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Frequently Asked Questions About the Theremin

New to the theremin? Here's a list of common questions and answers we've heard over the years to help you get started!

Q: What is a theremin?

The theremin is an electronic musical instrument that is played without being touched. It most often takes the form of a box (wooden is most common) with 2 metal antennas protruding from it. By waving your hands near the antennas, you can control pitch and volume.

Q: How does a theremin work?

The theremin works on the principles of heterodyning and capacitance. When you wave your hands near the antenna, you form a capacitor between your hand and the antenna. A capacitor's properties vary by distance between its two "plates" and by the material between them (in this case, air). The hand/antenna capacitor is part of a circuit known as an oscillator. The output from this oscillator is mixed with the output from a fixed oscillator (one that does not vary), and the difference between the two is extracted. For the volume circuit, this signal is converted to control the loudness of the instrument, and for the pitch circuit, the signal is amplified into the tone you hear.

Q: When was the theremin invented?

The theremin was invented in 1920 by Professor Lev Sergeyvich Termen (whose name was later anglicized to Leon Theremin). It is believed to be one of the very first electronic musical instruments.

Q: Was that a theremin on the Beach Boys song Good Vibrations?

No! This is a very common myth. In fact, the instrument was custom-built for the Beach Boys by Paul Tanner, and is known as a Tannerin or Electro-Theremin. You can learn more about the Tannerin and how to buy one at Tom Polk's website

Q: Did the original Doctor Who theme song use a theremin?

Sorry, also no. The Doctor Who theme was performed by Delia Derbyshire in 1963 using a combination of hand-tuned oscillators and tape loops that we cut and spliced together in a technique known as musique concrete.

Q: Did the original Star Trek theme use a theremin?

No. The original theme was sung by soprano Loulie Jean Norman and was not a theremin. Another variation was performed with a violin.

Q: How do you play the theremin?

The basics are pretty simple. The left antenna controls volume, and the right antenna controls pitch. The closer your hand comes to the volume antenna, the quieter the volume. The closer your hand comes to the pitch antenna, the higher the pitch. The challenge comes in finding the right pitch and holding it steady while producing proper phrasing with your volume hand. It's a bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach, if your head and stomach were in slight different places every time you tried!

Q: Why do some theremins only have one antenna?

Generally, single antenna theremins only have a pitch antenna. You can see an example of this in the video of Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love. Single antenna theremins tend to be much less expensive than models with two antennas.

Q: How do I build my own theremin?

Building a theremin is not for the faint-hearted, but it is possible! We have lots of theremin plans available on our schematics page, and you can usually find technical help in our forums. Alternatively, you can find kits for various skill levels (see our theremin store for some examples). You'll need to be comfortable with soldering in either route.