History of the Theremin


Leon Theremin

Image Credit: http://www.theremin.info/

The theremin holds a place in history as the first manufactured electronic musical instrument, and is credited with laying the foundation for all electronic music to come. It is the only instrument that is played without the performer ever touching it.

The theremin is named for its inventor Lev Termen, better known worldwide as Leon Theremin (1896 – 1993). Theremin demonstrated his first working model of the instrument that bears his name in 1920 as the Etherphone, soon to be known as the Termenvox, or literally, Voice of Termen. 

The earliest Theremins employed vacuum tubes rather than transistors or integrated circuits. When properly adjusted and voiced, classic theremins have a pitch range of about 3.5 to 4 octaves, and a timbre that is somewhat like a cello at the low end, with a sound that approaches violin or voice at the high end.  The theremin’s inherent string-like quality can be enhanced by adding vibrato, produced by a rapid undulating motion of the performer’s pitch-playing hand.

Factory-made RCA* (Radio Corporation of America) theremins were the first to be manufactured and marketed to the general public, making their debut in music stores in several major U.S. cities in October 1929. They were marketed primarily in 1929 and 1930, and were not a commercial success.

A significant miscalculation in RCA’s marketing campaign was the notion that the theremin was easy to play. “Anyone who can carry a tune can play the Theremin!…nothing more complicated than waving one's hands in the air!”, boasted the advertising.

In reality, while anyone who moves their hands near the antennas of a theremin can cause it to alter its sounds, melodic playing can be very challenging, as relatively few people possess the innate musicality required to play the instrument on pitch, let alone with nuance of expression. A good sense of relative pitch helps, and as with any other instrument practice is essential to a pleasing technique. Many present-day theremin players aren’t concerned with conventional notes and melodies, preferring instead to interact with the instrument in a more free-form, gestural way to obtain a variety of entertaining effects, which they often mix with other electronic instruments.

RCA ceased production of the theremin after a very limited pilot production run of only 500 instruments in total, making them among the rarest manufactured electronic devices of any kind. From the end of RCA’s first and only production run, it would be a quarter-century before the next attempt was made to make and market theremins; a small-scale venture launched in 1954 by a 19-year-old future synthesizer pioneer, Dr. Robert Moog.  Today, Moog Music still makes and sells theremins.

Text Generously Provided by RCATheremin.com 

Check out the movie that inspired Andy Baron Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey HERE

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