It may surprise you if you learned that for the entire duration of your life there has existed a musical instrument that can be played by simply waving your hands around in mid-air. Well, be surprised, because unless you are over 92 years old, there has.
The instrument – the world’s first electronic instrument – is known as the theremin (a.k.a. aetherphone, termenvox) after its Russian creator, Léon Theremin (or Lev Sergeivich Termen, to give him his Russian name). That’s the fellow playing his creation in the video above. He invented the instrument while working as a physicist on government research into proximity sensors, and thereafter demonstrated it to Lenin, who was so impressed that he began taking lessons himself, commissioned 600 units to be distributed throughout the Soviet Union, and sent Mr. Theremin on a world tour with his creation. Unfortunately the KGB didn’t much like it when Theremin decided to patent his invention and settle down in America, so they kidnapped him and sent him back to a labour camp in the USSR.
The theremin works because of the body’s natural capacitance (ability to hold electrical charge). The device detects changes as the player moves their hands towards the antennae, and converts the signal from one antenna into a change in frequency (pitch) while the other antenna controls amplitude (volume).
Athough the theremin never made it into the mainstream in the way its little brother the synthesiser keyboard did, the breadth of its appeal is illustrated by the fact that it was both composed for by Shostakovich and used for Led Zepplin rock solos. Its eerie sound can also be heard in some contemporary TV and film scores, including the soundtrack to the film The Machinist and the theme to the UK TV series Midsomer Murders.
Here’s thereminist Pamelia Kurstin showing what can be done with a theramin and explaining (5:30, 10:50) how it works:
When you realise that a theramin can be plugged into a MIDI-converter (as in this video, 3:35) and thereby used to control more or less any sound, sample or recording you can imagine at the mere gesture of the hand, a whole new world of sci-fi wizardry really begins to open up before you…