The theremin, originally known as the ætherphone/etherphone, thereminophone or termenvox/thereminvox, is an early electronic musical instrument controlled without discernible physical contact from the player. It is named after its Russian inventor, Professor Léon Theremin, who patented the device in 1928.
Hollywood began to flirt with the theremin in the early 1940's. But it was in 1945 that the instrument received its biggest boost when composer Miklos Rozsa injected its mysterious and eerie sounds into his scores for Spellbound and The Lost Weekend. Later filmscores that used the theremin include The Spiral Staircase, The Red House, Rocketship X-M, The Day the Earth Stood Still, It Came from Outer Space, The Thing, The Delicate Delinquent, and many other science-fiction, horror, and suspense films.
Lydia Kavina was Theremin's last protégé and is now the world's leading theremin virtuoso. Kavina began studying the theremin at the tender age of nine, after Theremin recognized her remarkable musical ability.
Theremin - Clara Rockmore play "The Swan" (Saint-Saëns)
<iframe width="420" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/pSzTPGlNa5U" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
One of Prof. Theremin's original students was a Russian-born musical prodigy named Clara Rockmore. By age 5, Clara was already an accomplished violinist. But then a problem with her hands forced her to give up the violin in favor of the theremin. Clara went on to become the world's best thereminist, developing a unique method of "aereal fingering" to play the theremin with unparalleled precision.
[Says theremin player Samuel Hoffman:] "Mechanically, the instrument is easy to play, but, like the violin, you have to put in a lot of study and hard practice to play it properly. I made a serious study of the instrument. (A theremin looks-and is-something like an old-fashioned radio. The pitch, the quality, and the vibrato of the tones are controlled by moving the hands in an electromagnetic field.)
"I used it on a lot of jobs with Coburn, playing solos on ballads and those old standards musicians call ‘fake tunes.’ I also found it very effective as a novelty solo feature when I was directing bands for Meyer Davis on ‘society dates.’
Two antennas protrude from the theremin - one controlling pitch, and the other controlling volume. As a hand approaches the vertical antenna, the pitch gets higher. Approaching the horizontal antenna makes the volume softer. Because there is no physical contact with the instrument, playing the theremin in a precise melodic way requires practiced skill and keen attention to pitch.
The modern instrument has a range of five octaves, six or more changes of tone colour as the violin or cello have on their open strings, or with mutes; a prodigious dynamic range not possible to any other instrument, that is most effective with a group or orchestra and in the largest space, for the tone does not change, or fade, or die except as the player wills; and a quicker reaction to the fingers, so that faster passages can be added to its repertoire.
Theremin's invention is still the only musical instrument which is played without any physical contact. The sound it can produce runs from a drone to a whine, but is always somewhat other-worldly.
Lev Sergeyevich Termen was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1896. Like many inventors, he was a youthful enthusiast of both music (he played the cello) and physics. After enrolling at the University of Petrograd, he concentrated his studies in the nascent field of electrical engineering. There, he was repairing a radio when he conceived the idea of an essentially electronic musical instrument: not just an acoustic instrument embellished or amplified electronically, but an instrument that would produce purely electronic music.
Leon Theremin playing his own instrument
<iframe width="420" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/w5qf9O6c20o" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>