Theremin: “Electronic music had to start from somewhere.”
Before there was Moog or Buchla or even “Roland”, there was Theremin. Leon Theremin, that is. The godfather of the synthesizer and the inventor of electronic music. This semi-obscure early 20th-century figure is the man who would jumpstart dance music’s leap to electronica.
Leon Theremin was born in Russia in 1896 and became employed by the Soviet government in the 1920s. When not making scientific innovations to help the communist regime, he was accidentally creating one of the world’s first electronic musical instruments.
Originally called the Etherphone, this device was originally conceived to measure gas density. But with literally the wave of his hands, Leon realized that he could make different musical notes with the whistling, whining sound that it produced. This got the attention of the other scientists in the lab and eventually Vladamir Lenin himself, who sent Theremin on the road to show off the contraption.
Leon got the taste of being a proto-rockstar on sold-out tours of Russia, Europe, and eventually the United States. He lived the life of a b-list celebrity in America as he acquired a patent for his Etherphone in 1928. Theremin sold the mass production rights to RCA while also spying on the American capitalist scum for mother Russia the whole time.
After 11 years of fame, notoriety, and espionage in the States, Leon abruptly returned to the Soviet Union. He was then whisked away to a Siberian gulag for counter-revolutionary activities. But the electronic age of music production had begun.
So how does this thing work?
Sound is caused by vibrations, like from strings or a drum. But electronic sound comes from the vibrations of an electric current causing vibrations through a speaker.
The Theremin is a wooden cabinet with an antenna on each end creating an alternating electrical (AC) current. What is essential for creating the current is a capacitor, which can store the electrical charge.
In essence, the person and the two antennas create a living capacitor. And your hands can create higher or lower frequencies and volumes, depending on the distance from the antennas. Heterodyning is done within the Theremin to convert the 250-kilohertz frequency to something more friendly to the human ear. The Theremin sends its vibrations through a speaker, and something that sounds a lot like a melody is produced. And you don’t even have to touch it!
We’ve all heard the sound of the Theremin, whether we realize it or not. It’s that eerie warbling wail that was the soundtrack to many sci-fi films in the 1950s. The Beach Boys classic “Good Vibrations” uses an electro Theremin which was controlled by knobs rather than just hands.
This thing blew the minds of American listeners. It truly sounded out of this world. Musicians tried to master this new instrument in attempts to make innovative songs and avant-garde art. Then along came the keyboard interface in the middle of the century, and the Theremin was generally kicked to the curb for instruments that were easier to play. But the Theremin’s impact can never be denied.
Robert Moog cut his teeth on constructing Theremins in High School. This directly influenced his production of his groundbreaking synthesizer. The integrated D-Beam-sensor on the Roland MC-505 can be used much like a Theremin. But even though the sounds of the Theremin can easily be replicated on many common synthesizers, the Theremin still enjoys a niche audience with enthusiasts and musical weirdos.
The Theremin may seem novel and eccentric from today’s viewpoint, but one must keep in mind that this piece of technology is over a hundred years old. Electricity mixed with music was a very foreign concept in the 1920s. The Theremin opened the door for the electric piano and electric guitar all the way through to the synthesizers, grooveboxes, and Digital Audio Workstations like Ableton Live that are used today.
The development of the Theremin by Leon Theremin was like the apple landing on Newton’s head, leading to the discovery of gravity. It is quite reasonable to ponder that without the Theremin, there would be no techno or electronic dance music scene at all.