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Ten fun facts about the theremin

Have you ever wanted to control sound waves? Or spook your friends with an eerie melody? Are you a hip electronic music producer, who wants to embrace the ghoulish spirit of vintage electronica? If you answered yes, you might want to invest in a theremin. This instrument is controlled by slight hand movements. The hand always lingers and it never makes contact with the instrument itself. The sound is controlled by movements in space, producing a visual performance and auditory experience sure to send chills up your spine. Here are ten fun facts about the theremin, OUP’s eerie instrument of the month:

Image Credit: Lev Termen playing his instrument, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Image Credit: Lev Termen playing his instrument, US public domain via Wikimedia Commons
  1. The theremin is a ‘space-controlled’ electronic instrument that was invented by Lev Sergeyevich Termen in the early 20th century, which makes it one of the earliest electronic instruments and the first successful one. If you’re into vintage electronica, we suggest looking into Lev’s orchestral demos.  
  2. The theremin is monophonic, meaning it only uses one channel of transmission to create sound.
  3. The theremin is similar to a radio receiver. It has two antennae: one on the right that is vertical and one to the left that is loop-shaped.
  4. To play the theremin, you cannot touch it. The single pitch comes from its loudspeaker and depends on how far away the performer keeps their right hand from the instrument’s vertical antenna.
  5.  The volume is controlled by a similar process. As the left-hand pulls away from the horizontal  loop antenna, the amplitude of sound increases.  
  6. The first orchestral work with a solo electronic instrument was Andrey Pashchenko’s Simfonicheskaya misteriya (‘Symphonic Mystery’) for theremin and orchestra, which received its first performance in Leningrad on 2 May 1924. Lev Termen was a soloist.
  7. The theremin was popular in science-fiction films. The first film the instrument appeared in was a Soviet science fiction called Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924).
  8.  The theremin was quickly picked up by Hollywood film composers, appearing in Max Steiner’s score for King Kong (1933), Franz Waxman’s score for Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and in Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
Image Credit: King Kong French Movie Poster, 1933, RKO Radio Pictures; Roland Coudon, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Image Credit: King Kong French Movie Poster, 1933, RKO Radio Pictures; Roland Coudon, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
  1.  The theremin’s pop culture stardom was not limited to science fiction movies. An instrument with a similar sound,  an “electro-theremin” or tannerin, was used in the Beach Boys’ song Good Vibrations (1966).
  2.  The theremin is a close instrumental relative to the terpsitone, which is a dancefloor that responds to dance movement with electronic sound.

Image Credit: Ash Nowak, Dorit Chrysler, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, taken 18 January 2015, (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Recent Comments

  1. Gordon Charlton

    Fact 9 is incorrect. The Beach Boys used an “electro-theremin” (aka “Tannerin”) which sounds similar but is not a space-controlled instrument, so not a theremin.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electro-Theremin

  2. Lizzie Furey

    Thank you for that fact-check! We’ve corrected the error.

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