By Ian Gonzalez Lopez

According to David Byrne, art is affected by its context in a way that it actually transforms how it is made. For example, during the Baroque, most of the academic western music was played by organs inside immense cathedrals with a considerable amount of natural reverberation. This characteristics of the places limited the composers because if they wanted their pieces to sound harmonious, they needed to be in a certain scale. However, during this period Bach was composing his music for the tiny chapel of his village and the difference of the reverberation gave him the opportunity to add chromaticism (deviation of the melody from a single scale) to his compositions.

That happened some centuries ago, but the evolution of different art forms that are born and are adapted whenever new technologies appear still happens today. During the XX century academic composers were tired of traditional orchestral sounds, and along this whole period the music of Iannis Xenakis, John Cage or György Ligeti prove how the boundaries of music were being explored and transformed.

There were many inventions that had a big impact on the academical musical field, like the Ondes Martenot, but at the same time this instrument was invented, another one also saw the light and marked the music history, an invention of Leon Theremin and named after him. The theremin was one of the first electronic musical instruments, and without a doubt was the first one that gained popularity and was known by the mainstream public.

Leon Theremin demonstration. Circa 1927. Image Credit: Corbis Bettmann.

The two most well known characteristics of sound are volume and pitch, and the theremin uses these as the variables the player can change in order to achieve the desired sound. The vertical antenna of the theremin is the one linked to the pitch, while the horizontal one that has a P shape is the one used to control the volume. If one makes an analogy with a piano, the Y axis of the theremin corresponds to the keys and the X axis corresponds to how much strength is applied to them.

The most famous peculiarity of the theremin is the fact that it is played without the need of the instrumentalist touching it. While the traditional instruments need physical contact, an acoustic guitar, for example needs a string to be plucked and this vibration is then amplified in the soundbox of the guitar. However, the principle of the theremin is more related to other field of physics, the electromagnetism, and this deviation from the widely used acoustic instruments was the very beginning of a whole new revolution for electronic -and later digital- sound.

So, how does the theremin works? How is it possible that against all common sense, something makes sound without being touched? Well, as said before, its mechanism is based on electromagnetism. In order to produce sounds there are to capacitors that act as oscillators (these two terms may be unknown for someone not familiar with physics, but I’ll try to explain without getting too technical). The two oscillators are arranged in a way that their signals are rested one from the other, and only the difference is left. The frequency of the first signal is fixed, and it is out of what the human ear can hear, however the second one is variant and is controlled by the players hand, so when the two frequencies are rested the difference is in a range that can be heard by humans (in order to actually hear something, this difference of the signals needs to be transformed from current to vibrations in the air). In this circuit, the hand of the player acts as a second plate of one of the capacitors and completes the design.

1930 manufactured RCA 12-64 Theremin displayed at the Musical Museum at Brentford, UK.

The invention of the theremin was actually somewhat a collateral of another laboratory duty. Lev Termen was working in a mechanism designed to measure certain characteristics of gases and as a part of it, this machine was going to have a sonic component that would be triggered at some point of the experiments. At this point nothing extraordinary was happening in Lev’s laboratory, but when he was testing the device he noticed that the introduction of his hand within the range of the electromagnetic field that was produced changed the resulting sound.

After this laboratory enclosed origin, Leon Theremin toured with his instrument across his own country, where Lenin saw it, and later Europe. However, the big success of the theremin came when Leon traveled to the USA and started touring with Clara Rockmore, who has been the most famous theremin player until today.

After the USA tour of Leon Theremin, there were only a few instruments worldwide, all made by the inventor himself. This situation changed not much time later when Radio Corporation of America bought the patent. This decision was backed by the thought that it had a lot of potential, as can be noticed by their advertisement where they stated that the theremin was easier to play than the piano because, according to them, the player only had to wave its hands in the air.

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Extract of the “how to” play a Theremin users manual, 1930. Image Credit:

What the salesmen of RCA were not aware, was the sheer difficulty of playing it. While the piano has keys that differentiate one note from another, the theremin’s Y axis is only a continuum, and while the keys can be pressed intuitively to add volume to the sound, the loudness of the theremin only depends of the position of the hand. The chairmen of the RCA, even thought of within the same category of the radio, and they hoped for a future where everyone would have one in its living room. As history later showed them, this happened with the radio, but not with the theremin.

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RCA Theremin cabinet wiring and components illustration from the owners manual 1930. Image Credit:

If the theremin was never an economic success, how come it affected so much the history of electronic music. Well, this is related to another visionary in the music technology field: Robert Moog. At a young age, he was interested in electronics and engineering, and building copies of theremins was a hobby for him. Ultimately, the theremin inspired Moog to build his own synthesizers and became the head of the leading synth-building enterprise. Not only was the theremin an inspiration to Moog, but part of its business to: nowadays the most famous theremins are the ones produced by this company and now there are many variations that differ from the original one.

Even though Moog’s revival of the theremin was significant, the real mainstream knowledge of the theremin is due to a different cause: old Sci-Fi cinema. If you think of the most clichè scene of this type of film the odds are that it will be one of an amateur looking UFO held by a visible thread and with a mysterious sound in the background.

This association of the theremin with Sci-Fi comes mainly from the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which the instrument is used. Other appearances of the theremin in film include compositions from Dmitri Shostakovich, while in the popular rock music it is well known how Jimmy Page used it during a couple of songs in the recorded concerts of The Song Remains the Same.

 The otherworldly sounds is not the only mysterious thing about the theremin. After some years living in New York and several failures in other inventions, Leon Theremin disappeared from the USA, only to return several years later. The reason of the disappearance was linked to his espionage work, because he not only was an inventor, but a spy and according to the declassified document the CIA has on him, the whole tour of the theremin had the objective of making contacts in the scientific western world that would uncover their inventions to him.

The espionage or its inventor is not the only curious thing about the theremin, another funny event happened just at the beginning of this century, in 2001. Proud of their fellow inventor, the russians produced The First Theremin Concert For Extraterrestrials, a broadcast of theremin recordings that was transmitted during a series of interstellar radio transmissions. The recordings included one of the most famous classical pieces interpreted in the theremin, “The Swan”, composed by Camille Saint-Saëns originally for piano and cello.

When one thinks of the theremin there is reminiscence of movies with a low budget, of old alien mystery from the past century, but when one takes a closer look to it there are is all its history filled with inventions, spies, psychedelic music, electromagnetism, and most important of all, a pilar for electronic music.


Byrne, D.  . How Music Works



Author: Jesus Padilla

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