How a Theremin Works

Hands Off: How to play a Theremin

Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin rocks a theremin during a concert in 1977.
Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin rocks a theremin during a concert in 1977.
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Getty Images

Many people have played the theremin, but only a few have mastered it. Below, we'll list three of the most important players in theremin history.

Clara Rockmore: Probably the world's most celebrated thereminist, Clara Rockmore developed an intricate fingering technique for theremin that allowed for precise pitch control.

Lucie Bigelow Rosen: A student of Léon Theremin, Lucie Rosen kept a detailed notebook on theremin design and construction [source:]. Her theremin, designed by the inventor himself, is still on view at her former home, Caramoor.

Samuel Hoffman: Hoffman lent his theremin skills to numerous television shows and movie soundtracks including "It Came From Outer Space," "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Delicate Delinquent" [source:].

With only two antennae to manipulate, the theremin seems like it would be a breeze to play. Looks, however, can be deceiving. In the hands of a master, the theremin can sing with the precision, vibrato and depth of a seasoned mezzo-soprano. When operated by a novice, on the other hand, it produces little more than earsplitting blats and squawks.

A theremin works by generating electromagnetic fields around two antennae. A straight, vertical antenna controls pitch; A horizontal, looped antenna controls volume. A masterful player makes very small, precise finger and hand movements in the field around the vertical antenna to change pitch and create melodies. ("You have to play with butterfly wings," virtuoso thereminist Clara Rockmore was quoted as saying [source: Wakin].) In addition to controlling pitch, a theremin player must also control volume. She accomplishes this by hovering her hand (usually the left) over the instrument's horizontal antenna. Exaggerated jerking and flailing movements are counterproductive. An experienced theremin master appears to be dancing with her hands, drawing a song from thin air, like magic.

The secret to great Theremin playing lies in perfect pitch control. A great player must possess a good ear, fine muscle control and ample coordination. The first time a new player approaches a theremin, his performance is more likely to sound drunken and atonal than distinguished or adept. Many hours of practice, however, help a player develop the hearing and muscle memory necessary for keeping a melody in tune. Once he's mastered those basics, he can progress to adding vibrato and dynamics to his playing. A real theremin master can make an instrument soar with the fortissimo of Pavarotti or fade to the most delicate of whispers. If you want to learn even more about the art of theremin playing, take a look at our article How to Play a Theremin.

Theremins with fixed volume controls may be somewhat easier to play since they only have one antenna. Curious about the different types of Theremins available? The next page has you covered.