Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Alaina from Powell, OH. Alaina Wonders, “What is a Theremin?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Alaina!
Have you ever seen an orchestra play? Which instrument is your favorite? Perhaps you like watching the movement of the violinists’ bows. Maybe you prefer the clarinet, whose reed vibrates as the clarinetist blows air through the mouthpiece. You might instead enjoy seeing drummers play their instruments with mallets or their hands.
There are many ways a musician can make sound on an instrument. But did you know that there’s one musical instrument that doesn’t need to be touched at all? It’s true! What are we talking about? The theremin, of course!
What is the theremin? It was one of the first electronic musical instruments. Russian physicist Lev Sergeevich Termen invented it. The theremin is named for the Western version of his name, Léon Theremin.
Termen invented the device in 1920. This happened just after the outbreak of the Russian Civil War. His work was part of government research into proximity sensors. He eventually brought the device to the United States. There, he patented it in 1928.
Musicians who play the theremin do so without touching the instrument at all. Instead, they move their hands near the device’s two metal antennae. One of these is horizontal and the other is vertical. The antennae sense the position of the player’s hands. How? They’re surrounded by electromagnetic fields.
When hands move near the antennae, they make interference in these fields. The distance between the hands and the antennae determines the pitch and volume of sound. When the antennae sense the musician’s hands, they produce electric signals. These are sent to a speaker to produce the theremin’s unique sound.
Theremin sold the right to create his device to RCA. It began to make them as early as 1929. However, they have never made a big commercial splash. Today, the theremin remains an instrument seldom heard, especially in popular music.
Why hasn’t the theremin caught on to a greater extent? One reason may be that it’s very difficult to master. After all, theremin players don’t touch any part of the instrument. The performer must stand in front of it, moving their hands near the two metal antennas. This has turned out to be a very difficult skill to master.
Another reason may be that many think the sounds produced by the theremin are eerie. The instrument has often been used in science fiction movie soundtracks. One famous example is “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
Have you ever heard music played on the theremin? Would you like to learn to play the instrument yourself? It may be difficult to learn, but those who do so have a very unique skill. Maybe we’ll hear your music in a science fiction film one day!
Standards: CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.W.9, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2, NCAS.A.1, NCAS.A.2, NCAS.A.3,