produce sound, so you’ll need a power source nearby in order to create music on one of these instruments. Make sure that you use the power source with the appropriate voltage level to protect your instrument as well as yourself while playing.

Conclusion

The theremin is a mysterious device. You don’t need to touch it to perform with it, but you will need to spend hours practicing to master it. You can’t play it like a guitar or synthesizer or drum machine. Although there are programmable theremins now (thanks to Robert Moog), the original theremin had no tuning features and relied solely upon the performer’s ears and hands.

If you are looking for an eerie, disembodied sound that is both soothing and strange at the same time, look no further than theremins!

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