Developing a good intonation

Posted: 1/14/2014 8:15:08 PM

From: Finland

Joined: 1/14/2014

Hi everyone! I have kind of a lot in my mind in not that well-structured form, but lets see how I manage to formulate it all.

So, I am about to get myself a theremin, but I would like to get a better picture of what I am getting myself into before I actually get one.

How people w/o absolute pitch will find a clean note from the instument when there is no other pitches playing? (I am talking about the very first note required for the relative pitch to become usefull.) 

Lets say that I try to hit (e.g.,) A440(hz), how exact I have to be - how close I have to be it so sound good? E.g., is 437-443 close enough?

How long it will approximately take to learn, learn to find and master the pitch categories (notes/intervals) assuming one is training daily and has the average talents?


Posted: 1/14/2014 11:58:42 PM

From: Colmar, France

Joined: 12/31/2007

Hi Puurkova,

those who don't have perfect pitch will almost not be able to hit the first note correctly without any pitch reference. For most theremin players a pitch preview is very helpful. It allows to hear the theremin's pitch in an earpiece while the main audio output is still muted through the left hand/volume loop. But even a pitch preview is useless if you don't have an intro (from the accompaniment) which allows you to find the starting tone. 

That's why I am asked from time to time to install still an additional output on a theremin which gives a shaped and buffered pitch preview signal. This can be used to connect a visual chromatic tuner (I recommend the Korg DT4) which shows clearly the note (C, C#, D, etc.) and has a sophisticated system of red and green LEDs around to show you clearly the precision, if you are exactly in tune or a little sharp or flat. In order to avoid interference with the pitch and volume field, this tuner should be mounted below the theremin, for example with a clip on the mic stand, so that you can rapidly see where you are.

Here is an example setup which I built for one of my students :

Your second question "How long will it approximately take..." has a simple answer : It depends.

Clara Rockmore, the "grande dame" of the theremin said "it takes many years of study and hard work" and "Before you begin, you should know where you will go". This is for sure right if you intend to play the "classic" theremin repertoire at a professional level. The Dutch thereminist Thorwald Jorgensen for example was already a professional musician (percussionist) when he decided to play the theremin. He worked for about 5 years, 4 hours daily, before he gave his first concert.

Since theremin teachers are most times not "round the corner", most theremin players are more or less autodidacts. There is a big risk of taking "bad" habits in your playing technique which will from a certain point on prevent you from making further progress. Thus it is very important to meet an experienced theremin teacher from time who will observe your playing and give you hints how to improve your technique. There are many occasions to do so in Europe: Lydia Kavina organizes Theremin lessons for beginners and masterclasses in Oxford/GB about every three or four months, then there is a series of theremin gatherings round the year:

- January: The N/O/D/E festival in Lausanne, Switzerland (Carolina Eyck/D and Thierry Frenkel/F)
- April: The theremin spring academy in Leipzig, Germany 
(Carolina Eyck/D and Thierry Frenkel/F)
- July: The theremin summer academy in Colmar, France  (Carolina Eyck/D, Wilco Botermans/NL and Thierry Frenkel/F)
- November: The "Without Touch" festival in Lippstadt, Germany 
(Lydia Kavina/GB, Carolina Eyck/D, Wilco Botermans/NL and Thierry Frenkel/F)

It can also be interesting to follow these people on Facebook. Lydia and Carolina announce all their concerts in Europe and overseas and they are always ready to meet theremin students in the respective places.

Posted: 1/15/2014 12:00:27 AM

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 Puukorva, Welcome to TW!

I am more an engineer than a musician, so I can only really give you numbers..

One semitone below 440Hz is 392Hz, so they are seperated by 48Hz.. 1/100th of this is one cent, so its 0.48Hz .. If you get much further than about 10 cents from the intended note, even a tone-deaf person is likely to notice it IMO.. I would target about 3 cents for precision playing, and less than 10 cents for any public playing..

so 437Hz and 443Hz (the next higher semitone is 493.88Hz, so close to 0.494Hz / cent) are probably good enough IMO (+/- 6 cents), certainly good enough for a beginner, and better than the vast majority of you-tube performers, and quite exceptional for most people if one has no reference pitch.

Most beginners I have seen* have difficulty getting on the right side of the midpoint between two semitones, even when a piano is giving a guide tone.. I think (for me) reletive pitch is all I have - I have tunes in my head and can play from a note from such a tune - but not all the tunes in my head are correct against A440 (some were embedded when I had a faulty record player ;-) .. I suspect if you have had exposure to "quality" music played at the correct pitch, you have a better chance of "imagining" the correct starting note.. but this is purely a guess.


*In the interest of good science, I should just say that the majority of "beginners" I have seen may not be typical - most were just "passers bye" who "had a go" on the theremins and tried to play along to music in the background or thier ringtone or some other tune - I saw many hundreds.. But there were many who were genuinely interested and got a brief basic lesson from me, and most of these beginners probably never got to even 10 cents of the target note for any significant percentage of the time they played. 

Posted: 1/15/2014 12:56:56 AM

From: Finland

Joined: 1/14/2014

Thanks for the (quality) answer Thierry and Fred (numbers were exactly what I was after)!

Still interested of hearing other views - or experiences - of how long the "ear" (brain) training takes (lets say to a point where one is able to find the right tunes relatively accurately, while there is no rush to do so), how it progresses, what are the things ppl usually end up doing wrong, and so on.

Just out of curiosity, as the tuner is must for almost everyone to get the first pitch right when playing solo, is it common that ppl play every note relying on the tuner?

Posted: 1/15/2014 1:55:42 AM

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

"Still interested of hearing other views - or experiences - of how long the "ear" (brain) training takes (lets say to a point where one is able to find the right tunes relatively accurately, while there is no rush to do so), how it progresses, what are the things ppl usually end up doing wrong, and so on."

Hmmm... The way that was phrased leads me to think that perhaps your primary (or at least a major) interest is neuroscience or something related.. ;-)

Just a word of caution if this is the case - its nearly impossible to get any definitive parameters on even simple things like "relatively accurately" when it comes to theremins, without probably brewing up a storm here on TW - I was being recklessly careless when I gave numbers! - And I change "sides" in any "debate" on these matters depending on the direction of the wind or phase of the moon! ... In truth, I am really not sure that pitch "deviation" on the theremin is as important as it is on other instruments unless one is talking about specific genres of music where rigid tonal compliance is essential.

Some people will probably already be screaming that pitch accuracy or "rigid tonal compliance" is essential for all real music - Sometimes I feel that I agree, and sometimes I feel that I strongly disagree... I do think though that perhaps, due to the 'fluid' nature of pitch control for the theremin, there MIGHT be a different set of requirements in terms of accuracy, and that music played with more average pitch error than would be acceptable on other instruments may not be quite so disturbing or unacceptable when played on the theremin.... There is some music where I am sure the theremin needs to be as pitch-accurate as any other instrument  for it to sound ok .. But I do think that with a lot of music, the theremin can get away with less accurate pitch control.

The above are merely my blasphemous ideas! LOL ;-)


Posted: 1/15/2014 4:11:00 AM

From: Finland

Joined: 1/14/2014

"Hmmm... The way that was phrased leads me to think that perhaps your primary (or at least a major) interest is neuroscience or something related.. ;-)"

One day I was browsing youtube and came across Peter Pringle playing somewhere over the rainbow with theremin. I had not hear an instrument that sounds as good before. So, I felt that I need to learn to play it.

Like (probably) every instrument that one can play out of (relative) tune, theremin sounds horrible if one does. So, I though that the biggest challenge for me in playing theremin would be to develop a great intonation. I assume it is a great challenge for many players. While browsing these forums a lot lately, I thought it makes sense to post topic about it here, even though it is not a subject that is theremin specific. 

Why I am interested "numbers" and such things is because I feel that I need something to lean against, e.g., I don't want to trust myself to play in tune enough, I want an external confirmation of it. (Also I have been very confused lately of what counts as a pure note.)

(You are not wrong about that I have a major interest in a topic related to neuroscience, but it is not why I am here, and it is not related to music, at least not very directly. :)

Posted: 1/15/2014 7:16:25 AM

From: Colmar, France

Joined: 12/31/2007

It makes no sense to check every tone with the aid of a visual tuner during playing. This will kill the musical flow and expression. But it can be helpful during practicing, especially for larger jumps.

Posted: 1/15/2014 12:28:45 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Hi puukorva,


Perfect pitch might be useful for "a cappella" theremin playing, but it offers no real advantage to a thereminist. Even if you can recognize A=440 when you hear it, you still have to find it. This means you either have to "fish" for the pitch audibly, or you must use a visual or audio pitch preview. 


Clara Rockmore, who had 'perfect pitch' and is widely recognized to be the finest thereminist who has ever lived, can clearly be heard on her recordings "fishing" for her starting notes.


Thereminists are all off pitch all the time. The art of playing the instrument consists in learning how to disguise this unfortunate fact. Most people do not hear sharpness or flatness that is less than 15 cents (a 'cent' is 1/100ths of a semitone) north or south of the pure tone. Some people with exceptionally poor relative pitch don't hear anything wrong until the note is off by 50 cents (a full quarter tone) or more.


An audio pitch preview device can be useful for playing the theremin beyond simply finding the starting note, but no one plays relying on a tuner for every note. As Thierry correctly points out, there isn't time and it would kill musical flow and expression. The effective use of a preview within a piece will depend on the presence of a 'rest' that is long enough to facilitate the process, but a good player will not need to use it except for intervals over an octave.


The amount of time it is going to take you to learn to play the theremin on pitch will depend not only on how good your ear is to start with, but on how good your hand/ear coordination and muscle memory are. It will also depend on the degree of difficulty of the music you want to play - less time for TUKU TUKU LAMPAITANI, more time for the Anis Fuleihan CONCERTO FOR THEREMIN.


BTW, that's me playing OVER THE RAINBOW. I'm glad it has inspired you to take up the theremin.

Posted: 1/15/2014 12:32:06 PM

From: A Coruña, Spain

Joined: 9/26/2010

What I (and I think most people) do is get backing tracks and play along with them. That way you will need no tuner.

Something you will soon find out when you play the theremin is that it takes great concentration, you will need to dedicate 200% of your mind's "CPU power" to play it decently. 200% is not a typo or a hyperbole, I say that because at least if you are like me, at the beginning your mind will just not be enough to handle everything needed to play well and you will have to give up something (e.g. if you concentrate on pitch, then your expression with the volume hand and your vibrato will be crappy, if you concentrate on volume, you will be out of tune).

Practice lowers that "mind usage" requirement, I think I'm now at about 130% :) Good players of course reach 100%, but I don't think anyone has lowered it much beyond that. I mean, even the greatest of players are not able to play the theremin well and concentrate into something else at the same time, AFAIK. Looking at a visual tuner and interpreting its output all the time (not just for the initial note) would be too much of a distraction to play well.

Posted: 1/15/2014 2:10:32 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

I wonder if a lot of what makes the Theremin so difficult to play is the constant sussing out of the pitch?  Accompaniment gives one a pitch reference, but also somewhat obscures the pitch of the Theremin.

For instance, I don't think I'd want to tune my guitar with music playing in the background.  Even in a quiet room I have to give guitar tuning all of my attention, and a tuner beats me every time.

Conventional tuners that you can buy - like guitar tuners - are quite sluggish at determining note and then pitch (Barbara Buchholz appears to have used one).  An instant pitch indicator (like the stroboscopic types) would likely be much more useful.  Unless the player is trying to read music, would an instant pitch indicator be more distracting than beneficial?  Particularly if it was easy to read in terms of patterns?

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