The theremin as a pedagogical tool

Posted: 8/31/2014 2:16:04 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

In my distant past, I used to teach music in college (ear training, theory & composition) and it occurs to me that the theremin is a perfect tool for aiding in training the ear. Every college and even high school should have at least one as a means to help students match pitch and develop their sense of relative pitch. Many students have a hard time hearing they are singing in tune. The theremin provides an excellent medium for translating ones voice into an external instrument. In fact, after playing with it now for a month I can't think of another instrument that comes as close to simulating the art of singing as the theremin. When playing you really do get the feel that you are singing.  (If Moog works out the kinks in that Theremini - that would really be a perfect tool as it's inexpensive and portable and for this application, sounding or playing exactly like a theremin is not really the most important consideration). 

I'm going to talk to a professor friend (who is a world renown expert in aural theory and musical pedagogy)  about this (we co-authored an Anthology of Sight-Singing used in colleges today). I'm very interested in seeing if we can put together a little experiment to see how well my theory here holds water. I'm sure I'm not the first to think of this. Have to do a bit more research.

I do see the theremin as a training tool in other areas. This one is interesting.

In a related topic, I've been thinking: Is it better to have perfect pitch or a good sense of relative pitch when playing the theremin - or is it irrelevant. I'd be interested hearing people's views on that. Since I don't have perfect pitch my view could be skewed (thinking people with perfect pitch may actually have a harder time as actual pitch moves each time you calibrate the darned thing).


Posted: 8/31/2014 3:38:42 PM
RS Theremin

From: 60 mi. N of San Diego CA

Joined: 2/15/2005

rkram53, That was a nice article and a great project for student interest, O to be young again. (-‘

Perfect pitch is a bit of a mystery to me. When someone plays along side of music they have a reference to compare against. For someone to pick a series of correct notes out of the air for the band to tune against and not the other way around sounds like an unnatural myth or wishful thinking. What would the brain use to match a reference to a man made note chart? I can see how starting and ending on the same musical note would be challenging. The best I have “tried to measure”, brought to my attention on TW, that might have perfect pitch would be Greg White, still young enough that his hearing has very little if any biological or environmental damage.

The idea of the theremin and the paranormal has always haunted me. A match made in Heaven?


Edit: Had to look that word up, not even in the dictionary.

Pedagogical knowledge requires an understanding of cognitive, social and developmental theories of learning and how they apply to students in their classroom.

Posted: 8/31/2014 4:18:48 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

Ah, the perfect pitch question. I'm not an expert, but I have some thoughts.

it seems to me that this is really two things:

1. Pitch or Interval memory - the ability to retain in memory and recall either an absolute pitch or the relative difference between two pitches over an extended period of time - necessary for A Capella playing, and for that absolute pitch memory would be preferable or pitch is likely to drift during a performance. 

2. Pitch or Interval discrimination - needs to be excellent - if you can't tell that a note is off by ten cents, you really shouldn't be playing melodic theremin! (*) If a note that is couple of cents off causes you anguish, the overwhelming majority of listeners will swear you are playing in tune. Of course, you aren't exactly in tune - you're playing a theremin - but good enough is good enough. :-)


(*) I don't play melodic theremin, even though I think I have quite good pitch discrimination.

Posted: 8/31/2014 5:15:28 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

People with perfect pitch hear pitch very much the same as we see color. Some teachers out there have developed systems that purport to teach you how to gain perfect pitch - but the story is still out if it can actually be taught. I'm very interested to see over the next months of working with the theremin how my sense of pitch improves (or changes). I do see that just breathing hard can change your tuning +/- 40 cents or so and standing as still as I can holding my breath, I still see 10 cents fluctuations (though a 10 cent fluctuation with vibrato would create a tone that would appear perfectly in tune as far as I can tell - as GordonC points out). 

I don't think people with perfect pitch hear for example an A=440.0 versus a couple cents off (I think they hear the color of A as they have been exposed to it in the music they hear), but I need to check up on that. And of course tunings have changed over the years which complicates the issue so I'm just addressing equal temperament (the law that sets A=440 is not sacrosanct). Once you are playing a known tone however, I would venture a person with relative pitch could determine the note was out of tune just as easily as someone with perfect pitch (but that's coming from someone without perfect pitch). I do know that some people with perfect pitch are really affected by tuning being off a bit (that is for example moving to a Baroque tuning system from their normal exposure to equal temperament).

Anyone with perfect pitch out there playing the theremin - be interested to hear your issues when playing melodic tones working in equal temperament.

Posted: 8/31/2014 5:24:07 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

And by the way that poses another interesting question. Using vibrato, how far off (cent wise) can you be around a tone to still be perceived as playing in tune. I venture it is humanly impossible to maintain a consistent vibrato +/- 10 cents around a central pitch. My guess is you can go +/- 30 cents and still be perceived as being in tune. Need to check that out as I assume it is central to learning how to play on key.

Posted: 9/1/2014 4:01:55 AM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

The Wikipedia page for "cent" references a study of vibrato in opera singing where the low end vibrato around a central pitch was +/- 31 cents and the high end was +/- 123 cents or more with a mean of +/- 71 cents. I suspect perception of playing in key on the theremin would be more towards the mean to lower end (and thereminists that use more vibrato would be heard as being more "operatic" in their playing). Logic would say you should keep the vibrato within the threshold of your normal pitch variation on the instrument to keep yourself in tune and over time as you gain more control that vibrato can be reduced.

Though can't seem to get to the article:

E. Prame (July 1997), "Vibrato extent and intonation in professional Western lyric singing", The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 102 (1): 616–621

Posted: 9/1/2014 1:36:30 PM

From: Eastleigh, Hampshire, U.K. ................................... Fred Mundell. ................................... Electronics Engineer. (Primarily Analogue) .. CV Synths 1974-1980 .. Theremin developer 2007 to present .. soon to be Developing / Trading as . ...................................

Joined: 12/7/2007

Hi Rich,

IMO Its probably easier to experiment on these matters using a synthesizer than a theremin I think.. Take a VCO, modulate the CV about some reference using an LFO - you then have precise control over mean pitch and depth / frequency / shape of the modulation.

With a theremin there isn't only the deliberate modulation (vibrato) there is also the inevitable shift in mean pitch (unintended) which will greatly complicate any assessment of perceived pitch.

Sorry to be a wet squib, but I really dont see the theremin as a useful tool for this sort of research.. IMO there are far better tools available which are used regularly in audiology departments at hospitals an used in research at medical schools..

Perhaps the specific research on vibrato and its effect on perceived pitch hasn't been done - I would find this surprising, but not impossible - but all the tools to precisely and scientifically derive this data does exist in audiology labs (I built several bespoke pieces of equipment, particularly low distortion audio oscillators, for audiology research at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine back in the '80s, and they had piles of other kit regularly used and commercially available to audiology research  labs).

IMHO, in the right hands, the theremin is a great musical instrument - But as a piece of reliable scientific equipment from which to derive any data, I suspect its utterly useless!  ;-)

I also question its use purely as a pitch training aid - surely having some more reliable interface (dial, slider or whatever) which doesn't require precise muscle / body control and isn't influenced by environmental factors would be far better suited to this function ?

" The theremin provides an excellent medium for translating ones voice into an external instrument. In fact, after playing with it now for a month I can't think of another instrument that comes as close to simulating the art of singing as the theremin. When playing you really do get the feel that you are singing. "

I agree with the above - its true for those who have the required degree of physical control / coordination.. But most people dont have this - regardless of their sense of pitch.. This could be one reason (apart from the marketing reason) why the original theremin was touted as "if you can hum a tune, you can play it" or words like that - For some people this may be true, and this is perhaps what those people believed.. but for most its not true.


Posted: 9/1/2014 2:39:49 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014


Hmm. Yes the issue of coordination could likely put a kink in my theory. Then again with all the kids weened on video games and cell phone use today, my guess is that a high proportion will be quite coordinated. Another possible use for that theremini if they work things out as you could set it to match a chromatic tone in quantized mode. Still, you're probably right - there are better tools for this application that remove the fluctuations of the theremin itself from the equation.

Thanks for the tip on CV use to try and quantify the vibrato issue with a synth.




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