making music sound spooky
Nothing does ‘spooky’ more than the whining wails and drones of the theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments to capture public attention.
From hundreds of horror B-movie soundtracks to atmospheric prog-rock, from the Beach Boys to the B-52s and beyond, the theremin – an electronic sound manipulator machine invented in 1920 – is one of the more unique modern instruments. Not only does it sound creepy, and look peculiar too, it also has a rather mythological history, too.
A brief history of the THEREMIN:
The theremin – also known as the etherphone or thereminvox – was invented by Russian scientist Leon Theremin during the tumultuous early days of Soviet Russia and an equally unbridled era of scientific experimentation and discovery, not as a musical instrument, but as a government-sponsored experiment into proximity sensors – i.e: an early form of close-quarter radar.
How to play a theremin:
Simply put: a theremin has a central controlling unit made up of two metal antennae (a loop and an aerial) that send out electronic waves that can then be manipulated by the movement of hands – sort of like the way a portable radio’s reception is affected by its position relative to radio wave signals. One hand affects the frequency oscillations – the tone and key of each note – and the other hand controls the amplitude and volume of the signal. These signals, electronic pulses are then amplified to create sounds. All without the hands touching any part of the machine.
Theremin, after discovering the invention could create sounds and be manipulated musically, touring Europe and America, demonstrating the instrument to investors and the public.
In 1928, he patented the invention as an instrument and granted commercial and production rights to RCA Victor music company for sale in the US. Slow at first to gain popularity, it soon became a bit of curiosity piece, used to reinterpret classical music for the masses, as well as drive a new wave of musique concrete – avant garde manipulation of classical music with electronic elements.
In 1938, Theremin disappeared under mysterious circumstances, later revealed as being kidnapped by the KGB and returned to the Soviet Union and forced to work in Stalin-era labour camps. He returned to the US only in 1991, to discover how his instrument had gained a cult following among musicians and electronics enthusiasts, in particular inventor and Moog synth visionary Robert Moog.
Moog had been building theremins since he was a teenager, and had always offered that the theremin and the technology behind it was a significant stepping stone to the invention of his first Moog keyboard synthesiser.
Moog went on to create variations of the theremin, incorporating the principles of musical oscillations and sound wave manipulation into not only the famous popular series of keyboard synths, but also reworking the theremin itself, as technology evolved around it.
Today, the theremin had become more streamlined, less volatile, and easier to play. The newer reinventions, while not making the instrument a more mainstream musical component, have made it a popular choice for musicians seeking a more innovative, more organic electronic sound.
in popular culture:
Contrary to popular belief, some pieces of music – particularly sci-fi soundtracks – that been thought to use the theremin, do not. The original theme for Star Trek for instance, with its ghostly high-pitched wail motif is actually a singer, a soprano recreating the sound of a theremin. Also, the Doctor Who theme does not use a theremin, but a series of ground-breaking synthesiser manipulations built by the BBC sound department, inspired by the work of Theremin and Moog.
Nonetheless, here is a list of other theremin-based songs, or variations thereof:
Beach Boys – Good Vibrations
While technically a Tannerin (a more sophisticated modern electronic theremin) the sounds on this seminal Beach Boys track is the more well-known use of the eerie sounds of the theremin. Used to great effect here, the Boys continued to use the instrument in varying degrees throughout their career – from their surf-pop, right into their more ambitious concept-pop era, and beyond into some of Brian Wilson’s strange and wonderful solo work.
Portishead – Mysterons
Again, not technically a theremin, but the effect is the same. A monophonic synth (possibly a MiniMoog) gives a spooky, atmospheric background to the influential and ground-breaking Dummy album.
Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin.
*from the documentary This Might Get Loud. Jimmy Page demonstrates the theremin to The Edge and Jack White. Everyone suitably impressed.
That really bizarre bit from 1 minute 24 seconds through to 3 minutes, that sounds like aliens landing if you listened to it in the dark contains elements of theremin, played by Jimmy Page, and later used extensively in the legendary live performances of the song, often clocking in at over 20 minutes and killing several violin bows in the process.
Day the Earth Stood Still (OST) – Bernard Herrmann
The first instance of extensive theremin use in popular culture, Herrmann’s score went a long way to defining the original film, and creating a musical/sci-fi trope that’s still being used today. Other innovators of the theremin in soundtrack work were Miklos Rozsa and composer Shostakovich. Today, the theremin can be heard in the music behind Hell Boy, The Social Network and the comedy of Bill Bailey.
Autumn’s Child – Captain Beefheart.
Trust one of the weirdest people in popular music to be an avid embracer of the theremin, making his music even more unstable and odd.
Honourable mentions: also found on The Pixies’ Velouria and somewhere amongst the 23 minute soundscaping epicness of Echoes by Pink Floyd.
For more info, check out Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, a documentary film on the creation and influence of the theremin on modern music:
NOW TRY IT YOURSELF!
Theremin – A Playable Touch Synthesizer Using Web Audio API http://femurdesign.com/theremin/
…an interactive Theremin app for phone and tablet that offers a near enough experience to the real thing.