The theremin was invented in 1919 by a Russian physicist named Lev Termen (his name was later changed to Leon Theremin). Today, this marvelous instrument is once again in the musical spotlight.
Besides looking like no other instrument, the theremin is unique in that it is played without being touched. Two antennas protrude from the theremin - one controlling pitch, and the other controlling volume. As a hand approaches the vertical antenna, the pitch gets higher. Approaching the horizontal antenna makes the volume softer. Because there is no physical contact with the instrument, playing the theremin requires precise skill and perfect pitch.
The Theremin in Music & Film
Originally, the theremin was intended to replace entire orchestras with its "music from the ether." While that never quite happened, it has been used in many recordings over the years. During the 60's and 70's, bands such as Lothar and the Hand People, the Bonzo Doo Dah Dog Band, and Led Zeppelin brought the theremin into the public eye for a short time. Then, the theremin slipped back into obscurity until the recent revival of the 1990s. Today, lots of bands use theremins, though few in a musical context. Simon and Garfunkel's last tour included a Theremin player!
The spooky sound of the theremin was used in several movie soundtracks during the 1950's and 1960's. It provided background mood music for such sci-fi classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came From Outer Space, as well as thrillers such as Spellbound and The Lost Weekend.