An Etherwave-Theremin, assembled from Robert Moog's kit: the loop antenna on the left controls the volume while the upright antenna controls the pitch
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The theremin (// THERR-ə-min; originally known as the ætherphone/etherphone, thereminophone or termenvox/thereminvox) is an early electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the thereminist (performer). It is named after the Westernized name of its Russian inventor, Léon Theremin, who patented the device in 1928.
The instrument's controlling section usually consists of two metal antennas that sense the relative position of the thereminist'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 was used in movie soundtracks such as Miklós Rózsa's Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, and Bernard Herrmann's The Day the Earth Stood Still. It has also been used in theme songs for television shows such as the ITV drama Midsomer Murders. This has led to its association with a very eerie sound. Theremins are also used in concert 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 Soviet government-sponsored research into proximity sensors. The instrument was invented by a young Russian physicist named Lev Sergeyevich Termen (known in the West as Léon Theremin) in October 1920 after the outbreak of the Russian Civil War. After a lengthy tour of Europe, during which time he demonstrated his invention to packed houses, Theremin found his way to the United States, 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.
During the 1930s, Lucie Bigelow Rosen was also taken with the theremin and together with her husband Walter Bigelow Rosen provided both financial and artistic support to the development and popularisation of the instrument.
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 City apartment by NKVD agents (preceding the KGB), taken back to the Soviet Union 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 that 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.
Theremin kit building remains popular with electronics buffs; kits are available from Moog Music, Theremaniacs, 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.
The theremin is distinguished among musical instruments in that it is played without physical contact. The thereminist 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). Higher notes are played by moving the hand closer to the pitch antenna. Louder notes are played by moving the hand away from the volume antenna. 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. While commonly called antennas, they are not used for receiving or broadcasting radio waves, but act as plates of a capacitor.
The theremin uses the heterodyne principle to generate an audio signal. The instrument's pitch circuitry includes two radio frequency oscillators set below 500 kHz to minimize radio interference. 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, which is part of the oscillator and determines its frequency. Some versions functioned with a change in capacitance between the performer and the instrument in the order of 0.01 picofarads to produce the full span of frequency shift. 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. As in the tone circuit, the distance between the performer's hand and the volume control antenna determines the capacitance and hence natural resonant frequency of an LC circuit inductively coupled to another fixed LC oscillator circuit operating at a slightly higher resonant frequency. When a hand approaches the antenna, the natural frequency of that circuit is further lowered, which further detunes the connected oscillator and lowers its resonant plate current. The RF plate current of the oscillator is picked up by another winding and used to power the filament of another diode-connected triode, which thus acts as a variable conductance element changing the output amplitude. The harmonic timbre of the output, not being a pure tone, was an important feature of the theremin. Theremin's original design included audio frequency series/parallel LC equalization elements as well as a 3-winding variable-saturation transformer to control or induce harmonics in the audio output.
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.
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 Clara Rockmore observed. Although volume technique is less developed than pitch technique, some thereminists have worked to extend it, especially Pamelia Kurstin with her "walking bass" technique and Rupert Chappelle.
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 allows the artist to control any MIDI-compatible synthesizer with it, using the theremin's continuous pitch to drive modern synths. The Harrison Instruments Model 302 Theremin uses symmetrical horizontal plates instead of a vertical rod and horizontal loop to control pitch and volume, with the volume increasing as the hand approaches the plate.
Concert composers who have written for theremin include Bohuslav Martinů, Percy Grainger, Christian Wolff, Joseph Schillinger, Moritz Eggert, Iraida Yusupova, Jorge Antunes, Vladimir Komarov, Anis Fuleihan, and Fazıl Say. Another large-scale theremin concerto is Kalevi Aho's Concerto for Theremin and Chamber Orchestra "Eight Seasons" (2011), written for Carolina Eyck.
Maverick composer Percy Grainger chose to use ensembles of four or six theremins (in preference to a string quartet) for his two earliest experimental Free Music compositions (1935–37) because of the instrument's complete 'gliding' freedom of pitch.
Other notable contemporary Theremin players include Lydia Kavina, Pamelia Kurstin, and Barbara Buchholz. Dutch classical musician Thorwald Jørgensen has been described as "one of the most important exponents of classical music on the theremin".
On July 20, 2013, a group of 272 theremin players (Matryomin ensemble) in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, Japan, achieved a Guinness world record as the largest theremin ensemble. The name Matryomin is a portmanteau of the words matryoshka and theremin.
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.
While The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" features an instrument that sounds much like a theremin, in fact the sound is made by a unique instrument called the electro-theremin. It was re-created in 1999 and renamed the "Tannerin" in honor of the original creator and performer.
Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin used a variation of the theremin (minus the loop) during performances of "Whole Lotta Love" and "No Quarter" throughout the performance history of Led Zeppelin, an extended multi-instrumental solo featuring theremin and bowed guitar in 1977, as well as the soundtrack for Death Wish II released in 1982. Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones also used the instrument on the group's 1967 albums Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request.
Although credited with a "Thereman" [sic] on the "Mysterons" track from the album Dummy, Portishead actually used a monophonic synthesizer to achieve theremin-like effects, as confirmed by Adrian Utley, who is credited as playing the instrument; he has also created similar sounds on the songs "Half Day Closing", "Humming", "The Rip" and "Machine Gun".
Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the first to incorporate parts for the theremin in orchestral pieces, including a use in his score for the film Odna (Russian: Одна – 1931, Leonid Trauberg and Grigori Kozintsev). 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, Rocketship X-M, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing (From Another World), and The Ten Commandments (the 1956 DeMille film). The theremin is played and identified as such in use in the Jerry Lewis movie The Delicate Delinquent. The theremin is prominent in the score for the 1956 short film "A Short Vision", which was aired on The Ed Sullivan Show the same year that it was used by the Hungarian composer Matyas Seiber. More recent appearances in film scores include Monster House, Ed Wood and The Machinist (both featuring Lydia Kavina).
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 used in the film.
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.
- The Alexander Courage theme for on the original Star Trek was done by a mixture of instruments with vocals to get "unearthly" sound. The theremin-like sound theme was actually provided by renowned studio soprano Loulie Jean Norman until her voice was removed in later seasons. Soprano Elin Carlson sang part of the theme when CBS-Paramount TV remastered the program's title sequence in 2006.
- In May 2007, the White Castle American hamburger restaurant chain introduced a television ad centered around a live theremin performance by musician Jon Bernhardt of the band The Lothars. It is the only known example of a theremin performance being the focus of an advertisement.
- In October 2008, comedian, musician and theremin enthusiast Bill Bailey played a theremin during his performance of Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, which has subsequently been televised. He has previously also written an article, presented a radio show and incorporated the theremin in some of his televised comedy tours.
- On a 2011 episode of The Big Bang Theory (The Bus Pants Utilization), Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) plays a theremin to annoy his friends and disrupt their work on a phone application. Later he uses it to console himself when they kick him out of their apartment.  
- Since the 1960's stand-up comedian Robert Klein would occasionally imitate a theremin with his mouth, in one concert stating that making the sound to a would-be mugger would deter him on the grounds he would think the person too weird to rob.
- Radio comedians Bob and Ray performed a routine in which Ray Goulding played a symphony concert performer in a mock interview with Bob Elliott, stating a theremin was going to be used in an upcoming performance.
- Composer Garry Schyman used a Theremin for the musical score of the 2005 videogame Destroy All Humans!
- Lydia Kavina's solo theremin is featured on the soundtrack for the 2006 MMORPG computer game Soul of the Ultimate Nation, composed by Howard Shore.
- The Ondes-Martenot, 1928, 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 after Paul Tanner who played it in several productions including three tracks for The Beach Boys), built by Bob Whitsell in the 1950s, 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 same instrument was also used to generate the outer space sounds for George Greeley's theme to the TV show My Favorite Martian
- Trautonium, a monophonic electronic musical instrument by Friedrich Trautwein, invented in 1929
- The Persephone, an analogue fingerboard synthesizer with CV and MIDI, inspired by the trautonium. The Persephone allows continuous variation of the frequency range from one 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 antennae, 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."
- The MC-505 by Roland by being able to use the integrated D-Beam-sensor like a Theremin.
- The Otamatone by the Cube Works company, which is played by sliding the fingers up and down a stem to control a three-level pitch sound.
- The Audiocubes by Percussa are light emitting smart blocks that have four sensors on each side (optical theremin). The sensors measure the distance to your hands to control an effect or sound.
- A musical saw, also called a singing saw, is the application of a hand saw as a musical instrument. The sound creates an ethereal tone, very similar to the theremin. The musical saw is classified as a friction idiophone with direct friction (131.22) under the Hornbostel-Sachs system of musical instrument classification.
- A three radio theremin (Super Theremin, スーパーテレミン) invented by Tomoya Yamamoto (山本智), composed of three independent radio sets. Radio set #1 is to listen and to record the signal at around 1600 kHz. Radio set #2 is tuned at 1145 kHz so that its local oscillator of around 1600 kHz is to be received by radio set #1. Radio set #3 is also tuned at 1145 kHz so that its local oscillator may produce the beat with radio set #2. Operator's hand movement around bar antenna of radio set #3 may affect the local oscillator to produce tonal change.
- The Matryomin by Masami Takeuchi, is a single-antenna Theremin-type device mounted inside a Matryoshka doll (aka Russian Doll).
- The Chimaera is a digital offspring of theremin and touchless ribbon controller and based on distance sensing of permanent magnets. An array of linear hall-effect sensors, each acting as an individual theremin in a changing magnetic field, responds to multiple moving Neodymium magnets worn on fingers and forms a continuous interaction space in two dimensions.
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Film and video
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to [[commons:Script error: The function "getCommonsLink" does not exist.|Script error: The function "getCommonsLink" does not exist.]].|
- Pamelia Kurstin on Ted.com
- Theremin Times
- TECI: Theremin Enthusiasts Club International
- Theremin Family
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