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theremin

theremin. ‘Space-controlled’ elec. instr. developed by the Russian, Lev Theremin (b St Petersburg, 1896; d Moscow, 1993), and first publicly demonstrated in the Soviet Union 1920. Introduced to USA 1927. ‘Space-controlled’ means that it is played by movts. of the hands, which do not touch the instr. The theremin is built like a radio receiver, with an antenna protruding from the right and a metal loop on the left. The mus. is prod. by 2 high-frequency circuits, employing oscillating (thermionic) valves, one being at constant frequency while that of the other is altered when the player moves his hand through the air in front of the antenna. The resultant oscillation is called ‘heterodyning’ (‘beating together’), and the heterodyne frequency can be made audible by amplification through a loud-speaker. Vol. is controlled by a switch and by the movt. of the player's left hand over the metal loop. Sounds similar to the human v. or to those of about 7 instr. can be prod. Plays only one note at a time; range of 5 octaves. First comp. to use instr. was Pashchenko's Symphonic Mystery, for theremin and orch., Leningrad, 1924. Martinů wrote a Fantasy for theremin, str. qt., ob., and pf. Instr. was further developed by Moog and was used by the Beach Boys in ‘hit’ Good Vibrations, 1966.

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theremin

theremin (thĕr´əmən), one of the earliest electronic musical instruments, invented (1920) in the Soviet Union and named for its creator, Leon Theremin. A forerunner of the synthesizer, it consists of a wooden box fitted with two radio-frequency oscillators and two metal antennas, a vertical rod on the instrument's right and a horizontal ring on its left. The player moves the hands in the air around the antennas without touching them, creating changes the antennas' electromagnetic fields. The right hand controls the pitch, the left hand, the volume. The sine-wave tones that are produced are then amplified and fed into a loudspeaker.

The theremin's sound has been described as like that of a violin but more spooky and otherworldly. While some classical composers have written for the instrument, e.g., Henry Cowell and Edgard Varèse, it has been used more frequently in film soundtracks—where its eerie, swooping tones can create an atmosphere of unease or strangeness—and by such rock groups as The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, and Radiohead.

See S. M. Martin, dir., Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (DVD, 1995, rereleased 2001).

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