Frequently Asked Questions About the Theremin
New to the theremin? Here's a list of common questions and answers we've heard over the years to help you get started!
Q: What is a theremin?
The theremin is an electronic musical instrument that is played without being touched. It most often takes the form of a box (wooden is most common) with 2 metal antennas protruding from it. By waving your hands near the antennas, you can control pitch and volume.
Q: How does a theremin work?
The theremin works on the principles of heterodyning and capacitance. When you wave your hands near the antenna, you form a capacitor between your hand and the antenna. A capacitor's properties vary by distance between its two "plates" and by the material between them (in this case, air). The hand/antenna capacitor is part of a circuit known as an oscillator. The output from this oscillator is mixed with the output from a fixed oscillator (one that does not vary), and the difference between the two is extracted. For the volume circuit, this signal is converted to control the loudness of the instrument, and for the pitch circuit, the signal is amplified into the tone you hear.
Q: When was the theremin invented?
The theremin was invented around 1919 by Professor Lev Sergeyvich Termen (whose name was later anglicized to Leon Theremin). It is believed to be one of the very first electronic muscial instruments.
Q: Was that a theremin on the Beach Boys song Good Vibrations?
A: No! This is a very common myth. In fact, the instrument was custom-built for the Beach Boys by Paul Tanner, and is known as a Tannerin or Electro-Theremin. You can learn more about the Tannerin and how to buy one at Tom Polk's website.