The Theremin

The other day I was listening to the radio and heard a demonstration of someone playing the Theremin, an early example of an electronic instrument that can be played without touching it. Here’s the inventor Leon Theremin (who patented the device in 1928) showing what it can do:

I reckon it would be fun thing to show this to a group of physics students to ask them to figure out how the Theremin works! If you want  to know the answer to that question you can find it here. It’s a simple idea based on the idea that when the operator of the instrument movers his or her hands it changes the effective capacitance between them and the aerials.

Anyway, anyone who has ever watched the detective series Midsomer Murders will (perhaps unwittingly) have heard a Theremin. Here is how the theme tune  is played:


5 Responses to “The Theremin”

  1. Also used by Led Zeppelin on Whole Lotta Love and No Quarter apparently.

    • Probably used most famously by the Beach Boys on “Good Vibrations”. 🙂

      I recently saw Brian Wilson in concert, celebrating 50 years of Pet Sounds. I’m not a Beach Boys fan (I have only a double-CD “best of” collection), but it was a very good and, yes, even poignant concert. (A few years ago, I saw the reunion tour featuring all surviving Beach Boys (Carl and Dennis are dead, but Bruce Johnston (who, with Toni Tennille (of “The Captain and Tennille” fame), sang backing vocals on Pink Floyd’s The Wall (hey, if you need ooohs and aaahs, go with the best)) was substituting for Brian even back in the 60s and David Marks, who sang on the first three albums while Al Jardine was at college, were there and they’re legit) and about 10 other musicians (so they could faithfully re-create the studio sound). They played about three hours and it was really a great concert—even for non-fans. The current “touring incarnation” of the Beach Boys is in some sense a cover band, even if it contains some original member(s).)

  2. Gary Mathlin Says:

    One of the first 3rd year BSc projects I supervised when I started work in the Physics Department at Bath was to build a Theramin.

    One of the students – who I only remember know as Paul – put a lot of his work on-line and I believe his web site became the ‘go to’ place for Theramin builders all over the world. Perhaps I should run it again next year.

    I was going to point out that, as well as the Midsomer Murders theme, the Theramin can be heard on the Beach Boys 1966 hit ‘Good Vibrations’. However, doing a quick fact-check before writing this comment, I learnt that the instrument on the BB’s track was in fact an ‘electrotheramin’. This is an easier to play version invented and played by Paul Tanner. See

    for details.

    • Yes, mea culpa; the good vibrations were produced by a somewhat different instrument (though sounding essentially the same). Toni Tennille and Bruce Johnston really did sing on The Wall, though. Also, David Bowie plays sax and Peter Sellers ukulele on Steeleye Span records (though not on the same one). Papa John Creach (born 1917, so old for a rock musician in the 1970s but that age is not at all old today), who played with Jefferson Airplane/Starship in the 1970s, spent 5 years in the 1940s playing in cruise-ship bands (and also played with Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Stuff Smith, Charlie Christian, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Nat King Cole and Roy Milto). Wonders never cease.

  3. James Dunlop Says:

    The theremin is of course well known again (certainly all my kids know about it) due to Sheldon attempting to play it in an episode of the Big Bang Theory.

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