Invention Geek – Theremin?

Question from E. Henderson.:

Hey Geek,
What is the instrument used for music in spooky movies that you play without actually touching?
E. Henderson


Yes, the device you are asking about is a Theremin. The instrument was invented by Leon Theremin, a Russian Professor in 1920. Theremin was a Cello player and student of electrical engineering. One day, he was repairing a radio when he decided that he wanted to make a completely electronic musical instrument.

His is the only musical instrument that is played without direct contact. Two antennas are used to determine the position of the players hands. The antennas are connected to oscillators inside the Theremin. One hand controls the frequency while the other controls the volume. The sound produced by the instrument is very spooky and never subtle.

During a government sponsored trip to showcase his instrument as a great Soviet invention, Leon Theremin came to the United States. He ended up staying here in the US until 1938. He even received a US Patent for his invention. On February 28, 1928, Leon Theremin received US Patent 1,661,058 for a Method and Apparatus For The Generation of Sounds.

RCA built the Theremin for distribution in the United States. It was never commercially successful both because it was introduced right at the beginning of the Great Depression and because it is incredibly difficult to play. The instrument did find its place in the music for spooky movies in the 1940’s and 50’s though.

Here is a video of Leon Theremin playing the instrument:

– TG

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