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January 20, 2011

Unusual Instrument Emits Good Vibrations

Theremin produced one of the earliest electronic sounds

Electronic music has been around a long time, and in the digital age, it seems to be everywhere. But one electronic instrument that has been around for nearly a century stands apart from the rest.

"The theremin stands out as being so unique and so marvelous it just attracted me for that reason alone," says Arthur Harrison, whose interest in the instrument dates back nearly four decades.

"When I was in college back in 1974, I had a roommate who was majoring in music and one day he brought home a theremin." Harrison, who always enjoyed tinkering with electronics, decided to take it apart and improve on the design. Twenty years later he began building his own designs, and Harrison Instruments was founded. Since then he has sold thousands of theremins, from simple build-it yourself kits to professional grade instruments.

One thing that makes the instrument unique is the fact that you don't touch it to play it. Harrison demonstrates on his 302 model, a small, rectangular black metal box on a pedestal. A metal plate extends from either side of the box.

Harrison moves his hands up and down above the plates to produce music, which is emitted from an amplifier. "As my right hand gets closer to the plate, the pitch goes up." His left hand controls the volume in a similar way with the plate on the left.

The plates, which are commonly referred to as antennas, are actually electrodes. "The theremin, in its classic form, is measuring the amount of capacitance between each of the player’s hands and its antennas," Harrison explains. As he moves his hands, the amount of electrical energy varies, changing the current in the circuits, which control the frequency and volume.

Early history

Harrison developed the design with the flat plates. Most theremins, including the original one created by Leon Theremin in 1919, have one vertical antenna and one horizontal. Theremin, a Russian scientist, was endorsed by the Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin. "Lenin told him to go West and show the world this great Soviet achievement," Harrison says. Theremin was supposed to spy on the United States while he was here, but Harrison says, "Leon Theremin had his heart more in the instrument and music than anything."

When he arrived in the U.S. in 1927, Theremin became an instant celebrity. His instrument was patented and produced by RCA, but with a price tag similar to that of a baby grand piano, not many were sold, especially after the stock market crash of 1929.

Clara Rockmore, a protégé of the inventor, is considered the greatest thereminist of all time. Born in Lithuania, she immigrated to the United States in 1921.

"She was a remarkable musician who started out as a childhood violinist, but developed a physical malady that prevented her from playing," Harrison says. Leon Theremin built one of his instruments to her specifications, launching her on a new musical career.

Theremins in popular culture

Because of its distinctive sound, the theremin has been used by a number of composers scoring films that needed something eerie or other-worldly. Miklos Rozsa used the instrument in "The Lost Weekend" and "Spellbound." Bernard Herrmann used it in the soundtrack of the 1951 film "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

After that, Harrison says, the theremin was featured in a lot of sci-fi film scores. "For a long period of time it was relegated to more of a sound effects device."

The theremin has been used by some rock musicians, including Jimmy Page of Led Zepplin, but Harrison says it is a common misconception that the Beach Boys used it one of their hits. "A fellow named Paul Tanner had created a slide electronic oscillator, to emulate the sound of a theremin. He was called upon by the Beach Boys to do the riff in 'Good Vibrations,' which many people erroneously believe was a theremin."

Although Harrison has had several professional gigs as a musician, he considers himself first and foremost a designer of theremins. "When I began building the Theremins and began coming up with what I thought were better and better designs, I had no intention to play them, but of course if you are making them, invariably, in order to test the design you have to play them."

Harrison will be playing even more later this year when his Washington-based band, The Cassettes, gets back together after being on hiatus since 2008. For now he is busy building theremins and helping others build them via his website, Art’s Theremin Page.