The Instrument

The theremin is the first electronic instrument ever, granddaddy to the synthesizer, the Hammond organ, and all of that ilk. The theremin produces a sound which is an eerie throbbing wail, unlike any other instrument. It looks something like a box with two protruding antennas, a vertical one which controls pitch and a horizontal one which controls volume. The instrument originally used vacuum tubes, and today utilizes transistors or integrated circuits, to produce two identical very high frequency (hence inaudible) tones. Moving one's hands nearer or farther from the pitch antenna produces a difference between the tones, which results in an audible beat of the type you hear when you are trying to tune a stringed instrument and two strings are out of tune. Because it is played without being touched, it was said to produce sounds out of ether, and hence was initially known as an "aetherium". Because it gives the player no visual cues to guide them in finding the right positioning of the hands, it is difficult to play and takes years to master.

The Inventor

This weird instrument was invented by a Russian physicist and cellist, Lev Sergeyevich Termen (later anglicized to Leon Theremin). Termen was working for the military and trying to discover a way to locate enemy radio transmitters. One day while working with vacuum tubes he noticed, quite by accident, that his body could detune a radio receiver. His musical background helped him realize the implications, and in 1919 he built the first prototype of a theremin. He performed concerts around Russia, including, legend has it, to Lenin, who is said to have played Glinka's "Skylark" without help from Termen. Termen himself envisioned the instrument replacing whole orchestras, and in 1927 gave a series of concerts in Europe, playing Ravel, Rachmaninov, and Tchaikovsky to packed houses in London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome. In 1927 Termen went to New York, where he trained members of the symphony to play the insrument and performed for Rachmaninov and Toscanini. Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, and Dwight Eisenhower were all apparently admirers of Termen. In 1928 Termen gained a US patent on the device under the name "thereminvox", and RCA began commercial production of the instrument the next year.

In New York Termen met Clara Rockmore, a Russian-born musical prodigy who had been forced to give up the violin because of a medical problem and was interested in the theremin. She became Termen's star pupil and is considered to be the only true virtuoso of the instrument. Termen courted Rockmore for a time, but eventually married black ballet dancer Lavinia Williams. Always interested in science and music, during his time in America he pursued other inventions, like an electronic cello and a theremin controlled only by movement of the eyes.


The story of Termen himself took an odd twist in 1938, when he returned to the Soviet Union, hoping to be of some use in the coming war, only to find himself accused of anti-Soviet propaganda and thrown in a labour camp. In America, he was believed to have died. After imprisonment, Termen worked for the KGB designing audio surveillance devices like bugs. In 1964 he became a professor of acoustics at the Moscow Conservatory, where he continued work on electronic musical instruments, including a polyphonic theremin. In 1967 a New York Times reporter named Harry Schonberg discovered that Termen was alive and working at the conservatory, and published an article about him. Unfortunately, this publicity seems to have worked against Termen, who was removed from his projects and put to work on naval acoustics and automobile noise suppression. He did continue work on musical instruments, but in his own time, at his home. In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he left Russia for the first time since 1938, visiting festivals of electronic music in France and Sweden. He returned to the United States in 1991 with his daughter Natasha and granddaughter Olga, as shown in the wonderful documentary "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey". The film, by Steven M. Martin, was released in 1993, the year Termen died. He was 97.

Where You've Heard it

The theremin's spooky sound lends itself well to science fiction movies like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "It Came From Outer Space" and thrillers such as "Spellbound" and "The Lost Weekend". It's had a place in popular music as well, and was famously used by Jimmy Page in Whole Lotta Love and by Brian Wilson in the introduction to (appropriately enough) Good Vibrations. It has become popular once again and is used by bands with an electronic leaning, like Aphex Twin. There's also an extensive network of theremin restorers, builders, and players. Check out
and, where you can download your own personal desktop theremin.

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