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the Theremin

The music you are now hearing is the sound of the theremin as played by Clara Rockmore. She is accompanied by her sister, Nadia Reisenberg, on the piano. The song they are playing is a version of The Swan from Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-SaŽns, one that has been transcribed for this instrument. To hear the theremin play The Swan again at any time, start the media player under the picture of a theremin, below.

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The Theremin is an electronic musical instrument. The picture shows a typical modern theremin, this one mounted on a pedestal. Notice that it has two antennas, one round and the other straight. To play this instrument, the musician sits on a chair in front of the pedestal and waves his hands at these antennas. No kidding!

All theremins sound pretty much alike. Modern electronic miniaturization makes it possible for manufacturers and amateur builders to greatly vary the materials, construction, and appearance of specific theremin models.

the sound of the theremin

The sound produced by a theremin has been described by various listeners as fascinating, calming, peaceful, mesmerizing, eerie, mysterious, ethereal, otherworldly, and supernatural. How would you describe it?

The design and quality of the electronic components employed in a theremin's construction have relatively little impact on a theremin's sound quality. More important for sound, some theremins are designed with only one antenna to lower their cost and make them simpler to play. Theremins with one antenna employ a knob on the instrument's control panel that allows the performer to adjust the volume to a setting of his choice.

To get an idea of how a theremin can affect the sound of a musical passage, first remind yourself of what a theremin sounds like by starting the media player under the theremin picture, above. Next listen to The Swan played by the cello by clicking below. Then compare the two versions.

  • Hear a version of The Swan that is close to the original one as Saint-SaŽns conceived it: click here.

The version of The Swan that you have just heard is not exactly the same as The Swan that Saint-SaŽns composed. We offer this version of The Swan, which is scored for one cello and one piano, instead of the Saint-SaŽns original, which is scored for cello and two pianos, to bring the sound of the theremin performance a little closer to the sound of the original cello version as Saint-SaŽns scored it. This version, which has been transcribed for cello and single piano, is played by Mischa Maisky, cello, and Pavel Gililov, piano, and is arranged by Maurice Ravel.

Which of the two versions do you think Saint-SaŽns would have preferredóthe theremin version or the cello? Decide for yourself which one you like better. Do both versions appeal to you equally? Does the sound of the cello seem more appropriate for this piece than the sound of the theremin? If your answer is yes, can you imagine other kinds of music where the cello might seem out of place and the theremin might be a better choice?

history

The theremin was popularized in the U.S. in the 1950s by the American movie industry. At that time it was virtually unique; no other electronic instruments were extant and no other acoustic instrument produced a similar sound. For a while it was employed extensively by first-class Hollywood soundtrack composers to produce moody, etherial background music and strange, novel sound effects. It figured prominently in the soundtracks of a number of successful films of the times, among them Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

But soon the instrument became a clichť; once you'd heard one in a few movies, you didn't need to hear another one. Because theremin scores were inexpensive to produce, the theremin hung on for a while, but eventually it was relegated to second-rate 1950s science fiction and horror moves, until finally it all but disappeared.

performance and construction

How does the device work? Two metal antennas protrude above a box that contains electronic oscillators. The performing musician, sometimes referred to as a thereminist, controls the instrument without touching it by varying the distance between his hands and the two antennas and by subtle movements of his palms or fingers. Sound frequency is controlled with one hand and volume with the other by moving the hands closer or farther away from the antennas. Hands or fingers are waved to create a vibrato effect.

Leon Theremin, inventor of the theremin

Circuits in the box that are attached to the two antennas sense the positions and other movements of the hands and cause the radio frequency oscillators inside the box to vary their electric current output in a way that responds to and reflects these movements. The electric signals produced by these oscillators are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker.

The picture at the left shows Leon Theremin, eponymous inventor of the musical instrument that is named after him. If you look carefully, you can see the two antennas mounted on the box, one circular (under his left hand) and one straight (directly in front of his right hand).

  • See and hear the theremin being put through its paces at the YouTube web site: click here.
  • See and hear the theremin playing a melody at the YouTube web site: click here.
  • See and hear how the theremin sounds as a member of an all-electric combo: click here.
  • See and hear a popular melody played on the theremin, 1950s style: click here.
  • Take a theremin lesson online: click here.

Theremin was musically inclined and played the cello when, as a 21 year old student at the Physico-Technical Institute in Petrograd in the 1920s, he was assigned the task of developing a vacuum tube alarm device that would work on the principle of human proximity. While working in his lab, he accidentally noticed that the presence of his body could detune a radio receiver; this accident gave him the idea to develop a variable pitch alarm, which he called the Ether Phone. The Ether Phone led to the thermin.

The theremin has a shadowy background that fits calls to mind its mysterious sound. When Lenin, the Russian revolutionary leader and Soviet premier, sent theremin on a tour of the U.S. to show off his new invention, the KGB took advantage of his visit to involve him in espionage. Theremin also is alleged to be responsible for a listening device which was found in the American embassy in Moscow in the early 50ís, where it had lain for more than 20 years, hidden inside the wooden carving of the Great Seal of the United States that hung on the wall over the ambassadorís desk.

The theremin is the first electronic musical instrument ever to be played without being touched; it was patented in the U.S. in 1928. The famous Robert Moog, who invented the Moog Synthesizer in the late 1960s, started his career by building theremins in the 1950s while he was a high-school student. The Moog Synthesizer which eventually came out of this work is credited with stimulating the creation of other electronic instruments and, ultimately, the wave of electronic music that we have today. Thus, the theremin can rightly be called the father of all electronic synthesizers.

You may find it interesting to consider that Saint-SaŽns' The Swan (for theremin), which you may have played earlier, was made under the direction of Robert Moog in 1977.

The theremin is tricky to play because of the mastery needed to properly coordinate the hands and control their distance from the antennas. After its initial success in the 1950s, the theremin all but disappeared; it failed to catch on because other electronic instruments, such as the Moog Synthesizer, the electric guitar, and keyboards, were invented that were easier to play. Many of these new instruments resembled the acoustic instruments whose sound they simulated and which musicians already knew how to play.

Ironically, the modern popularity of these other electronic instruments eventually led to a mild revival of interest in the theremin. The 1994 release of the film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey contributed mightily to a resurgence of interest in the device. It introduced a new generation of musicians to the instrument and raised theremin awareness among musicians who already knew about it. Its very differences now worked in its favor; musicians became fascinated by them and the new possibilities they afforded. It didn't sound, look, or play like anything else in the instrument lineup. Now, in 21st century, it shows up in avante-garde art music, new music, and in some popular music genres, one of these being rock.

The picture at the right shows a poster from the 1994 film, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. the robot behind the picture of Theremin (the man) and theremin (the instrument) is from another movie, the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still.


About the glossary of musical terms

The Muse Of Music offers an extensive automated glossary of musical terms, many of which pertain to musical instruments. With the help of the Glossary you'll be able to tell the difference between a French horn and an English horn; possibly you'll discover lots of other things you might like to know about instruments and how they fit into the musical repertoire.


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