1919 Leon Theremin Theremin

Who would believe an innovative electronic musical instrument developed in 1919 could maintain its massive cult status and popularity after nearly 90 years.
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Who would believe an innovative electronic musical instrument developed in 1919 could maintain its massive cult status and popularity after nearly 90 years. However, the Theremin is no ordinary instrument.

Who would believe an innovative electronic musical instrument developed in 1919 could maintain its massive cult status and popularity after nearly 90 years. However, the Theremin is no ordinary instrument.

Created by Russian physicist Lev Sergeivich Termen—also known as Leon Theremin—the Theremin is described in U.S. patent #1,661,058 (click here to view/download a copy of the patent) as a “novel method of and means for producing sounds in musical tones or notes in variable pitch, volume and timbre.” The key word here is “novel,” as the system consists of two oscillator circuits where amplitude and frequency are controlled by the proximity of the user’s hands to the Theremin’s two antennas, with no need to actually touch the instrument.

Over the years, there have been numerous serious Thereminists, yet the instrument is best known for creating outerworldly effects and music for horror and science fiction films ranging from the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still to countless budget releases. A common myth is that a Theremin was used on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations." The instument was actually a Tannerin (Electro-Theremin) played by trombonist Paul Tanner, which uses a similar technology, but substitutes a hardware slide controller for the antenna.

One well-known Theremin fan was the late synthesis pioneer Bob Moog, who built the units for decades and sold completed systems and kits through Moog Music. Moog also published a DIY Theremin project in the February 1996 issue of Electronic Musician magazine. Check it out at emusician.com/diy/em_theremin.