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February 2003

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Revenge of the Theremin
It's not just for sci-fi soundtracks anymore

Eight decades after its invention, one of the earliest electronic instruments is popular again.

To play the theremin, a musician's hands hover around the instrument's antennas, controlling pitch and volume by interrupting the electromagnetic fields that surround them.

The theremin produces wavering notes—ooh-WEE—oooh—that sound more like George Jetson than George Gershwin. You may have heard it in Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." But that's not a theremin in the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations"; it's the electro-theremin—based on the same principles but laid out like a keyboard.

Remembering which hand position produces what note isn't easy. Inventor Leon Theremin taught the technique in the United States in the 1920s after a series of concerts. He'd already made a splash in his native Soviet Union, giving demonstrations to admirers including Vladimir Lenin.

Build-your-own-theremin kits are now widely available. And Moog Music, a company specializing in electronic instruments, sold more than 3,100 ready-made theremins in 2001. "It's kind of a cult thing," says Moog's Linda Pritchard, "but more people seem to want them every year."

—Margaret G. Zackowitz

Web Links

Moog Music
Check out Moog Music's full line of theremins for sale, including a build-your-own kit.

Theremin World
See a schedule of upcoming concerts and events, listen to audio samples of the ethereal instrument, and find schematic illustrations that may inspire you to build your own theremin.

Theremin Info
At this comprehensive site you can learn more about the instrument's inventor, Leon Theremin, read Theremin's original 1928 patent for his creation, and buy CDs of theremin music.

Virtual Theremin
Download the desktop theremin and make some music yourself!

The Paul Tanner Electro-Theremin Page
Learn about the electro-theremin, the instrument heard in the Beach Boys' song "Good Vibrations."

Free World Map

Glinsky, Albert. Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage. University of Illinois Press, 2000.


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