The Theremin Is 100 Years Old; Celebrating The Spookiest Of Instruments

It wouldn’t be October without Halloween, and it wouldn’t be Halloween without some spooky music. There’s no instrument spookier than a Theremin, which also happens to be one of the world’s first electronic instruments.

Leon Theremin plays his namesake instrument. Image via Linda Hall Library

You’ve no doubt heard the eerie, otherworldly tones of the Theremin in various 1950s sci-fi films, or heard the instrument’s one-of-a-kind cousin, the Electro-Theremin in “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys. The Theremin turns 100 years old this month, so we thought we’d take a look at this strange instrument.

One hundred years ago, a young Russian physicist named Lev Sergeyevich Termen, better known as Leon Theremin, was trying to invent a device to measure the density of various gases. In addition to the standard analog needle readout, he wanted another way to indicate the density, so he devised an oscillator whistle that would change pitch based on the density.

He discovered by accident that having his hand in the field of the antenna changed the pitch of the whistle, too. Then he did what any of us would do — played around until he made a melody, then called everyone else in the lab over to check it out.

Theremin soon showed his device to Lenin, who loved it so much that he sent Lev on a world tour to show it off. While in New York, he played it for Rachmaninoff and Toscanini. In fact you can see a video recording of Leon playing the instrument, a performance that’s more hauntingly beautiful than spooky. In 1928, he patented the Theremin in the United States and worked with RCA to produce them.

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The Minimin Aims To Be The Simplest Theremin

Hackaday.io user [eagleisinsight] is a high-school hacker whose dreams of becoming a Theremin virtuoso were thwarted by the high cost of a commercial instrument. His response is the Minimin, an affordable Theremin design using a 555 and an ATMega328.

The 555 is configured as an astable oscillator running at about 5MHz and with a loop antenna attached to its timing capacitor. The parasitic capacitance of the musician’s hand against the antenna varies the frequency of the oscillation, as you would expect. In a classic Theremin the signal from the 555 would be mixed with the output from a fixed 5MHz oscillator and the sound would be generated from the difference between the two oscillators, but in [eagleisinsight]’s design the 555 clocks the ATMega328’s timer. The processor can thus read the oscillator frequency and use that value to control a waveform generator.

There is something missing from this Theremin: a second antenna for volume. For now a potentiometer does that job, but [eagleisinsight] is working on a MkII device to correct this omission, along with plans to replace the ATMega with an XMega processor whose DAC can produce a sine wave output and whose USB port can be used to enable the Minimin as a MIDI controller.

As you might expect, we’ve covered numerous Theremins over the years here on Hackaday. You can browse them all, but we’d like to draw your attention to a typical breadboard instrument using a soda can antenna, people using Theremins as Guitar Hero controllers, and Léon Theremin’s terpistone, a full-body instrument.

Retrotechtacular: The Theremin Terpsitone

Léon Theremin built his eponymous instrument in 1920 under Soviet sponsorship to study proximity sensors. He later applied the idea of generating sounds using the human body’s capacitance to other physical forms like the theremin cello and the theremin keyboard. One of these was the terpsitone, which is kind of like a full-body theremin. It was built about twelve years after the theremin and named after Terpsichore, one of the nine muses of dance and chorus from Greek mythology.

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Soda Can Theremin Made In Minutes

Looking for a fun weekend project? How about building your very own sci-fi Theremin using just a soda can and a few simple components you probably already have.

Not familiar with Theremins? It’s an electronic instrument that can be played without any physical contact. Essentially, the antenna (soda can) acts as half of a capacitor — your hand acts as the other. By varying the distance of your hand to the soda can, you change the capacitance, which can then be used to modulate a sound. It was invented in 1928 by the Russian inventor [Leon Theremin], and you can actually see a video of him playing it on YouTube — we’ve never seen this before, but we must say it’s actually quite impressive!

Anyway, back to the hack. All you need are some op-amps, a few capacitors, some resistors, a diode, a breadboard, and of course — a speaker. [Will’s] gone into great detail in how each circuit works with both schematics and diagrams of the breadboard configuration — it’s a great little project even kids can follow along.

Take a listen after the break.

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