Getting to Better Know the Theremin

Thereminist Lydia Kavina playing in Ekaterinburg

How’s it been, music fans? Halloween is just around the corner and while everyone is out scrambling for that last minute costume or candy for the kids, there’s no reason why us musicians can’t join in and mix our favorite passion with our favorite holiday. No, I’m not talking about dressing up like Zombie Ted Nugent (although that would be sweet idea) – I’m talking about taking the time and getting to know the eeriest of instruments a little better; even learn how to play the thing! That’s right, I’m talking about the theremin, the only instrument that’s played without any physical contact and responsible for that quintessential “ghost” sound.

Although it’s a safe bet to assume that the average music listener has heard the thing in action plenty of times before (because who hasn’t heard “Good Vibrations” or “Here Comes the Sun”), I would go out on a limb and say they had no idea that there was a theremin in the song they were listening to. I’ll even take it one farther and say that most of your average Joe Guitarists out there probably don’t even know what a theremin looks like, let alone how to play the thing! Well, now it’s time to change all that and give this unique little instrument the spotlight it deserves, just in time for Halloween.


The History of the Theremin

The birth of the theremin began on October of 1920 at the other side of the world in Russia where a young physicist named Lev Sergeevich Termen (known in the West as Léon Theremin) invented the instrument during a government sponsored research into proximity sensors. Due to the recent outbreak of the Russian Cival War at the time, Theremin fled and made his way throughout Europe where he would constantly demonstrate his new invention to a series of packed houses until he eventually landed in the United States. Soon after in 1928, Theremin was granted a US patent for his instrument and subsequently granted the commercial production rights to RCA.

RCA wasted little time in taking advantage of their newly granted rights to the interesting instrument but unfortunately, by the time RCA released the Thereminvox in 1929, a slight bump in the US economy known as The Stock Market Crash had just occurred weeks earlier. Needless to say, the Great Depression didn’t exactly make things easier for the Thereminvox  in the United Stated but it did succeed in creating a lot of attention not only here at home but abroad as well. Clara Rockmore for one (a well-known thereminist at the time) toured concert halls across the US, performing renditions of classical pieces to much acclaim, further creating a buzz for the instrument.

By 1938, Theremin was forced to leave the United States. Although many of the circumstances of his departure might never be known – as are most things involving government agencies – many accounts claim that he was taken from his New York City apartment by KGB agents and sent back to the Soviet Union where he was subsequently made to work in a sharashka laboratory prison camp at Magadan, Siberia, only to finally reappear 30 years later. He finally came back to the US in 1991 after the demise of the USSR.

Going back to the instrument itself, the theremin wasn’t doing so well after its initial popularity during the Great Depression and Second World War, especially with musicians, mainly because of the slew of other brand new electronic instruments that were much easier to play – but that didn’t mean the theremin didn’t have its cult followers. One of these enthusiasts, one Robert Moog, began building his own theremins during the ‘50s while he was still merely a high school student. He went on to publish plenty of articles on the instrument and even began selling his own theremin kits that were meant to be assembled by the customer. Moog even stated that credits the experience from working with theremins as directly resulting in his most lauded invention – the groundbreaking synthesizer, the Moog. With the release of the movie Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (which received mainly excellent reviews) in 1994, the instrument made a comeback and became much more commonly used than ever before.

Today, you can find theremins from several manufacturers across the world. From the professional performance quality variety made by Wavefront Technologies, Kees Enkelaar, Harrison Instruments, PAiA Electronics, Jaycar and Moog Music – among several others – to the very simply low end variety usually marketed as toys, the theremin has sure come a long way. Now how about we talk about how to play the thing?


The Basics of How to Play a Theremin

The first thing I should say when it comes to using a theremin is that it is easy to play but notoriously difficult to master – but don’t let that scare you from taking a chance at it. As mentioned above, the theremin is the only instrument that works without any direct contact. The main features of the theremin are its two antennae – one horizontal and one vertical, each of which has its own electromagnetic field surrounding it (although it should be said that even though they are called antennae, they actually work as capacitors). When you move your hand in front of the instrument, you create and interference. The reason for this is because our bodies contain a stored electric charge known as natural capacitance that can alter a magnetic field (which is why we are able to improve a fuzzy television or radio station by holding the antenna). This is pretty much the principle behind how a theremin works.

When your hands alter the theremin's surrounding electromagnetic fields, the interference creates a signal that can then be sent to an amplifier to create audible sound. The electromagnetic field around the horizontal antenna controls the volume of that sound while the vertical antenna controls the pitch. This can be reversed depending on the preference of the player as is common with left handed thereminists. Let’s say that you are right handed and will be playing the theremin in its normal configuration with the horizontal antenna on your left and the vertical on your right; using your right hand, you can change pitch by moving it at shoulder height back and forth between your body and the antenna. The closer your hand gets to the antenna, the higher the pitch. Pulling your hand away lowers the pitch where the lowest pitch occurs at about 2 feet away from the antenna.

Also, you have to control the volume in with your left hand while working the pitch simultaneously. To do this, move your hand up and down (not back and forth, like you do to control the pitch) over the horizontal antenna. The lowest volume starts as you hold your hand about an inch above the horizontal antenna. As you lift your hand up, the volume gets louder. Once you raise your hand about a foot from the antenna, you will hit the peak volume level. The actual length of these techniques will differ slightly depending on the size of the theremin’s antennae but they still work more or less the same. Also, the distance between the individual notes can vary as well, making it a bit tougher switching from theremin to theremin. In some machines, you'll experience a delayed response between your hand movement over the horizontal antenna and the change in volume, so be aware. Essentially, you’re going to have to get used to the individual quirks of each theremin in order to have a firm grasp on how they respond. 

Unfortunately, these are just the basics and there are plenty more techniques out there to master that we can hopefully shed some light on very soon. Until then, how about checking out a closer look at that Moog Theremin Kit we talked about?

If you still can’t figure it out how the thing sounds like or works? how about a video of a Leon Theremin playing his own invention to help you out!?





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