The theremin is a strange instrument with an even stranger history. Created in the 1920s by Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the theremin is considered to be the world’s first electronic musical instrument.
To celebrate its 101st birthday, we’ve compiled some of the most fascinating facts about the theremin that’ll leave your jaw hanging!
1. The Theremin Was Invented by a Soviet Spy
In 1920, Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen, also known as Léon Theremin, invented a hands-free instrument called the theremin.
Despite the instrument’s strange concept, it received international acclaim in several short years.
When Theremin performed the instrument for Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet leader was so impressed that he asked the man to share his ingenious invention all across Russia, Europe, and the United States.
But there’s a catch. During his trip, Theremin was asked to surreptitiously engage in industrial espionage.
Albeit reluctantly, he agreed. When Theremin returned to the Soviet Union in 1938, he wasn’t met with a warm welcome.
Instead, he was kidnapped and banished to a special prison in Siberia, forcing him to create a variety of spy-related items for the Soviet military research facility.
This includes bugging tools, spyware, and listening devices.
2. The Theremin Is a “Space-Controlled” Instrument
The theremin was the first musical instrument that’s played without physical contact.
The control panel is equipped with two metal antennas that can sense the position of the player’s hand.
One hand controls the pitch, while the other controls the volume.
The electrical signals are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker, producing “alien-like” sounds that are often described as surreal and eerie.
3. The Theremin is Often Used in Sci-Fi, Thriller, and Horror Films
The Theremin’s eerie-sounding glissando, vibrato, portamento, and tremolo make it the perfect instrument for sci-fi, thriller, and horror films.
It was used throughout the 20th century in a decent number of movies, including “The Lost Weekend,” “Mars Attacks!,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Spellbound,” and a ton of other classic hits.
The instrument was also used in recent movies including “The Machinist (2004),” “Monster House (2006),” and “First Man (2018).”
Additionally, it was used in the soundtrack for the Loki TV series on Disney+, which was released in 2021.
4. The Theremin Frequently Made an Appearance in Pop and Rock Music
Theremins and theremin-like sounds were extremely popular in the 1940s to 1980s.
Lothar and the Hand People were the first-ever rock band to have performed the theremin on stage, wowing audiences across the world with its unique sound and play style.
The Beach Boys’ 1966 single “Good Vibrations” was a great contributor to the instrument’s popularity.
Although the song doesn’t use a “real” theremin, it features a similar-sounding instrument called Electro-Theremin.
Likewise, Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page used a variation of the instrument during their performances in “No Quarter” and “Whole Lotta Love.”
Other well-known artists that use the theremin include Jean-Michel Jarre, Tom Waits, Tesla, and The Rolling Stones.
5. The Theremin is the Moog Synth’s Big Brother
Robert Moog, an American engineering physicist, adored theremins so much so that, in 1953, he decided to open his very own theremin company, the RA Moog.
The company had one basic goal: assemble and sell theremin kits for aspiring theremin players.
His dedication to the theremin doesn’t end there, however. While working at Cornell University, Moog began working on a compact synthesizer that would appeal to musicians.
At the time, synthesizers were not only massive but also expensive. He wanted to change that.
His synthesizer, aptly dubbed as the Moog Synthesizer, was neither large nor costly.
Unsurprisingly, the Moog Synthesizer was inspired by the theremin.
6. The Theremin Has a Dedicated Fan Base
Although the instrument is relatively young at just over a century old, the theremin has a very dedicated fan base.
For many years, there have been events where the theremin was the main focus.
The “Hands Off” festival in England, for example, celebrates the theremin’s unique “hands-off” playstyle.
The same is said for the “Electromagnetic International Theremin” festival in Chile.
Even today, the theremin is widely used by contemporary musicians and Robert Moog’s company is still producing theremins.
It’s the company’s best-selling instrument.
7. Clara Rockmore Was (and Still is) the Best Theremin Player
If you want to see the theremin in all its glory, we recommend checking out Clara Rockmore’s performances.
Clara Rockmore, a Lithuanian violinist and theremin performer was and still is one of the world’s best theremin players.
Her talent was truly unsurpassable.
8. The Theremin is Notoriously Difficult to Master
Theremin fans beware: this instrument is extremely difficult to master.
According to experts, it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice with professional guidance to reach an expert level of performance.
In comparison, the guitar takes about 2,500 hours.
Playing the theremin requires discipline, hand/ear coordination, and a unique level of focus to get right.
Those who’ve tried a hand on the theremin gave up after a few months, claiming that it’s insanely difficult.
They’re hardly to blame, the theremin is one of the most challenging instruments in the world to play, after all.
9. The Theremin is Believed to Be the Most Perfect Tonal Instrument
The theremin has the capacity to produce vast gradations of volume and pitch and volume, dubbing it as the world’s most perfect tonal instrument.
Despite its popularity, the theremin still has so much unexplored potential.
The majority believe that the theremin has the capacity to create almost all sounds in the world—perhaps even those that have yet to be heard.
There aren’t a lot of theremin musicians because the instrument is extremely difficult to play, preventing players from truly exploring what it’s capable of.
10. The Theremin Is Monophonic
The theremin is a monophonic instrument, meaning it’s only capable of playing one note at a time.
It also doesn’t have harmony or counterpoint and uses only one channel of transmission to create sound.
However, PolyTheremins do exist.
It’s played much like a regular theremin, except it has five antennas rather than just two.
According to Dorit Chrysler’s instructional video above, the PolyTheremin is easier to play than a monophonic theremin.
11. The Theremin is an Extension to a Player’s Personality
The theremin is an instrument that can be played in a variety of ways.
Of course, there’s a “traditional way” of playing the theremin, but the truth is, every player brings his or her own unique personality to the instrument—almost like a sonic signature.
The difference between player to player is fundamental.
Professional theremin player, Charlie Draper, states that it’s possible to identify players based on phrasing and vibrato.
12. Dance-Controlled Theremins Exist
Theremins controlled through dance are called terpsitones. It’s basically a full-body theremin.
During its production, the instrument was nearly impossible to control as every time the test subject moved, a pitch was played and a colored glass lamp would light up.
Unfortunately, only three terpsitones were ever built.
Of the three, one of the instruments was given to Léon Theremin’s grandniece Lydia Kavina in 1978.
It’s the last surviving terpsitone today some have tried to replicate them.
13. The Theremin Revolutionized Music
When Theremin first introduced the instrument, it surpassed the abilities of all known instruments that had existed during his time.
For this reason, he encouraged young musicians and talented artists to let their imaginations run wild and disregard the “rules” of music.
The theremin brought immense progress in the world of instruments, as well as composition. It also inspired the invention of multiple other electronic equipment.
In a way, the theremin is the “mother” of electric instruments, birthing an era of new-age music.
14. Surprisingly, the Theremin WASN’T Used in Star Wars, Star Trek, or Doctor Who
Despite popular belief, the theremin was never used in the Star Wars, Star Trek, or Doctor Who franchise.
However, all three shows incorporated theremin-like sounds to create the signature “unearthly” sound.
Instead of the theremin, the soundtracks were performed using a mixture of instruments with vocals.
15. The Theremin was Used to Communicate With Extraterrestrial Intelligence
It might seem hard to believe, but the first musical interstellar radio message featured a theremin.
The First Theremin Concert for Extraterrestrials was the world’s first musical METI broadcast.
It was sent seven years before NASA’s Across the Universe message.
The transmission contained seven melodies and was played in succession six times over the course of three days.
The First Theremin Concert for Extraterrestrials featured Theremin’s grandniece, Lydia Kavina, along with theremin artists Yara Aksenova and Anton Kerchenko.
They performed various magnificent covers from classical to modern, including “the finale of the 9th Symphony,” by Beethoven, and “Summertime,” by Gershwin.
The theremin is a fascinating instrument with ingenious technology.
This hands-free instrument is living proof of the bottomless capacity of the human mind and talent.
Although we know otherwise, it’s difficult to think of the instrument as anything other than magic.
It’s visually mesmerizing and otherworldly. Even today, the theremin still leaves viewers delightfully open-mouthed.