Known for soundtracking countless B-movies in the fifties and leading the orchestra that played the original Star Trek theme tune, we’re going to take a look at one of the weirder, more sequestered instruments of the music-making world: the theremin. The theremin is also the oldest electronic musical instrument in existence, and what marks it out from the synthesizers that followed is not just that UFO-like whine, but the bizarre hands-off gesturing technique that’s used to play it. This is the only musical instrument you can play without even touching it.

The Things You Can Actually Do With a Theremin
Photos: Gerard Burgers

Keep Your Distance

If you’re sharing the stage with an energetic guitarist, then it just makes sense to keep your distance, but if you’re sharing the stage with a theremin player, what most people don’t know is that you need to keep a distance of at least a metre and a half. Why? Because if you unwittingly pass through the electromagnetic field of a theremin, you’ll add a sudden and unwanted note bend to the melody. This can also happen if you bump into the stand or even nudge a cable. Even if the sound engineer happens to brush against the surface of the mixing desk, they can have a hand in ‘playing’ the theremin (a problem that’s easily fixed by using a DI box).

This extreme level of sensitivity has everything to do with how a theremin works (see the detailed explanation of how a theremin works later in this blog). Inside a theremin, an electronic signal is ‘excited’ to produce a sound that’s much like a synthesizer in character, but has the flow of a violin or a singing voice. The theremin has two antennas: one bent antenna on the left and a straight antenna on the right. The closer you hold your hand to the bent antenna on the left, the lower the volume of the theremin, and the closer you hold your hand to the straight antenna, the higher the pitch of the sound – this is how melodies are played. The principle is that any mass that comes within range of the theremin can influence the volume and pitch. This mass could be a human, or other stage equipment, which is why anyone nearby needs to keep a distance of at least a metre-and-a-half so they’re not in danger of making the life of a theremin player that much harder. The way that a theremin is played makes it look like the player is a wizard casting spells. “Visually, the theremin is a fantastic instrument,” says Wilco Botermans, a renowned Dutch theremin player. “It’s as if the sound is literally conjured from nowhere. I often play shows to children at primary schools and love seeing their jaws drop. They can’t believe their ears.”

Léon Theremin

The theremin was discovered in 1920 by Russian scientist Sergeivich Termen, who in the west is better known as Léon Theremin. While it wasn’t his intention, he quickly realised his discovery’s potential as a musical instrument and a few years later, emigrated to the United States where he patented his theremin in 1928, having already secured the patent in Germany.

“At first, the theremin was picked up by classical musicians and as a result, has been largely used to play classical pieces,” says Wilco. “And while it sounds incredible when applied to classical music, it can do so much more. The mysterious atmosphere that a theremin can evoke lends itself perfectly to film music. Just think of classics like Spellbound and The Day the Earth Stood Still, and more recently Monster House, Ed Wood, and The Machinist. The theremin was also famously used for the Star Trek theme and even in Midsummer Murders.

The Things You Can Actually Do With a Theremin

The Theremin in Pop & Rock

The theremin is also used in pop and rock music. “As far as I know, the first time the theremin was used outside of classical music was by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band in the sixties,” says Wilco. “On the album Safe As Milk from 1967, two of the numbers featured a theremin: Electricity and Autumn’s Child. Some people think that the Beach Boys used it first on Good Vibrations, but that’s actually not true. It was definitely what they wanted but they couldn’t actually find a theremin player that was able to perform the part. In the end Paul Tanner played the part that had been written for the theremin on a ribbon controller – a strip that’s played by shifting your finger up and down it, and is far easier to play than a theremin.” Later, that ribbon controller was released under the name ‘Tannerin’.

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page played live a few times with a theremin by moving his guitar around it, and more recently Portishead, inspired by the B-movie soundtracks of the fifties and sixties used the theremin on Mysterons and a few other tracks from their now-classic album, Dummy back in the nineties.

In the Sound

So, why is the theremin so appealing? “That has a lot to do with its history,” explains Wilco. “While I was studying creative music therapy at the beginning of the nineties, I was introduced to the Atari computer and the Roland JV-30 synthesizer and I realised for the first time that music could be made electronically. It was then I decided that I wanted to do something with computers and music, and made the switch to study music technology, which I finished in 2000. My studio partners were also keyboard players, and had far more experience with keyboard-based instruments than me. Because I wanted to go my own way, I was looking for an alternative controller and via the internet, I finally stumbled on the theremin.” So, in 1997, Wilco picked up his very first theremin; a DIY build pack. “I remember sitting in my tiny student bedroom and putting it together. I was barely able to wait for the varnish to dry. When I played it for the first time, I was so shocked by the sound that I immediately switched it off. Before then, I had neither seen nor heard a real theremin before. From then on, it was a step by step process to make it into my own instrument.” Eventually, Wilco was over the moon with his theremin, and fell in love with this irksome instrument. “The theremin forced me to mature as a musician. When I play the theremin, I sit within the sound. Like, my body and soul are literally one with the music. It’s actually pretty astonishing how wrapped up you can get in the sound of a theremin.”

During his studies, Wilco spent three months in Moscow taking lessons from one of the world’s most renowned theremin players, Lydia Kavina. “During the first part of my apprenticeship with her, we focussed almost exclusively on the piece ‘Air’ by Johann Sebastian Bach. This went on for a month and I learned an incredible amount doing it. How to build up the note, how to make a vibrato, and so on.”

By simply moving the fingers, a theremin player can produce a vibrato effect:

The Things You Can Actually Do With a Theremin

The Difficult Instrument

Anyone can play the theremin up to a certain level. You can use the theremin for specific effects, and on the stage it just looks undeniably cool, as long as it’s applied in small doses. But does that mean that the theremin is more of a gimmick than an instrument in its own right? “The theremin was first released on the market in the thirties along with the tagline, ‘if you can whistle a tune, then you can play the theremin.’ This is true to a certain extent. I’ve seen people put in front of a theremin for the first time play something recognisable almost immediately, and with a little practise, they can get it down pat. In a lot of cases, this is all people want from the theremin. It’s when you want to get more complex that the theremin becomes a pretty difficult instrument. It costs years of study to master. The theremin demands as much dedication from a musician as any other musical instrument.”

Pure Note Shifts

So, what is it that makes playing the theremin so hard to do well? “The hardest thing about playing the theremin is that you can very quickly and easily play out of tune,” explains Wilco. “The distance between your fingers and the theremin has to be incredibly precise. The level of precision comes close to a violin or cello, but a violinist can rest their fingers on the back of the neck, which gives you a kind of reference point – an anchor. With the theremin, you don’t have this. Your hand is literally wafting through the air without any possible reference, even though you need to make sure that shifting between notes remains as pure as possible.” The smallest of finger movements will have an effect on the pitch. “Even just breathing can affect the pitch, so it’s insanely hard to hold a single note and keep it pure. Hitting the right note actually gives you a nice kick. It’s like catching a wave.” So, playing the theremin with your eyes closed is just not possible. “In a word, yes. You need constant awareness of where your hands are in relation to the antennas – especially the antenna that controls the pitch. You also need to keep your body still and stable, since any movement will mess with the note. It’s much easier to stand still and straight with your eyes open. As a theremin player, you have to avoid everything that’s in danger of throwing you even slightly off balance. There’s literally nothing sitting between you and the sound but air, so a wobbly stage is going to be a big problem, or a stage where the audience is really close.”

A theremin player controls the volume with the left hand. By causing the volume to dip, the player can mask (if they want to) the inevitable glide of glissandos during note transitions:

The Things You Can Actually Do With a Theremin


When it comes to glissandos, it’s as if the theremin were built for them. A glissando is when a note glides up or down in pitch to reach the following note. While this can sound beautiful, it can be one of the hardest things to overcome as a theremin player. According to Wilco, “When you’re playing a melody, most of the time, you don’t want to hear a continuous glissando, so there’s a technique that needs to be mastered to overcome this; the moment you move from one note to the other, you dip the volume by pulling the left hand away from the volume antenna. The volume doesn’t need to be pulled all the way back to zero, but just enough to mask the glissando. This way you can make big jumps between notes.”

Another thing that you might not know about the theremin is that, before performing or recording, a theremin player needs to tune up their instrument. This process is, of course, very different from loosening or tightening the tension of guitar or violin strings. “Tuning a theremin is a case of setting the distance for a specific key,” explains Wilco. “So you’re determining how far your hand needs to be from the antenna to reach the lowest note. That range influences a number of factors, so you need to tune up for every different situation to account for the other equipment on the stage, and even the temperature and humidity in the room – which can actually change during the performance, meaning that you sometimes need to re-tune halfway through a show.”

Playing theremin in a band

If a band includes a theremin, simply because the instrument is so unique, the band has already distinguished itself. But if you’re the theremin player in the band, what do you need to watch out for? “If you’re playing a melody, it’s utterly essential that you’re able to hear yourself properly,” advises Wilco, “since you’re mostly playing the theremin on hearing you need to make sure that you always have your own monitor and that you’re always certain of good sound. I don’t actually have any personal experience with in-ear monitoring but it seems to be a great help.”

Wilco also advises: “Set your theremin up way ahead of time, because it’ll need time to stabilise in the room. You also want to prevent your theremin from making any unexpected noises when you’re not actually playing it, which you can do by briefly draping the audio cable over the volume antenna, which basically mutes it. Of course, you need to tune up once you’re set up, but also make sure to do it again once all of the lights and equipment have been switched on, since this will also affect things.”

A theremin is usually set up on a stand. Couldn’t you just mount it onto a stack of synthesizers? “In theory, that’s possible, but make sure that the audience is actually able to see you while you’re playing, otherwise you’ll lose the whole visual effect. Also, you’ll need to make sure that the space around the antennas is completely free. I much prefer standing to play, and prefer to set the theremin up in the middle of the stage, rather than with the synthesizers.” And as a final tip: “If you want to play a theremin in tune, then take some singing lessons. Singing uses the same part of the brain to find a note and add expression as playing the theremin.”

The Things You Can Actually Do With a Theremin

No one-trick pony

“Seeing a theremin on stage is, of course, quite something. The gimmick works in that sense, and you know it’ll have the impact that you want. But would you seriously step onto the stage after just a week of playing the violin or guitar? Basically, if you’re using the theremin as a gimmick, then this stunning instrument will never lose its reputation as a gimmick – a one-stick-pony that’s only good for one specific effect, but no good when you actually want to play a melody.

Something you’ll hear a lot when you’re a theremin player is: if it sounds better with another instrument, then use that one. With the theremin, you can do things that no other instrument can do, but just like any other instrument, it can be mastered. You can even play Bach with a theremin, or play parts written for the flute or violin. Because of those flowing glissandos, it can actually sound a lot like a violin – but it takes a lot of training before this can be attained, so only use the theremin where it really works.”

Good to know

How does a theremin work?

We won’t exactly dive headfirst into the physics of how and why a theremin is able to do what it does, but we’ll try to give you a good idea. The principle of a theremin is based on the operation of two oscillators that generate electrical vibrations. One of the oscillators has a fixed frequency, while the other is connected to one of the antennas and has a variable frequency. The capacity of the variable frequency oscillator is adjusted by altering the level of mass that enters the electromagnetic field of the antenna. So, the closer your right hand is to the antenna, the higher the pitch. It’s therefore the mass that enters the electromagnetic field generated by a theremin that controls the pitch and volume. This actually means that the theremin is not all that different from an electric guitar. With an electric guitar, the strings vibrate within the electromagnetic field of the pickups to produce an audio signal, and since they do this with varying wavelengths, the ‘mass’ of the vibrating string determines the pitch and volume of the sound that comes out of the amplifier.

There are also much smaller pocket theremins:

The Things You Can Actually Do With a Theremin

Famous theremin players

  • Discoverer León Theremin (1896-1993) was also an accomplished theremin player who originally played the cello.
  • The Russian-British Lydia Kavina (1967) is considered one of the best and most versatile theremin players in the world. She is also the granddaughter of León Theremin’s first cousin, and was given her ninth theremin lesson by León himself.
  • The Lithuanian Clara Rockmore (1911-1998) is still regarded as the best classical theremin player the world has ever seen.
  • The American Samuel Hoffman (1903-1967) can be heard playing on many film soundtracks, including The Day the Earth Stood Still. He also featured on the album Safe As Milk (1967) by Captain Beefheart.
  • The French synthesizer legend Jean Michel Jarre played a theremin on a couple of his Oxygen albums .
  • Wilco Botermans is a renowned European theremin player in his own right, as well as Fay Lovsky.

Bob Moog and the theremin

In the fifties, one of the godfathers of the synthesizer revolution, Bob Moog, would spend a lot of his free time building theremins in his cellar, which he would then sell on. The money he made from his efforts funded his studies, and from there, he went on to develop his own synthesizers. Moog is still the number one theremin builder in the world.

See also…

» Theremins
» Analogue Synthesizers
» All Synthesizers

» What’s the difference between a keyboard and a synthesizer?

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