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The theremin ( ), originally known as the aetherphone / etherophone or termenvox / thereminvox is an early electronic musical instrument controlled without contact from the player. It is named after its Russian inventor, Professor Léon Theremin, who patented the device in 1928. The controlling section usually consists of two metal antennas which sense the position of the player's hands and control oscillators for frequency with one hand, and amplitude (volume) with the other. The electric signals from the theremin are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker.

The theremin is associated with an eerie sound, which has led to its use in movie soundtracks such as those in Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Theremins are also used in art music (especially avant-garde and 20th- and 21st-century new music) and in popular music genres such as rock.


The theremin was originally the product of Russian government-sponsored research into proximity sensors. The instrument was invented by a young Russian physicist named Lev Sergeivich Termen (known in the West as Léon Theremin) in October 1920 after the outbreak of the Russian civil war. After positive reviews at Moscowmarker electronics conferences, Theremin demonstrated the device to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. Lenin was so impressed with the device that he began taking lessons in playing it, commissioned six hundred of the instruments for distribution throughout the Soviet Union, and sent Theremin on a trip around the world to demonstrate the latest Soviet technology and the invention of electronic music. After a lengthy tour of Europe, during which time he demonstrated his invention to packed houses, Theremin found his way to the United Statesmarker, where he patented his invention in 1928 ( ). Subsequently, Theremin granted commercial production rights to RCA.

Although the RCA Thereminvox (released immediately following the Stock Market Crash of 1929), was not a commercial success, it fascinated audiences in America and abroad. Clara Rockmore, a well-known thereminist, toured to wide acclaim, performing a classical repertoire in concert halls around the United States, often sharing the bill with Paul Robeson. In 1938, Theremin left the United States, though the circumstances related to his departure are in dispute. Many accounts claim he was taken from his New York Citymarker apartment by KGB agents, taken back to the Soviet Unionmarker and made to work in a sharashka laboratory prison camp at Magadan, Siberia. He reappeared 30 years later. In his 2000 biography of the inventor, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, Albert Glinsky suggested the Russian had fled to escape crushing personal debts, and was then caught up in Stalin's political purges. In any case, Theremin did not return to the United States until 1991.

After a flurry of interest in America following the end of the Second World War, the theremin soon fell into disuse with serious musicians, mainly because newer electronic instruments were introduced that were easier to play. However, a niche interest in the theremin persisted, mostly among electronics enthusiasts and kit-building hobbyists. One of these electronics enthusiasts, Robert Moog, began building theremins in the 1950s, while he was a high-school student. Moog subsequently published a number of articles about building theremins, and sold theremin kits which were intended to be assembled by the customer. Moog credited what he learned from the experience as leading directly to his groundbreaking synthesizer, the Moog.

Since the release of the film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey in 1994, the instrument has enjoyed a resurgence in interest and has become more widely used by contemporary musicians. Even though many theremin sounds can be approximated on many modern synthesizers, some musicians continue to appreciate the expressiveness, novelty and uniqueness of using an actual theremin. The film itself has garnered excellent reviews.

Today Moog Music, Dan Burns of Chuck Collins of Wavefront Technologies, Kees Enkelaar and Harrison Instruments manufacture performance-quality theremins. Theremin kit building remains popular with electronics buffs; kits are available from Moog Music, Theremaniacs, Harrison Instruments, PAiA Electronics, and Jaycar. On the other end of the scale, many low-end Theremins, some of which have only pitch control, are offered online and offline, sometimes advertised as toys.

Some enthusiasts prefer to go the "old fashioned" route and design and build their own vacuum tube theremins, given the relatively high prices and rarity of RCA originals. Notable designers are Art Harrison and Mark Keppinger. Design schematics are available on the internet for the interested hobbyist. Vacuum tube theremins are difficult projects involving high voltages, and should not be undertaken lightly by beginners.

Operating principles

The theremin is unique among musical instruments in that it is played without physical contact. The musician stands in front of the instrument and moves his or her hands in the proximity of two metal antennas. The distance from one antenna determines frequency (pitch), and the distance from the other controls amplitude (volume). Most frequently, the right hand controls the pitch and the left controls the volume, although some performers reverse this arrangement. Some low-cost theremins use a conventional, knob operated volume control and have only the pitch antenna.

The theremin uses the heterodyne principle to generate an audio signal. The instrument's pitch circuitry includes two radio frequency oscillators. One oscillator operates at a fixed frequency. The frequency of the other oscillator is controlled by the performer's distance from the pitch control antenna. The performer's hand acts as the grounded plate (the performer's body being the connection to ground) of a variable capacitor in an L-C (inductance-capacitance) circuit. The difference between the frequencies of the two oscillators at each moment allows the creation of a difference tone in the audio frequency range, resulting in audio signals that are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker.

To control volume, the performer's other hand acts as the grounded plate of another variable capacitor. In this case, the capacitor detunes another oscillator, which affects the amplifier circuit. The distance between the performer's hand and the volume control antenna determines the capacitor's value, which regulates the theremin's volume.

Modern circuit designs often simplify this circuit and avoid the complexity of two heterodyne oscillators by having a single pitch oscillator, akin to the original theremin's volume circuit. This approach is usually less stable and cannot generate the low frequencies that a heterodyne oscillator can. Better designs (e.g. Moog, Theremax) may use two pairs of heterodyne oscillators, for both pitch and volume.

Performance technique

Easy to learn but notoriously difficult to master, theremin performance presents two challenges: reliable control of the instrument's pitch with no guidance (no keys, valves, frets, or finger-board positions), and minimizing undesired portamento that is inherent in the instrument's microtonal design.

Pitch control is challenging because, like a violin or trombone, a theremin generates tones of any pitch throughout its entire range, including those that lie between the conventional notes. And, unlike all other instruments, the theremin has no physical feedback (other than sound), like string tension or the tactile fingerboard for strings, or air column resistance in wind instruments. The player has to rely solely on his ear, and can only correct a pitch when it can already be heard. In the case of some string instruments, the range is divided along the strings by use of length divisions (e.g., frets on a guitar). By contrast, in the case of the theremin, the entire range of pitches is controlled by the distance of the performer's hand or fingers to the pitch antenna in mid-air. Precise control of manual position coupled with an excellent sense of pitch is required, since the electromagnetic field around the antenna tends to change slowly over time, resulting in changing positions of individual pitches.

Also, the theremin's continuous range of pitches lends itself to glissando playing, which can be inappropriate to the piece being performed. Skilled performers, through rapid and exact hand movements, minimize undesired portamento and glissando to play individual notes and can even achieve staccato effects. Small and rapid movements of the hands can create tremolo or vibrato effects.

Although pitch is governed primarily by the distance of the performer's hand to the pitch antenna, most precision thereminists augment their playing techniques with a system called "aerial fingering", largely devised by Clara Rockmore and subsequently adapted by Léon Theremin and his protege, Lydia Kavina. It employs specific hand and finger positions to alter slightly the amount of capacitance relative to the pitch antenna to produce small changes in tone quickly and in a manner that can be reliably and quickly reproduced.

An alternate and controversial "hands on" technique is called "angling", in which the pitch control hand is actually set on the top of the theremin, which violates the "no touch" creed of traditionalists. It employs changing the angle of the hand and fingers to alter the pitch and repositioning the hand if the pitch interval is too large for "angling". By touching the instrument, the effect on pitch of extraneous movement is dampened. This permits the use of steady pitches without vibrato and without remaining perfectly still. There is also a way to ensure that when moving around, unnecessary sound is not produced, by using the pitch knob on the side of the instrument, and turning it until no sound is made when a body is around the instrument. (this is beneficial for members of a band that play more than one instrument, but sacrifices a consistent pitch reference, since the instrument is thus tuned to the relative environment, and not to the player's body, so the distance of the tones varies according to the venue.)

Equally important in theremin articulation is the use of the volume control antenna. Unlike touched instruments, where simply halting play or damping a resonator silences the instrument, the thereminist must "play the rests, as well as the notes", as Ms. Rockmore observes. Although volume technique is less developed than pitch technique, some thereminists have worked to extend it, especially Pamelia Kurstin's "walking bass" technique.

Skilled players who overcome these challenges by a precisely controlled combination of movements can achieve complex and expressive performances, and thus realize a theremin's potential.

Some thereminists in the avant-garde openly rebel against developing any formalized technique, viewing it as imposing traditional limitations on an instrument that is inherently free form. These players choose to develop their own highly personalized techniques. The question of the relative value of formal technique versus free form performances is hotly debated among thereminists. Theremin artist Anthony Ptak uses antenna interference in live performance.

Recent versions of the theremin have been functionally updated: the Moog Ethervox, while functionally still a theremin, can also be used as a MIDI controller, and as such, the artist is able to control any MIDI-compatible synthesizer with it, using the theremin's continuous pitch to drive modern synths.


Concert music

Theremins are popular instruments among avant-garde and new music artists because of their perceived freedom from traditional compositional structures. It is also performed as a classical instrument, and is occasionally used in jazz improvisation.

Concert composers who have written for theremin include Lera Auerbach, Bohuslav Martinů, Dmitri Shostakovich, Charles Ives, Percy Grainger, Christian Wolff, Joseph Schillinger, Alan Hovhaness, Edgar Varese, Moritz Eggert, Iraida Yusupova, Jorge Antunes, Vladimir Komarov, Anis Fuleihan and Dalit Warshaw.

A recent concert composition utilizing the theremin is Lera Auerbach's ballet The Little Mermaid, a three hour production featuring the theremin as the mermaid's voice throughout. The Royal Danish Ballet commissioned Russian- North American composer Auerbach to make a modern rendition of this fairy tale. It premiered on April 15, 2005 with Lydia Kavina as the theremin soloist. Kavina also performed in Olga Neuwirth's opera Bählamms Fest (after Leonora Carrington's Baa-Lamb's Holiday), which premiered in 1999. Elizabeth Brown composed "Rural Electrification", a chamber opera for voice, theremin and recorded sound, as well as "Piranesi" for theremin and string quartet and "Atlantis" for theremin and guitar. The instrument also features in Constantine Koukias' large-scale experimental opera, Tesla - Lightning in His Hand, which opened Tasmania's 2003 10 Days on the Island Festival.

Dalit Warshaw, a student of Clara Rockmore, is a composer, pianist and thereminist who has performed on the instrument with such ensembles as the New York Philharmonic and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, among others. Works written for theremin by Dalit Warshaw have been performed at Lincoln Centermarker, Steinway Hall and at the L.A. Philharmonic's Disney Hallmarker.

Lydia Kavina is a well known Russian thereminist composer and theremin instructor. She is the niece of one of Léon Theremin's first-degree cousins. Her repertoire consists primarily of classical and neo-classical compositions, many of which were written for the instrument. British thereminist Celia Sheen has contributed to many recordings and soundtracks, including the re-recordings of Rozsa's Spellbound Concerto and his complete Spellbound score, and Shostakovich's score to The Girlfriends for Naxos, both theremin parts in the re-release of Herrmann's The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as her regular appearance on the soundtrack of Midsomer Murders.

In the United States, Pamelia Kurstin performs as a thereminist whose eclectic styles and innovations continue to expand the instrument's range. Her performances encompass the classical and jazz idioms, as well as in ethnic and avant-rock music with the band Barbez. More recently, the Armenian thereminist Armen Ra (also based in the United States) has promoted the instrument by performing popular, classical and Armenian music on the instruments.

Formed the year 2008, a unique musical group called The Divine Hand Ensemble features concert thereminist Mano Divina. Accompanied by his seven piece string ensemble, Divina's international music act includes a collection of skilled performances in modern music, classic rock covers, sacred choral music, opera arias, chamber music, and classical compositions. Mano Divina and the Divine Hand Ensemble have been noted to bring a lyrical sensibility to the theremin and are the most recent in its long awaited uprising. Ensemble members include Monique Canniere and Julie Myers on violin, Alison Williams on viola, Jonathan Salmon on cello, Sean Carnahan on classical guitar, Gloria Galante on harp, and Dan Webb on glockenspiel.

Pop music

Theremins and theremin-like sounds started to be incorporated into popular music from the end of the 1940s (with a series of Samuel Hoffman/Harry Revel collaborations) and this continued, with varying popularity, to the present.

The Lothars are a Boston-area band formed in early 1997 whose CDs have featured as many as four theremins played at once—a first for pop music.

Although credited with a "Thereman" [sic] on the "Mysterons" track from album Dummy, Portishead actually used a monophonic synthesizer to achieve theremin-like effects.

Film music

The Russian Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the first composers to include parts for the theremin in orchestral pieces, including a use in his score for the 1931 film Odna. While the theremin was not widely used in classical music performances, the instrument found great success in many motion pictures, notably, Spellbound, The Red House, The Lost Weekend (All three of which were written by Miklós Rózsa, the composer who pioneered the use of the instrument in Hollywood scores), The Spiral Staircase, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing , The Ten Commandments (the 1956 DeMille film). More recent appearances in film scores include Monster House, Ed Wood, and The Machinist (both featuring Lydia Kavina). The DVDs for Ed Wood, Bartleby, and The Day the Earth Stood Still contain short features on the theremin. Robby Virus, the founder and theremin player of the band Project:Pimento, was featured on the soundtrack to the movie Hellboy (2004).

Throughout the theremin's use in film music from the 1940s to the 1960s, its sound was equated with the bizarre and alien. Because of Clara Rockmore's professed distaste for such projects, the thereminist most commonly enlisted to perform anything from haunting melodies to eerie sound effects was Dr. Samuel Hoffman, whose performances can be heard most prominently in the soundtracks for Spellbound (1945) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Ronald Stein was a composer of soundtracks who also played theremin for movies such as The She Creature (1956) and the Queen of Blood (1966).

Actor Jerry Lewis plays a theremin briefly in the 1957 Paramount film The Delicate Delinquent. The latter part of the scene actually uses thereminist Samuel Hoffman in the soundtrack, to which Jerry Lewis mimes the motions of playing the instrument.

A theremin was not used for the soundtrack of Forbidden Planet, for which Louis and Bebe Barron built "disposable" oscillator circuits and a ring modulator to create the "electronic tonalities" for the film.

Bruce Woolley provided all the Theremin parts for "Storm" the title song of The Avengers movie and also the "Sound Of Music" sequence in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge!

Philadelphia thereminist Howard Mossman provided the theremin music for Jens Lien's 2006 award-winning film The Bothersome Man using an RCA theremin.

Los Angeles-based thereminist Charles Richard Lester is featured on the soundtrack of Monster House and has performed the US premiere of Gavriil Popov's 1932 score for Komsomol—Patron of Electrification with the L. A. Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2007.

In the 2007 biopic parody film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Dewey Cox suggests to one of his band members that he open his mind, and learn to play the theremin. It comes at a time when Dewey is using LSD pretty heavily, and has been working on his "masterpiece" album which is one very long song with countless obscure instruments, a full symphony, a vocal accompaniment of indigenous Australians and a goat. The scene is a parody of Brian Wilson, the driving force of The Beach Boys and the album Smile.


  • A theremin is used to generate the electronic wails of the energy monster in "The Invisible Monster" episode of the 1964 Hanna-Barbera animated series, Jonny Quest.
  • Coloratura soprano Loulie Jean Norman imitated the sound and feel of the theremin for Alexander Courage's theme for the original Star Trek TV series. Soprano Elin Carlson sang Norman's part when CBS-Paramount TV remastered the program's title sequence in 2006.
  • The British television series Midsomer Murders uses a theremin in its popular theme tune as well as in underscore, to add depth and melody. The theremin part is played by Celia Sheen.
  • In May, 2007, the White Castle American hamburger restaurant chain introduced a television ad featuring a theremin performance by musician Jon Bernhardt of the band The Lothars.


  • In the novel Hannibal, Hannibal Lecter buys and plays a theremin as well as other musical instruments.
  • A theremin is played at a wedding ceremony in the Herman Wouk novel Marjorie Morningstar
  • The theremin is used as a literary device in "Constellations for Theremin" by Andrew Joron
  • In the novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Captain Beatty says "If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly. I'll think I'm responding to the play when it's only a tactile reaction to a vibration. But I don't care. I just like solid entertainment."

Video games

Similar instruments

  • The Ondes-Martenot also uses the principle of heterodyning oscillators, but has a keyboard as well as a slide controller and is touched while playing.
  • The Electro-Theremin (or Tannerin) does not use heterodyning oscillators and has to be touched while playing, but it allows continuous variation of the frequency range and sounds similar to the theremin.
  • The Persephone, an analogue fingerboard synthesizer with CV and MIDI, inspired by the trautonium. The Persephone allows continuous variation of the frequency range from 1 to 10 octaves. The ribbon is pressure and position sensitive.
  • The Electronde, invented in 1929 by Martin Taubman, has an antenna for pitch control, a handheld switch for articulation and a foot pedal for volume control.
  • The Syntheremin is an extension of the theremin.
  • The Croix Sonore (Sonorous Cross), is based on the theremin. It was developed by Russian composer Nicolas Obouchov in France, after he saw Lev Theremin demonstrate the theremin in 1924.
  • The terpsitone, also invented by Theremin, consisted of a platform fitted with space-controlling antennas, through and around which a dancer would control the musical performance. By most accounts, the instrument was nearly impossible to control. Of the three instruments built, only the last one, made in 1978 for Lydia Kavina, survives today.
  • The Z.Vex Effects Fuzz Probe, Wah Probe and Tremolo Probe, using a theremin to control said effects. The Fuzz Probe can be used as a theremin, as it can through feedback oscillation create tones of any pitch.
  • The Haken Continuum Fingerboard uses a continuous, flat playing surface along which the player slides his fingers to create the desired pitch and timbre values. Describable as "a continuous pitch controller that resembles a keyboard, but has no keys."

See also


  1. Theremin World
  2. Albert Glinsky, Ether Music and Espionage, p.285
  3. UNT: Strupsång, theremin och vägen inåt
  4. Tell Me More, BBC, h2g2 project, Undated.Accessed:05-20-2008.
  5. History of the Theremin, Moog Music, Undated.Accessed:05-20-2008.
  6. MRQE - Movie Review Query Engine - Theremin, see also the rare 100% score at Rotten Tomatoes
  7. Theremin Comparison Chart
  8. A review for the Enkelaar Theremin (and others)
  9. Theremin Vox - In Clara's Words
  10. Etherwave® Theremins
  11. Ionisation: Thomas Arne, Ludwig van Beethoven, Edward Elgar, Anis Fuleihan, Edgard Varese, Arturo Toscanini, Henry J. Wood, Jean Sibelius, Leopold Stokowski, Nicolas Slonimsky, Wilhelm Furtwängler, BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, New York Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Clara Rockmore: Music
  12. Music out of the Moon, Harry Revel, conducted by Les Baxter, Capitol Records Nr. T390, released 1947
  13. Glinsky, Albert, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press), 2000), p 341.
  14. Interview with David Utley on Soundonsound, June 1995
  15. Hellboy cast list
  16. Notes about film soundtrack and CD, MovieGrooves-FP
  17. imdb details for "Monster House"
  18. L. A. Philharmonic concert details
  19. Thereminist Oscar in posting about Theremin: Ghostly electronic music with a modern twist at Retro Thing website, 07-18-2006.Accessed: 05-20-2008.
  20. Elin Carlson's website, Undated. Accessed: 05-20-2008.
  21. White Castle Ad on YouTube
  22. IGN Interview
  23. GameDaily: "Ode to Joystick"
  24. Homsar's Instruments - Homestar Runner Wiki
  25. Taubman demonstrates his Electronde. Stills and a downloadable video at British Pathe news archive. 1938-12-12.


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