What is a theremin? All you need to know about the quirky instrument

It has been used in pop music, classical music and movies about alien landings, but what actually is a theremin and how is it played? Here is everything you need to know about the eerie, sci-fi-esque instrument

Carolina Eyck playing the theremin
Published: May 10, 2022 at 12:54 pm
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What is a theremin?

Invented in 1920, the theremin was the world's electronic instrument, known for its contactless playing technique, its use in science fiction films and its eerie timbre that sounds like a descending alien spacecraft.

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Who invented it?

A Russian Soviet-era scientist named Leon Theremin.

How did he invent it?

As a 23-year-old man working at the Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd, Theremin noticed that something strange happened when he connected audio circuits to an electrical device called an oscillator in a certain way. The oscillator produced an audible tone when he held his hands near it, and he could shift the tone just by waving his hands about. As a classically-trained cellist, he saw its potential as a musical instrument and delivered the first concert with it soon after. Later he held a private demonstration for Lenin and Einstein, before coming to the USA, where he patented the device.

How do you play it?

The theremin has two antennae - one horizontal and one vertical - each of which has an electromagnetic field surrounding it. You play it by moving your hand in front of the instrument, creating interference. The closer your hand gets to the vertical antenna, the higher the pitch, and the closer it gets from the horizontal one, the quieter the volume. However, the distance between the individual notes can vary according to the individual instrument.

Is it easy to play?

No. In fact, it is one of the most notoriously difficult instruments to master.

What were the first pieces to feature a theremin?

The very first was an orchestral piece called Symphonic Mystery by Andrei Paschenko, which was premiered in 1924. But most of the sheet music for the piece was lost after its second performance. Other early 20th century concert composers who have written for theremin include Bohuslav Martinů, Percy Grainger, Edgard Varèse and Dmitri Shostakovich, who used it to evoke a snowstorm in his score for the 1931 Soviet film, Odna.

And outside the world of the classical music?

The go-to instrument for an extra-terrestrial encounter, the theremin was used to score various science fiction films in the 1940s and 50s, most famously The Day the Earth Stood Still, scored by Bernard Hermann. It also appeared in the soundtrack to various horror and mystery movies, among them Miklós Rózsa's 1945 score to the Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound. Various pop and rock stars have had their dalliances with the theremin, including Simon and Garfunkel, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and The Rolling Stones's Brian Jones - and the instrument's influence on electronic music was considerable. Contrary to popular myth, the theremin does not appear on the Beach Boys' 1966 single Good Vibrations or anywhere on the soundtracks to Doctor Who or Star Wars. But it does have a big role in Clangers, the children's tv series about a family of mouse-like creatures who live on a small moon-like planet.

Is it still being used?

Yes! In fact, it's having a bit of a renaissance, inspiring a range of artists, including the German-Sorbian theremin virtuoso Carolina Eyck (pictured), the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho (more on this below) and the Icelandic classically-trained musician Hekla Magnúsdóttir, who combines it with voice in her work, not least in her 2020 album Sprungur.

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When can I next hear one?

At this year's BBC Proms, in Kalevi Aho's Concerto for Theremin and Chamber Orchestra on Thursday 4 August.

Authors

Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.

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