Image for A Moment In Science: The Theramin

A Moment In Science: The Theramin

Written by Walt Owen on April 8, 2009

Look at a modern band and you might conclude that musical instruments have come a long way since our primitive forebears began making music. But if you take a closer look, you will find that most modern instruments have their roots in far earlier inventions.

The modern electric guitar can be traced back through the standard guitar all the way back to the first stringed instruments which are at least five thousand years old. It may go back even further, as cave paintings in France dated to fifteen thousand years ago show images that may well be harp or lyre-like instruments.

The same can be said for drums, which are likely some of our earliest instruments, probably predating the harp. Even modern keyboards have a lineage going back into prehistoric times, being nothing more than modified harps struck by hammers controlled by keys.

Wind instruments go back nearly as far, to whistles that were probably used to scare or lure game to waiting hunters.

If you want to find a truly unique musical instrument, look back to the 1919 invention of a young Russian scientist, Lev Termen.
His invention is known as the Theremin, after the westernized version of his surname. Using the fact that human bodies can modify the fields given out by radio oscillators, Termen created an instrument using those radio fields.

It is a box with two antennas, one on each side. Each antenna is connected to a radio oscillator and to other circuitry. As a person moves his or her hands near the antennae, the oscillators pick up the modifications made by the hands and translate them into changes in pitch and volume. This makes the Theremin a unique instrument.

First, it is the only instrument played by not touching any part of it. Actually, touching either antenna will ground the oscillator and shut down the sound. The object is not to touch the antennae, but to arrange your hands and fingers in precise positions in the open spaces so that certain notes are played.

Experienced Thereminists say it is one of the most difficult and challenging instruments to master. Exact hand positioning is required, and even a slight change in environmental conditions can affect the nature of the radio field, thus altering the tuning on the instrument.
Second, the Theremin is one of the first electronic instruments. While it may be difficult to find a band that does not rely on at least one electronic instrument today, in 1919, the Theremin was the only portable electronic instrument.

It is predated by the Telharmonium Marks 1 and 2, which were pipe organ-like instruments, weighing 7 and 200 tons respectively. It was not until the 1930s that the next electronic instruments, the electric guitar and the Hammond Organ would appear.

While never really popular, nor taken too seriously as a musical instrument, the Theremin holds a unique place in musical history, due to the nature of the instrument and its unique sound.

Listen carefully to the soundtrack of any 1950s science fiction film and you are likely to hear the electronic warble of this amazing electronic musical instrument.

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