The Man, the Mystery, the Music Instrument, and the Mimics: Leon Theremin, His Life, His Inventions, and His Successors by

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The Man, the Mystery, the Music Instrument, and the Mimics:
Leon Theremin, His Life, His Inventions, and His Successors

Kevin M. Tomb

Submitted to the Mary Pappert School of Music

Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA

In partial fulfillment of the requirements for History of Electronic Music

March 16, 2015


ABSTRACT………………………………………………………………………………… page 3

I. Introduction……………………………………………………….………… 4
II. Narrative………………………………………… 5

  1. The Man: Leon Theremin..………………………………………………page 5

  2. The Machine: The Theremin ………………………………………...….page 6

  3. The Masters: Theremin Players..……………………………………… 7

  4. The Material: Uses of the Theremin………………………………...… 8

  5. The Mimics: Successors of the Theremin..……………………..……… 9

III. Conclusion…………………………………………………………………page 11

BIBLIOGRAPHY………………………………………….……………………………… page 12

This paper first reviews the life of Leon Theremin in small detail, from his birth to his death. It includes details of his time in the war as possibly being enlisted and spying on the United States for Lenin. Next it explores the inspiration for the unique instrument that is the theremin or thereminvox. There is then a brief description of the mechanics behind the theremin. After understanding the instrument, the paper describes the common uses of the instrument from adaptations of classical music, to mood setting, to music composed specifically for the theremin. Finally, the paper discusses the impact of the theremin on later inventions.

The Man, the Mystery, the Music Instrument, and the Mimics:

Leon Theremin: His Life, His Inventions, and His Successors


Around the time of the First World War, flappers, and talking pictures, Vladmir Lenin was enjoying Glinka’s “Skylark” played on a new instrument (Gann 113). This unique sounding instrument was played by its creator without his ever touching it (Theremin 50). Lenin, a lover of music, encouraged its creator, Leon Theremin, to market it to the public both in Russia and overseas. With the war on the horizon, he also developed a plan to use the instrument as a ‘trojan horse’ to gain access to key locations for information gathering (Vennard). The overreaching effect of the theremin making landfall internationally continue even to today, thanks to a few key instrumentalists and composers throughout the interim years. A large portion of electronic music today started with the popularity of one man’s machine: Leon Theremin’s theremin.


The Man: Leon Theremin

Leon Theremin was born to a French family who were at the higher end of the social class (Galeyev 46). His fortunate upbringing opened many doors for him throughout his life. By 1914, Theremin had become a student of physics, but always had the First World War looming to discourage his gaining attention from those who would use his talents in war (Glinsky 1). Unlike other physicists of his time, his first inventions displayed the physical more than the theoretical. Theremin believed that electricity would have a powerful effect on art, both visual and auditory (Theremin 50). He started with the visual, photoelectric effects, where a person would move their hand into an electric field to make lights respond (Glinsky 12). Theremin’s musical experience began with the cello and eventually led to his inventions in the field (Vennard). In his later life, he even created an electric cello, harkening back to his first musical experiences (Nesturkh 57). During his time in the battlefield, he noticed that moving his hands close to the radio antenna would create a high pitched sound (Glinsky 24). Theremin would even ‘play’ the radio when possible to keep high spirits in the trenches. This is the concept, on which his namesake instrument is based. By the time he arrived home, Theremin had developed the ideas from which his instruments would come.

Theremin’s first musical instrument was the etherphone, where he used a paper horn as a loudspeaker to amplify sound (Glinsky 26). This was the ‘instrument’ played in the trenches, as it was easy to put together using the tools available. With the etherphone as a template, Theremin expanded on his ideas. Theremin desired an instrument that would allow the performer to be free to move in space, or without touching it (Theremin 50). After several other models, he eventually created what we know today as the theremin. Originally, the instrument was called the etherophone, after his first model, or thereminvox or ‘voice’ (Montague 18). After hearing stories from his soldiers, Vladmir Lenin became interested in this new instrument. Theremin demonstrated the ‘magic’ instrument to Lenin on the song “Skylark” by Glinka (Gann 113). So impressed was Lenin with the performance, that he greatly praised its creator, encouraging him to experiment with other uses of the technology (Galeyev 46). Theremin was encouraged to use similar technology to create a motion detecting alarm system, which several soldiers tested, shocked that the little box worked (Gayelev 46). His inventions also included a large screened television set and spying devices, the latter of which earning him the First Class Stalin Prize for his contributions to Russia (Gayelev 46). Using this new instrument as a ‘trojan horse’, Theremin showed off to ambassadors and presidents in their offices, where he would plant bugs, his own spying devices while demonstrating the instrument (Vennard). RCA soon became the official producer of it in America until the stock market crash in 1929, which made it difficult for consumers to invest in instruments (Vennard). After the market rebounded, Theremin created Teletoch in New York to manufacture his instruments (Montague 20). These first instruments used vacuum tubes and were very bulky (Nesturkh 58). What makes the instrument unique is its style of sound production and the timbre.

The Machine: The Theremin

The theremin was created based on the idea that cathode relays, in radio engineering, could also create a musical instrument (Theremin 49). As mentioned before, Theremin first experimented with radio signals before creating the theremin. Theremin’s primary goal was to create an instrument that would itself not interfere with the music making process, in effect, one that would not need to be touched (Theremin 50). At first, he had some difficulty with this endeavor. A few of the first models of the theremin actually used a foot pedal to control the volume, but as soon as Theremin worked out how to make it work with the left hand instead, he removed it (Glinsky 26). The interesting part of the instrument is not the volume control, but the pitch control.

The instrument operates on heterodyning or the mixing of two different signals that have nearly the same frequency. When these two frequencies combine, a third ‘beating frequency’, or the difference between the two original is produced (Glinsky 20). Many instrumentalists use this “beating frequency” to recognize when their own instrument is out of tune, as it becomes audible when two notes are not the same. With the theremin, the two first frequencies are outside of the range of human hearing, but the third, the difference, can span six octaves (Montague 18). This means that the theremin produces two sounds, and their interaction produces the third. The player adjusts one of the two pitches with his right hand while the other remains the same, allowing the difference to change and the pitch to go up and down. The reason a human hand can change the pitch is due to its ability to interfere with electronic fields.

The pitch control rod is connected to a coil with high inductance which is then connected to a small condenser and concentrated coil (Pavek …). The circuit is tuned by coils distributed throughout and resonates at 172 kilohertz, but as the player brings their hand close to the rod, a parallel capacity is reduced (Pavek …). This second frequency is never any more more than 1400 greater than variable one (Pavek…). These ideas were experimented on by theremin’s photoelectric inventions, where the hand also changed the capacities.

The third part of pitch is the timbre. Most describe the sound as a combination of a musical saw and a light soprano (Montague 18). Another source likens the sound of the theremin to a violin combined with a human voice (Tannerin). A more technical description comments on the complexity of the waveform (Tannerin). The shape of the wave, whether it is rounded, squared or otherwise formed, is what changes the timbre. In some models of the theremin, there is a switch that changes the timbre of the instrument, or more specifically, the shape of the wave (Hugh). As with any instrument, the popularity comes not always from its sound or creation, but from those instrumentalists that demonstrate the beauty of the instruments.
The Masters: Theremin Players

The theremin has had many players through its lifetime: Lucie Bigelow Rosen, Samuel J. Hoffman, Dennis James, but the best known is Clara Rockmore (Hugh). Clara Rockmore was a violinist who dropped the instrument to study the theremin with Leon Theremin himself (Montague 21). After two years of working with Theremin, Rockmore developed a unique ‘aerial fingering’ style where she played the instrument almost as a violin (Montague 21). She was naturally gifted, with perfect pitch and a mastery of phrasing, which helped her play the instrument masterfully (Rhea 61). The difficulty of the instrument comes in finding the pitches in space. Rockmore is celebrated as being almost solely responsible for furthering the instrument’s popularity with her performances (The MIT Press 14). Even today, Rockmore is widely considered the standard for good technique with the theremin.

Clara Rockmore was not the only prolific player. Lydia Kavina, Theremin’s neice, also had the opportunity to learn and master the instrument. Kavina put out a series of video lessons to help train the beginning student (Barile 68). Kavina, more so than Rockmore, is known for teaching the instrument. It is to these videos one can look in order to learn more about how the instrument is played. Rockmore’s aerial fingering is considered the standard for the instrument (Barile 68). Body control is one of the most important elements of playing the instrument as any amount of swaying can lead to pitch alterations (Barile 68). In fact, it is necessary that the audience, or other players stay a distance away from the instrument so as to not interfere with the electronic signals. The difficulty in the instrument comes from disguising the pitch alterations with precise volume control in order to avoid glissando between notes (Hugh). Despite its difficulties, Kavina’s love for the instrument comes from her belief that the player personifies the music (Kavina 53). Overall, the instrument is mastered as any other, through practice and discipline (Barile 68).

As mentioned earlier, the instrument survives in modern day thanks in part to artists such as Youssef Yancy. Yancy survives the instrument by using it in the context of jazz music (Montague 22). Pamala Kurstin is another example of an instrumentalist whose technique evolved from jazz playing (Gann 113). Her technique of subtle dynamic control produces a sound similar to a walking bass (Gann 113). But these artists would be nothing without the material that they play.

The Material: Uses of the Theremin

The theremin’s unique sound lends itself to many uses. Most audiences know the theremin by its use in film scores of science fiction or horror genres (Hugh). The first movie to feature the theremin’s unique sound heavily was “Aelita” (Hugh). A more contemporary example is “Mars Attacks”, which used the instrument identifies the UFOs or other worldly sounds (Vennard). The most iconic example of the theremin in film score is Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (Vennard 111). Hitchcock believed the instrument represented a combination of magic and primal urges, science and music, and encouraged its use throughout the score (Vennard 111). This free publicity rocketed the instrument to uses in other film and TV scores such as the “Twilight Zone” (Vennard 117). Other films chose to use the instrument to make certain sounds, such as a bird’s trill, or a wolf’s growl, such as in “Alice” (Kavina 53). This use was not limited to just film scores, as it creates a pastoral sound that works well for programmatic music (Kavina 53). The instrument has been used in 35 films and 100 different works of music (Hugh). More curious than the use in films is the use in music that is more common place.

The theremin (or one of its successors) was used by the Beach Boys in 1966 to demonstrate their “Good Vibrations” (Montague 22). Pink Floyd used the Theremin for “Echoes” to produce a similarly interesting effect (Vennard). Other than popular music, the instrument was used to imitate a dan-bau, a folk instrument in a “Vietnam Album” in 1983 (Kavina 52). Aside from these songs, the theremin is frequently used to play classics such as Saint-Saens’s “The Swan”, Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, and Scraibin’s “Etudes” (Kavina 52). A version with a fingerboard was even used by the Philadelphia orchestra in 1930 to reinforce the double basses. Some bold composers even composed music specifically for the thermin itself.

The first composer was Russian Andrei Filippowitsch who wrote “Symphony Misterium” for the theremin and orchestra in 1923 (Montague 19). Joespch Schillinger was the first in the states, writing ann Airphonic Suite in 1929 (Montague 20). Lydia Kavina, the master player also promotes the theremin as a new classical instrument by composing a few original works for it herself (Barile 68). Kavina reviews several pieces such as “Song of the Ruins” and “Mixolydia” that use the theremin to its full capacity with rapid passages and emotional contrasts (Kavina 52). Many other composers have worked with the instrument aside from those mentioned. Most of these composers were Russian: Valery Beluntsov, Sergei Kosenko, Olga Rajeva, Vjacheslav Frolov, Anatoly Kisselev to name a few (Nesturkh 60). As technology advanced, so changed the type of electronic instruments produced.

The Mimics: Successors to the Theremin

Leon Theremin was responsible for some instruments after the one that bears his name. One of the later versions used a keyboard, but it was not as unique as the original (Hugh). A wildly different version involving the entire body, the terpistone, was also created (Nesturkh 57). In order to popularize this instrument, Theremin sought out beautiful dancers, but the terpistone did not take off as well as the theremin. Some of his instruments, now lost, would use the eyes of the player to manipulate sound or articulate words (Nesturkh 57). Unfortunately, none of these instruments had the same appeal as the original theremin despite the effort applied.

Leon Theremin was not the only producer of theremins, Robert Moog picked up the torch soon after in the 1960s (Montague 22). He began his work with theremins 11 years earlier, taking apart old ones and figuring out methods for himself (Glinsky x). In 1989, a resurgence of the theremin’s popularity brought the chance for Moog to share with Theremin his inventions (Glinsky xi). Moog’s talents were so refined that he even helped repair Clara Rockmore’s theremin with the help of her regular technician (Glinsky xii). Others besides Moog worked out alternative methods for creating a theremin. Muscovite Lev Koroliov created a transistor based theremin, that featured a pitch indicator and voices that sounded like an oboe or trumpet (Nesturkh 57). Vjacheslav Maximov shrunk the theremin down into a Tonica (Nesturkh 58). But other non-theremin instruments also followed.

The direct successor to the thremin is the tannerin, or electro-theremin (Tannerin). The sound is a pure sine wave, as opposed to the unique sound of the theremin and creates a similarly ethereal sound (The Paul Tanner…). Instead of moving her hands in space, the player uses a slide in front of a marked keyboard with a volume knob on the left end (The Paul Tanner…). After the Tannerin, the next closest successor is the ondes martinot, created by Maurice Martenot in 1928 (Thomas Bloch). Like the instruments before it, the ondes martinot is monophonic. It’s style of playing is closer to the tannerin, as it uses a slide that has a ring over a keyboard (Thomas Bloch). The left side has buttons for changing the timbre in over 100 different ways. This is the instrument that almost completely replaced the theremin in some aspects (Thomas Bloch).


Despite its age, the theremin still has many avid fans today. The community for those who play, write for, and listen to the theremin is full and thriving. With any luck, there will be yet another ressurgance of this unique instrument in the next twenty or so years. Although some consider the theremin a fad, its creation led to many of the traditions in electronic music today, and still sees stage time even in the new millennium.


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