History and Application of the Theremin

When it comes to the imagination, the human mind has no limit. The magic of the vision of man can be seen in the invention of musical instruments.

The purpose of the musical instrument is rhetorical.  What you may think is impossible is made possible by instruments. It is not just about the theory behind their invention; these instruments have the power and ability to speak to nature.

Also, the language of instruments is a mediation between what is to be observed and the observer.

You might think you have seen and heard the strangest music instrument until you come in contact with the theremin.

Curious about what this strange instrument is? This article will provide you with all the details you need to know about the theremin.

WHAT IS A THEREMIN?

The theremin will forever remain the first electrical instrument in history to be manufactured. It is one of the unique and unusual instruments in the world, having been invented in 1919 by Léon Theremin.

Is it possible to play an instrument without actually touching it? Yes, with the invention of the theremin, it is practically possible as it does not require physical interaction in order to be controlled. 

The theremin was initially known as an etherphone or a thereminophone. This instrument, by its very nature, set the foundation for the invention of all other electrical instruments to follow.

The Invention of the Theremin

The design of the theremin dates back to 1920 by a remarkable Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen. He is also known as Léon Theremin in the West.

Here he is playing his instrument, in 1954.

The invention of this instrument was as a result of research in relation to proximity sensors, and the government of Soviet-sponsored this research.

The study took place in Saint Peterburg in the Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Theremin was invented just after the Russian World War 2 outbreak.  Wanting to free the performers from the use a fixed intonation and a keyboard, he created a theremin through the knowledge he had about the capacitance of the body.

Sergeyevich then made a tour to Europe where he spent some time demonstrating his invention of the theremin. He later moved to the United States and in 1928 he sought for a patent for his invention. 

Sergeyevich had also granted the Radio Corporations of America( RCA) the production rights of the theremin.

The RCA theremin was released after the 1929 stock market crash.

Although the release of the theremin by the RCA was not a success, a number of audiences in both abroad and within America were fascinated by this new instrument and it took the interest of many manufacturers.

In the early 1930s, Lucie Bigelow Rosen in partnership with her husband Walter Bigelow Rosen was amazed at the theremin and their interest in this instrument lead them to offer financial support to the development of the theremin.

In addition to this Lucie and her husband also provided artistic support. This lead to the popularization of the theremin to those who had no idea of this instrument.

In 1938, Sergeyevich is believed to have left the United States although the circumstances that may have forced him to leave are not precise. He then reappeared in 1991.

After the end of the second world war, the use of the theremin started decreasing and the popularity of this instrument declined rapidly with the introduction of new electronic instruments.

Many musicians preferred to use this new instrument as they were easy to play as compared to the theremin.

Although the use of the theremin may have become unpopular among musicians, persistence in the development of the theremin among electricians was still a topic of interest.

Robert Moog

One of the great enthusiast electricians is Robert Moog. Robert began taking an interest in the building of the theremin in the 1950s.

To the utter surprise of many, Robert was still a high school student when he began developing theremins. Also, he wrote several articles that were about building theremins.  He even went to an extent of selling theremin kits.

These kits were to allow the customers to assemble the parts together. One of the remarkable moment when Robert was selling theremin kits, Raymond Scott, an inventor of electrical instruments also purchased a theremin kit that he incorporated in the invention of the Clavivox.

How Is The Theremin Played?

The theremin is made up of two antennas that are sensitive to the hands of the thereminist.

One antenna is used to control the frequency by a sense of motion of one side, and the other antenna controls the amplitude based on the movement of the second hand.

Although the theremin has been used in orchestra and films, it was an instrument that was intended to be used as a signature in science fiction.

With the spooky and uncomfortable notes that the theremin produced was to be used to make the viewers of horror films feel uncomfortable.

Keeping in mind that the theremin is played without any physical contact, it is not as easy as it may look. Controlling the frequency and amplitude is very difficult, and hence practice is essential.

Both the volume and pitch of the theremin are controlled by the distance between the hand and the two antennas.  These two antennas are used to produce an electromagnetic field.

If the hand is moved closer to the antenna that is used to control the pitch, the pitch of the theremin rises.

On the other hand, when the hand moves closer to the antenna that controls volume, the volume decreases.  The note of the theremin is affected by any object that is within the playing field of the theremin or any motion that the body generates.

The early theremins volume and pitch were controlled through the use of foot pedal. This model was later developed to theremins that used the hand’s motion.

Here’s a great video showing the basics of how to play a theremin.

Diversity of the Theremin

Over the years different models of the theremin have been developed. These theremins range from those that can be played by beginners to those that are played by professional thereminist. 

These models include the Moog Music model, Matryomin model, RCA Victor model, TVox model, and Subscope model.

Moog model is the one that is commonly used worldwide.  It is through Moog that the theremins have survived in the market through his continuous production of these instruments.

Here is professional thereminist Lydia Kavina playing the Moog Theremini.

Theremin in Popular Music

The use of theremin as a music instrument began long ago in the early 1940s.

The first rock band to perform with a theremin live was Lothar and the Hand People in 1965.  By the way, Lothar was a theremin, not a person.

The release of Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys in 1966 lead to the revival of the theremin.

Through the use of the electro-theremin by this band in their song it increased awareness of the band.

The band also requested Moog Music to produce for them branded ribbon-controlled instruments. These instruments had a similar sound to the one that was created by the theremin.

Jimmy Page, a songwriter and founder of the Led Zeppelin rock band, throughout the performance of this band he used the theremin in different variations.

Other bands such as the Portishead and the Rolling Stones have used the theremin in several of their performances.

More Music Featuring Theremin

The theremin was first incorporated into orchestra by Dmitri Shostakovich was a Russian composer. The theremin may not have been used in classical music, but it was used in several motion pictures such as The Red House, The Lost Weekend and The Spiral Staircase.

Here’s a composition called Lunar Rhapsody by Harry Revel.

The theremin has also been featured in video games such as Soul of the Ultimate Nation.

One of the most remembered thereminists is a student of professor Theremin, Clara Rockmore.

Being an accomplished violinist at age 5, Clara developed a problem with her hand. This lead to her being unable to use her hand to play the violin.

With the invention of the theremin, she had to give up playing the violin, and her only choice was to play the theremin. 

Clara developed an aerial fingering system that was unique and precise. With her incredible skills, she became one of the best thereminists in the world.

Conclusion

It is hard to imagine that an instrument that can be seen and heard but cannot be touched produces a sound that may make you a little bit uncomfortable, and yet so compelled to listen.

The theremin will remain to be one of the strangest instruments in the world that has stolen the attention and interest of many.

Don’t you want to play this instrument at least once in your lifetime?

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