In 1924, a Russian scientist by the name of Leon Theremin invented an instrument that would feature in virtually all science fiction of the era. The waving mysterious notes that fly from this strange instrument depict a strange universe or punctuate the presence of an unknown force that defies the laws of known physics. And yet the instrument itself as well as its beginnings are nearly as strange as the mood it conveys.
Labeled in the 1920’s as the only instrument on Earth someone could play without touching, the theremin is played by hovering your hand over a loop on one end and moving your hand close or far away from a metal rod at the other end. The instrument appears to look like a mysterious alien device or some sort of tool from the future (at least it did in 1920), but it is actually a staple in film and television both for its sound effects producing capabilities and its eerie tonal quality.
By 1929 the miracle instrument that could be played by waving your hands through the air was being advertised in newspapers as the future of sound. But even today this strange instrument has remained relatively obscure when compared to others of its kind. The theremin was used to generate soundtracks on the classic show “The Twilight Zone” and for Gort’s theme in the science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still. But even if stylistically it has become familiar to many movie goers, the history of the strange device has more than its share of strange secrets, mysteries, and folk tales.
The instrument itself works by collecting radio waves in the first tower, a rod to one side of the player and then the other loop which would be at the other side. Between these two the signal is interrupted, and the oscillator within is affected proportionally. As the sound is changed it is then emitted from a loudspeaker which emits different sounds based on the position of the player’s hands at any given point. The amplitude is changed based on the position relative to the right loop while the pitch is changed as the left hand is moved about the antenna. Both hands working in conjunction can make various sounds that can be highly customized.
Some have suggested that since the theremin works not only with predesigned notes, but all notes and half notes between that it is one of the most customizable instruments, while others have pointed out the possibility to do the same with conventional instruments. Nonetheless, it’s powerful and eerie tones have sometimes been said by users to elicit voices from elsewhere. Some theremin players have reported even hearing vague voices coming seemingly out of nowhere from their theremin and sounds they are later unable to repeat. While it’s rare, some theremin players have put down the instrument or eventually refused to play it while alone due to the strange incidents. These theremin whispers seem to be yet another point to punctuate just how strange and marvelous this instrument truly is.