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The Eerie Sounds of the Theremin – Music of the Future that Arrived 100 Years Ago

Steve Palace
Swedish music group Detektivbyrån rocking the theremin in 2009. Photo by Bengt Nyman CC by 2.0
Swedish music group Detektivbyrån rocking the theremin in 2009. Photo by Bengt Nyman CC by 2.0

It was invented 100 years ago, but the theremin is still the sound of the future. The magic box that turns motion into music is celebrated by musicians and listeners worldwide. But why?

Lev Theremin (also known as Léon Theremin or Lev Termen) was the man who brought it to life in the first place. A Russian radio engineer working for the Soviets, he created the instrument after stumbling on a process called “heterodyning”. Put simply, this merges frequencies to create a new one, in turn altering pitch and volume.

“I made a strong transmitter-receiver,” said Theremin in an interview published two years after his death in 1995. He found “there was too much feedback, a strong sound interaction. And it turned out that when the capacity changes at a distance of the moving hand, the pitch of the sound also changes. I immediately tried to play this sound with my hand. This was the moment of invention.”

Etherwave Theremin from Robert Moog’s kit. Photo by Hutschi CC by SA-3.0

The reliance on a player’s movements rather than contact with keys or strings was what set the theremin apart. Together with its eerie yet beautiful sound, a new chapter had been opened in what music could achieve. Take a peek inside and “a circuit of vacuum tubes, oscillators, coils and wires” would be seen, which generated “electromagnetic fields around the instrument’s two antennae”, according to the website How Stuff Works.

theremin history
Alexandra Stepanoff playing the theremin on NBC Radio, 1930

But the art of waving in the vicinity of an antennae wasn’t for everyone. The site notes that “Inexperienced players often created nothing more than atonal blats and bleats”, whereas others “made the instrument sound as gorgeous and haunting as any operatic aria one might have heard broadcast from Carnegie Hall.”

theremin history
Bruce Woolley with RCA Victor Theremin. Photo by Soundsweep CC by SA-4.0

While Lev Theremin was one of a few experts noticing the principles behind the instrument, he was the first to develop and patent the concept. After the public were introduced to the theremin in 1920, patents were obtained in 1921 (Russia), 1924 (Germany) and 1928 (America). Those wanting to get their hands on one would have to pay the then-hefty sum of $175.

Lev Theremin, creator of the Theremin, performing with the instrument.

It captured many music lover’s imaginations. The look of it was so different to anything that had come before. How Stuff Works describes RCA’s 1930s version as “more like a tiny writing desk than the future of electronica.” The otherworldly charm of a theremin is appreciated today. Quoted by Smithsonian Magazine this year, musician Dorit Chrysler refers to it having “the Houdini effect. Because it seems to defy the laws of physics.” She goes on to say, “It really transmits any kind of emotional state just as the voice does—if your voice is trembling, if you’re anxious, if you’re angry, or happy. They’re different colors.”

Success didn’t sustain for Lev Theremin. A combination of the Great Depression (which rendered his invention too expensive), personal financial difficulties and the rise of Nazism saw him go back to the Soviet Union in the late Thirties.

A couple of decades on and the theremin came in from the cold when it was adopted by sci-fi movie composers. Bernard Herrmann used it as part of the soundtrack for The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Most recently it was a major element in 2018 Neil Armstrong biopic First Man. Armstrong liked the sound, and Justin Hurwitz won a Golden Globe for the score.

Also featured was a Moog synthesizer, designed by Robert Moog who was heavily influenced by Lev Theremin’s work. He wrote the foreword for the inventor’s biography. Without the theremin there wouldn’t be electronic music as people know it. That’s why it’s so significant.

The instrument, or rather its creator, wasn’t without controversy. On arrival back in Russia, Theremin was arrested on suspicions of crimes against the state. Whilst a prisoner he went on to create an infamous listening device ominously titled “The Thing”, which successfully recorded conversations at the Moscow Ambassador’s office in America for seven years.

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Despite these less palatable details, his contribution to music everywhere is invaluable. Arguably the ultimate space age tribute was paid when Dorit Chrysler played a theremin next to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. It will forever be associated with looking forward, no matter how old it gets.