Origins of an electronic odyssey
The Theremin was one of the earliest electronic
musical instruments and had several significant roles in a convoluted
chain of events that led to modern synthesisers and electronic
music. It is a weird and amazing story and I love it so much that
I was inspired to have a go at building a working Theremin, which
is pictured on this page.
Click on image for bigger version
The Theremin was invented in about 1920 by a
remarkable Russian physicist whose name transliterates as Lev
Termen. In the mid to late 1920s, under the name Leon Theremin,
he travelled to Europe and the USA to demonstrate and market his
creation. More recently it has come to light that part of the
reason for his travels seems to have been industrial espionage
at the behest of the Bolshevik government. Using his status as
a scientist and inventor he would have been able to inquire into
technological developments in the west.
Although he called his new instrument the "Aetherophone"
his adopted surname seems to have stuck to it. Despite some limited
success in getting instruments marketed by the RCA company, Theremin's
achievements at the time fell far short of his ambitions, which
were visionary. The real impact of Theremin the man and Theremin
the machine only became apparent across decades of musical and
Click on image for bigger version
The Theremin is weird in many ways, not least
of which is that it is played without being touched.
In place of the keys or pedals of a modern synth
it has two antennae - one controlling pitch, and the other controlling
volume. As a hand (or any other object) approaches the vertical
antenna, the pitch gets higher. Approaching the horizontal antenna
makes the volume softer. The knobs that you can see in the picture
are for calibration of the antennae and adjusting the timbre.
Apart from that there is just an on-off switch.
click on image for bigger version
For the technically inclined it works on the
principle of heterodyne oscillators and by using the player's
hands to affect circuit capacitance.
The basic sound comes from two oscillator circuits
that are tuned to frequencies high above the audible spectrum
- close together but slightly differing. The signals from the
two oscillators are combined to produce a "beat" frequency
that is within the audible range. The pitch antenna is effectively
part of a capacitor that is a component of one of the two oscillators.
The trick is to arrange the values of the circuit
components so the slight variations in capacitance caused by movement
of the player's hand cause appropriate variations in the pitch
of the "beat" frequency.
The volume control works in a slightly different
way but the underlying principle is similar. Simple isn't it?
Well yes and no...
Because there is no physical contact with the
instrument, playing the Theremin in any remotely tuneful way requires
precise physical skill and perfect pitch. Few have ever played
it well and it is arguable that only one person has ever mastered
A Russian-born former violin prodigy named Clara
Rockmore stood out way above all other Theremin players for virtuoso
performances in which she made the instrument sound the equal
of cellos, violins, woodwind or brass. Clara Rockmore was a close
friend of Leon Theremin and was part of an artistic circle in
which he moved.
Leon Theremin led a remarkable life that would
sound like something from the realms of SF were it not a true
story. It is pointless to go into great detail here as there are
excellent resources on the web that do the job better than I ever
could. If you want to know more then follow the links elsewhere
on this page.
He went on developing electronic inventions
that were way ahead of their time. There is evidence to suggest
he invented a working television system. He hung out with avant
garde musicians and dancers. Then in 1938 he disappeared in mysterious
circumstances - there were rumours that he had been kidnapped
by the KGB and, later on, suggestions that he had fled tax difficulties
in the USA.
Decades later a visiting American scientist
discovered him in Russia, where it transpired he had fallen victim
to a Stalinist purge and been sent to a secret laboratory within
the gulag system, where scientists and engineers were put to work
for the regime. There, it is believed, he developed ingenious
bugging systems for the KGB. He was later released and rehabilitated
and continued his research in relative obscurity.
Perhaps the best testament to Theremin and certainly
the most touching version of his story I have seen is the TV documentary"Theremin:
An Electronic Odyssey" made by Steven M. Martin in 1993.
Theremin dreamed of his electronic instruments
supplanting traditional ones. He designed many more after the
basic Theremin, including at least one that was designed to be
played by dancing - the device responded to the dancer's movements
like the Theremin responded to the player's hands.
Theremins as replacements for classical instruments
never really worked out. The Theremin only came into its own when
people tried using it to sound like nothing else on earth. Its
distinctive tones can be heard on the soundtracks of a number
of SF films from the 1950s and 1960s, most notably Bernard Hermann's
score for "The Day the Earth Stood Still".
The Theremin was also picked up by rock musicians
seeking new sounds. Users range from Led Zeppelin and The Bonzo
Dog Band in the 60s and 70s to the Pixies in 1990.
Ironically the most famous track associated
with the Theremin does not feature the instrument at all. Brian
Wilson has said he was inspired by the Theremin when looking for
weird sounds to use on the Beach Boys' track "Good Vibrations"
but the instrument used on the recordings was a different gizmo
sometimes known as a "Tannerin". Another band to be
inspired by the sound were Portishead, who used a Roland synthesiser
to emulate a Theremin sound on their first album.
Perhaps Theremin's greatest legacy is that he
paved the way for pioneers who came after him. Although Theremin
music didn't overthrow traditional forms, the instrument was revolutionary
in its simplicity and portability. It was the first to show what
might be done with the new valve technology. The state of the
art before Theremin was Thadius Cahill's electromechanical Telharmonium,
built between 1896 and 1906, which weighed 200 tons, needed six
railway cars to transport it and had to be played in a different
building to the one where the loudspeakers and audience were located
because its mechanism made so much noise. That's a pretty bad
state for an art to be in!
After the Theremin came the Ondes Martenot and
the Trautonium, which were used by established classical composers.
Bob Moog, whose Minimoog was arguably the first synth to be widely
adopted by rock bands, made a living early in his career by building
and selling Theremin kits using his own transistor-based circuits.
Moog had a long association with the Theremin and later returned
to marketing Theremin kits through the Big Briar company.
Building my own Theremin
I ended up building a Big Briar Theremin after
abandoning an attempt to construct from scratch using a design
I tracked down in a 1960s electronics magazine in the British
Library. Although a transistor-based Theremin is quite simple
in basic construction and most components are pretty common there
is one element that is almost impossible to buy as an off-the-shelf
The antenna circuits require inductance coils
with values a long way outside the available stock ranges. When
the old designs were published in the 1960s, suitable coils were
available because they were standard components in mass produced
circuits. It is possible to wind your own coils but I decided
it would finally take the project beyond feasibility for me.
Building the kit was very straightforward and
it worked first time. Playing it is another matter. It doesn't
take long to get the hang of the basic principles but scales and
tunes are something else. Mostly it is great for making weird
There is no tactile reference for the pitch
you are about to play - no frets, no key positions. You only know
for sure when you hear it. This makes hitting exact notes a real
challenge when a centimetre or less in hand-to-antenna distance
or slight changes in the position of your fingers can cover several
semitones. It certainly raised my admiration for the abilities
of Clara Rockmore.
There are a few peculiarities that you discover
when you begin trying to play. For example, because the instrument
is sensitive to the electrostatic conditions in its surroundings
you have to adjust the sensitivity of the antennae before each
time you begin to play. And because all parts of your body affect
the electrostatic conditions, you need to keep very still when
you are playing and move only your hands. This accounts for the
weird zombie-like appearance of some Theremin players during performances.
Some of us, however, probably look like that because we are naturally