What is a Theremin?

Innovation is amazing.

Typically, people drive their cars to get from point A to B. But nowadays, there are self-driving cars that can bring people to their destinations without lifting a finger. It is only a matter of time before people use flying cars —or maybe even a floating Segway, who knows.

Normally, people trade goods and services with cash. But these days, cryptocurrencies are rapidly gaining ground against physical money.

This is the era of augmented realities, Tesla technology, and many other modern developments not quite understood by many.

For example: the theremin.

A lot of people might not even have heard of this.

To describe it succinctly, it’s a musical instrument wherein music is created with just the wave of a hand. The hand is not physically touching anything; it’s like producing sound in the air with some dreamy motion of hands and fingers.

Some people find it enchanting; others, bizarre. But it certainly is fascinating.

The Theremin: A Quick Look Into Its History

The theremin instrument is actually not something new. In fact, it was referred to as the world’s earliest electronic instrument. Made commercially available by RCA (Radio Corporation of America) in the United States around the 1930s, the theremin was not originally intended to make music.

It was developed by Russian physicist Leon Theremin around 1919-1920, at the onset of the Russian Civil War. It was a product of the research funded by the Soviet government as a proximity sensor. Theremin saw in it great potential as a musical instrument and branded his creation as Termenvox (voice of Termen).

Leon Theremin toured all around Europe, demonstrating his invention to full audiences, one of which was Russian leader Vladimir Lenin. Theremin toured for more than seven years before finally settling in the US. In 1928, he patented his invention and subsequently granted RCA commercial production rights of the instrument. RCA released the instrument in the market as RCA Thereminvox.

But the Thereminvox, despite having delighted many audiences, was a commercial failure.

Yet, its popularity continued to soar in the United States and abroad. Well-known thereminists like Clara Rockmore and Lucie Bigelow Rosen continued to promote the instrument in the 1930s until the early 1940s. Around this time, a flurry of newer and easier to play musical instruments came out.

However, the theremin persisted among electronic instrument enthusiasts. It has since carved a special niche in the electronic instrument sphere. These days, celebrated theremin virtuosos like Carolina Eyck, Pamelia Kurstin, and Rupert Chappelle continue to raise awareness and interest in this mesmerizing musical instrument.

Theremin Prototype

At a glance, the original theremins look rather bulky, like a small cabinet with two metal antennas — the right one standing vertically, the left one looped horizontally. As the years go by, the design became more and more minimalist.

Shedding the bulkiness and losing the spindly feet, the theremin sported a new look reminiscent of Betamax or VHS players, with simple and smaller controls replacing the cluttered knobs of the past design. It has become a tabletop instrument.

Modern theremins are compact and sleek; some even have LCD and such modern updates as pitch control, built-in tuner, preset sounds, and stereo delays. Some have specially designed stands. Most modern theremins can be connected to speakers, headphones, and iPad, and computers that allow users more control over their sound.

How Does the Theremin Sound Like?

Creepy. Otherworldly. Magical.

As if summoning extraterrestrials from other star systems.

These are how theremin players describe the sound produced by the instrument. Perhaps this is why the theremin was used in eerie scenes in movies and TV shows, among them Spellbound, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Star Trek. The theremin’s unique phantasmagoric sound makes it popular in horror, mystery, and sci-fi genres.

The sound has been described as “a purified and magnified saxophone”, and “a cross between an amplified child’s slide whistle, a human voice and the squawks that emanated from early radio speakers.”

The RCA Theremin describes it as having “a pitch range of 3.5 to 4 octaves, and a timbre that is somewhat like a cello at the low end and a cross between bowed string and voice at the high end.”

Composer Percy Grainger called the theremin “the most perfect tonal instrument” due to its ability to produce great nuances of volume and pitch.

How Does the Theremin Work?

The theremin has two antennas that produce an electromagnetic field.

The human body has the ability to hold an electrical charge.

The sound is produced by the interaction of the human body, particularly the hands, and the electromagnetic field of the instrument’s oscillating circuit being disrupted by the capacitance (the human).

The theremin’s vertical antenna on its right controls the pitch. The closer the theremin player’s hand gets to this antenna, the higher the pitch goes. The pitch gets lower when the hand moves away from the antenna.

And how do they create that wonderful vibrato on theremin? It’s pretty much the same principle as when there’s rhythmic pulsing to the muscles of the larynx when one sings with vibrato. In the theremin’s case, vibrato is created when the hand makes a small and rapid movement.

Meanwhile, the theremin’s looped antenna on its left controls the loudness and the softness of the sound. The volume gets softer as the hand gets closer to the loop. Moving the hand away creates the opposite effect.

More than just the volume, the looped antenna determines the sound dynamics as well as expression.

The thereminist stands in front of the instrument, with his left hand engaging with the loop antenna and the right hand interacting with the vertical antenna. The player then moves his hands strategically, in the air and in the proximity of the upright and looped antennas, to produce varying pitch and dynamics.

The electric signals are collected, amplified, and sent to a speaker system in the body of the theremin, and the resulting sound, the music, is emanated.

Playing With the Theremin

So, how easy is it to play the theremin?

Or rather, how difficult.

Because there is nothing to touch —no strings to pluck, no keys to press, and no object to knock— it can be downright tricky to play the theremin. Don’t be fooled by skilled players making it look easy. After all, looks can be deceiving.

Here is how they create enthralling music on the theremin.

Basically, a closed right hand produces one note. A stretched-out right hand, or a span, gets an octave. Deliberate tapping movements with the left hand result in bolder notes. Fluttering gestures with the left hand create a tremolo effect, just like doing the same with the right hand creates a vibrato. Sweeping right hand motion brings a spacey, cosmic-like effect.

It sounds confusing, but it’s not impossible. Learning to play this instrument takes dedication and lots of patience, good muscle coordination, and a good ear. The theremin player must also possess good muscle memory to keep the melody in tune as he plays; a small variation in the movement while playing can throw off the tune and ruin the performance.

To avoid fatigue, use delicate finger and hand movements, and keep the back straight.

Professional thereminists advise aspiring players to take it slow, don’t hurry, and enjoy the learning process. This is not an easy instrument to master; but once learned, it can bring hours of enjoyment and boost creativity.