What is a theremin? Eerie music for alien souls

theremin played by carolina eyck


The theremin is one of history’s most underrated instruments. Thanks to Moog music, theremins are still a staple for film soundtracks, out-there indie bands and nouveau classical music!

Perhaps I should warn you. I am currently engaged in a campaign for TTD (Total Theremin Domination). My campaign begins with the article you are now reading….

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the glorious instrument that is the theremin? In the interests of TTD I shall introduce you to its lovely nature (and convince you that my love of theremins is right and proper). And we will naturally describe the limitless possibilities that playing the theremin could open up for the music world, from electro sets to Viking metal…

What is a theremin? Can you eat it?

The theremin is an electronic instrument, though it is often considered to be a classical instrument. You cannot eat it. Even if you have not heard of the theremin or seen it played live, you may well have heard its unearthly tones in old horror movies including The Day the Earth Stood Still (original one, not the one with Keanu Reeves). It creates that eerie sonar soundscape that one immediately associates with images of slimy and mossy lagoon monsters; yep, it’s THAT sound! Oh, and it was also used in Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys.

How a theremin works – magic in a box

One of the the most fascinating things about the theremin is that it is played without being touched. The music (or wall of sound – depending on your theremin skills) is controlled through two aerials; one controls pitch, the other controls volume. It is played by moving your hands( or perhaps other body parts) across the volume field and the pitch fields.

How to play?

There is no specific and official technique to playing the theremin, as playing in the air gives you a lot of freedom, though it does make it more difficult.

However, a theremin technique has been developed by the late theremin deity Clara Rockmore. It’s called ‘aerial fingering’.

Rockmore was once a violin player and aerial fingering requires dexterous hands. If you look at this video of indie theremin diva Dorit Chrysler you’ll see some extraordinary examples of aerial fingering.

Theramin pioneers and icons

Watch videos of Clara Rockmore on Youtube. Rockmore’s work will immediately give you an idea of what the theremin is all about; spooky, evocative, slightly geeky but oh so cool.

Explore the work of Pamelia Kurstin, who wrings soul out of the theremin’s invisible guts. She talks about the theremin and performs wonders with it in this TED talk, enjoy!

For more information and history of the theremin visit Theremin World. Alternatively, you can rent the DVD entitled Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey directed by Steven Martin, which includes an interview with the man who invented the instrument.

Do the Moog

If it were not for the electronic equipment manufacturers Moog, the theremin would be leading a sad life in instrumental limbo. In fact, the standard (but also the best) suppliers of theremins all come from Moog Music.

Like it isn’t already mind-blowingly cool that the theremin sounds like the more melancholy version of the violin and is epically played with the swishing of hands, Moog are constantly developing new ways to make the humble yet unearthly theremin the instrument of the future.

Theremin world domination?

The theremin should rule the world. I envision a global army of thereminists promoting their ethereal theremin-flavoured reality. If a popular instrument such as the guitar can share the same space as the theremin, live gigs will be forever changed!

The world of electronic music would definitely get one heck of a visual boost, replacing the now stereotyped programmer sitting behind their MacBook Pro with an electronic wizard making big, epic, sweeping hand gestures that control multiple synchronisers all at once!

I am already imagining Viking metallers drawing out sounds from the theremin with the swoops of swords and axes. And let us not even start on what the theremin could do for power metal…

So let’s get the world theremin movement going, and keep in mind the several practical bonuses you get if you choose to take up the instrument: It is comparatively cheap, it’s a conversation piece, it fits in perfectly in a baroque theatre with an orchestra as well as a dingy electro club with a DJ set and you get to scare people by wearing long velvet cloaks and eliciting eerie sounds from the air.

Shopping: explore theremins on Amazon

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Main photo: Julius Kaiser, Leipzig – personally, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23069681