The theremin, a music instrument that works with waving your hand in an electromagnetic field

The theremin, a music instrument that works with waving your hand in an electromagnetic field


25th July 2017

The theremin is a single oscillator electronic musical instrument with two metal rods used to control pitch and amplitude by the human performer using hand gestures. The left rod (a horizontal hoop) reduces the amplitude as the left hand is moved closer to it, while the right rod (a vertical pole) increases the pitch as the right hand is moved towards it.

How does it work?

Well, you stand in front of the theremin and wave each of your hands near to one of the two metal (radio-type) ‘aerials’ or ‘antennas’ that each creates its own electromagnetic ‘field’. The distance of your hand from one controls the pitch (frequency) and the distance from the other controls the volume (amplitude) of its oscillators. To play higher notes, just move your hand closer to the pitch controller, and to play louder notes, move your other hand away from the volume controller. Most players use their right hand to control the pitch and their left hand to control the volume, although some performers prefer the opposite way – always someone has to be different it seems!

What does it sound like?

“Oowah, Oowah” – what’s that spooky sound? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Mais non, mes amis, c’est un Theremin! I first heard this instrument while watching old movies back in the 1950’s such as Bernard Hermann’s “The Day The Earth Stood Still”, Miklos Rozsa’s “Spellbound” and Samuel Hoffman’s wonderfully-named “It came from Outer Space” and I kind of wondered what instrument was making this sound. But in 1966, when I first heard the intro to the Beach Boys hit record “Good Vibrations” which featured an Electro-Theremin, I really started to sit up and take notice! I quickly learned that the instrument had been invented by a young Russian physicist named Lev Sergeyevich Termen (better known as Léon Theremin) in October 1920 and patented by him in the US in 1928. But this was just the beginning of its fascinating story!





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