The Theremin


This episode was written & produced by Colby Hartburg.

If you've ever watched an old sci-fi or horror film, you've probably heard the hair-tingling, alien sounds of the Theremin. It's a spooky, strange instrument that's played without being touched, and has become a staple for classic horror movies. This is the story of the Theremin's mysterious journey. Featuring Thereminist Rob Schwimmer, Michelle Moog-Koussa, daughter of Bob Moog and Executive Director of the Bob Moog Foundation, and Albert Glinsky, courtesy of Moog Music.


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Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound and hosted by Dallas Taylor.

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View Transcript ▶︎

[SFX: Leon Theremin playing his own instrument]

You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz, the stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor.

[SFX:Continue Leon Theremin music]

What scares you? What makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up? There are plenty of haunting sounds out there, but perhaps the most strange, the most alien, and the most mysterious one comes from an instrument you may never have heard of. The Theremin.

[SFX: Theremin, Leon’s musical performance continued]

Sound familiar? If so, it’s probably because it’s commonly tied to old sci-fi and horror films from the 1950’s and 60’s, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still.

[SFX: Clip from The Day the Earth Stood Still]

But there’s more to the Theremin than just eerie sounds. Its story actually starts…and ends with a mystery. And there’s a whole lot in between.

[music in]

The most intriguing part of the Theremin is that you play it without ever touching it. Take that in for a moment. It’s like playing a ghost instrument.

Rob: Imagine your eyes are closed and you're hearing this sound that's maybe like a voice or a violin. You're in the same room and you're hearing that sound. When you open your eyes, you will see somebody moving around who is actually not touching anything, and yet is controlling this sound by where their hands are. You watch this person moving the one hand and the other hand. You're looking at something that is impossible and is magic.

[music out]

That’s Rob Schwimmer. He’s a renowned musician and Thereminist.

Rob: When you can just hear it, maybe you're thinking of old sci-fi movies or older scary movies where the person is cowering as the flying saucer comes down and some high, wavery, scary sound is happening. Sometimes that's a Theremin that they would use in the movies.

[SFX: Theremin – Sci Fi movie]

Rob: It's a freaky thing to see, it's a freaky thing to hear, and it's really fun to play.

And its origin is almost as freaky.

[music in]

Around 1920, a Russian scientist named Leon Theremin, stumbled across a bizarre confluence of electromagnetic waves that created… sounds. He was working on a device to measure the density of gasses. Instead of just having a normal meter, he also decided to add a kind of whistling device. This whistling device [SFX: theremin] would change the pitch depending on the density of the gas. When he moved his hands around the device, he noticed a shift in pitch and volume. Eventually he was able to manipulate it into a melody. It caught on and became a sensation across Russia, Europe and eventually the United States.

[music out]

Oh, and he was also allegedly a KGB spy, but more on that later.

Rob: He was not looking to do this when he came across the phenomenon of being able to hear something that was influenced by his physical position. He was doing another experiment.

Now I think most inventors, when they would come across such a thing, would discard it as an unwanted byproduct of what they were trying to do. With him, the light bulb went on over his head and he realized, "This is not what I'm looking for, but I have something here." That to me is the genius moment, is that he actually recognized that moment is there's something here.

And that something wasn’t anything tangible.

Rob: You actually don't touch anything when you're playing the Theremin [SFX: theremin]. You just move your hands in the air. Now when you look at that, that looks really weird and you go, "Well, how is that possible? This person isn't touching anything."

The basic design looks like a thin, rectangular box with one rod sticking straight up - that controls the pitch [SFX: Theremin pitch going up] - and there’s a horseshoe-shaped rod attached to the left side – that controls the volume [SFX: Theremin volume going up and down] . There are some knobs that adjust the overall pitch, but the basic design has remained the same since its invention.

Rob: There are two electromagnetic fields, one around each side, that you cannot see, of course. Your right hand, when it enters the electromagnetic field, that changes the pitch that you hear.

[SFX Theremin pitch and volume adjusting]

Rob: The left hand controls the volume, which is weird because it gets louder as you lift up. We're used to gas pedals, volume pedals. We typically think more is down, downward motion, gas pedal. But in this case, it gets louder when you lift up. It's a little strange to get used to at first.

That’s putting it mildly. Learning to play the Theremin takes a lot of practice and a good ear. Albert Glinsky, an American composer and author, wrote the book on Leon Theremin’s life and career. He explains the basics of the instrument here.

[SFX: Albert Glinsky Clip “So you have this basic siren sound like this [pause] and then we want to chop that up into individual parts using the volume antenna, so that we can create individual notes like this [pause] that kind of idea.”]

Rob: Theremin's have sounded different over the years. Actually, from Theremin to Theremin, they sound different, they feel different.

But what it is, is really that they actually have different sounds and different characters for each of them, and some of them are good for, oh ... You know how a guitar player will have a bunch of guitars and he goes, "Oh, this guitar isn't right for this song." Well, Theremins, it's the same way. Why? It's magic. I don't know.

Rob actually had the opportunity to play one of Leon Theremin’s last known instruments before he…well, disappeared. It’s called the November Theremin.

[SFX Rob playing November Theremin]

Rob: For me, when I first turned the thing on, when I said it was a masculine sound, I'm used to my Theremins at home. They're a little more gentle. I turn this on, it's like playing a rhinoceros. I mean it's like taming the wild beast.

The story of the Theremin doesn’t stop with it’s inventor, in fact it saw a resurgence in popularity around the mid 20th century. This was mainly due to the help of film, most notably, Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound in 1945.

Rob: It was a big year for Theremin up because it wasn't the very first movie that it appeared in, but it was the first big movie that Theremin played a big part in the soundtrack, which also won the Academy Award for Best Soundtrack that year. The Theremin was a huge part of that.

[SFX: Spellbound music]

Rob: That brought it to everybody's attention. Right around the same time, it was used in another movie called Lost Weekend.

[SFX: Lost Weekend clip]

Rob: Two big movies right around 1945, 46 that brought it to Hollywood.

The artist behind these early Theremin sounds was a man by the name of Dr. Samuel J Hoffman… Pretty much any early Hollywood movie with a Theremin? There’s a good chance it’s him.

[SFX: Hoffman music]

Rob: He had this fast, kind of psychotic vibrato that he used in everything, which is part of why the Theremin got to be known as the scary instrument or the sci-fi instrument, is just because of the way his vibrato was. That's just the way he played, and it was just perfect for his scary, psychotic stuff.

Immediately that became the go-to for ensuing sci-fi movies in various states of cheesiness or whatever, none of them were as good as The Day the Earth Stood Still.

[SFX: Clip from Day the Earth Stood Still]

But somewhere during this period, the Theremin changed course and worked its way into popular music. Songs you know but may not recognize the instrument in.

Rob: There were a couple of bands that started using it. There was one called Lothar and the Hand People. Then the sound of the Theremin in The Beach Boys' Good Vibrations was another big thing that brought that sound back into the popular eye/ear.

[SFX: Good Vibrations clip]

Rob: Then Jimmy Page used it in Whole Lotta Love, during that psychedelic part.

[SFX: Clip from Whole Lotta Love]

Rob: Now there were a lot of players that used it strictly as kind of an effects thing rather than melodic playing. There was two schools of that. Jimmy Page was never a melodic player of the Theremin. He just used it as a very cool sound effect.

[SFX: Clara Rockmore song]

So from a lab in Russia to Rock Legends, the Theremin has seen a wide spectrum of experimentation.

Rob: Over time, people started hearing Clara Rockmore, she had a record, of her playing classic stuff, which was just spectacular. People started hearing it. It came back out on a CD, and people started going, "Oh, you can actually use it. It doesn't have to be scary, it doesn't have to be psychotic, it could also be a beautiful thing."

[SFX: Continue Clara’s song]

Rob: People started getting into the idea of playing it melodically.

They're popping up in all sorts of bands for all sorts of reasons. They're everywhere. I mean they're not like electric guitars yet, but there's a lot of them out there, a whole lot of them doing all sorts of music, like everything. Everything.

Rob has played the Theremin with a number of well-known musicians, including Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, The Boston Pops, Queen Latifah, Josh Groban, Bela Fleck, and he even went on tour with Simon and Garfunkel in 2004.

Rob: That part in the middle of The Boxer, there's an instrumental that goes “Da, da, da, da, da”. They let me play it on Theremin. It was a fantastic honor and a lot of fun to do it in such a setting.

[SFX: Clip from Rob playing The Boxer live]

[music in]

Rob: I think Theremins are really popular at this point because there is nothing that really replaces an amazing magic trick, when you can look at something and go, "How is that happening? How is this possible?" And still, to this day, people react in that way when they get that visual of actually seeing somebody play it. There's nothing like it.

The Theremin has left its mark throughout pop culture. But it’s impact actually reaches far beyond what you might think. How did this strange instrument inspire electronic music as we know it today? And what secrets did it’s creator hide? We’ll get to that, in a minute.

[music out]


[music in]

The Theremin’s chilling sound is synonymous with classic sci fi and horror films, and it even found its way into rock music. But its story didn’t stop there. It found new popularity around the 1950’s, thanks to one particularly curious prodigy named Bob Moog.

[music out]

The inventor of the Moog Synthesizer was also an early enthusiast and manufacturer of the Theremin. ...and even to this day, Moog Music is the largest producer of Theremins. Early on, Bob Moog was obsessed with this weird instrument. He was also really fascinated by the man behind it’s creation.

[music in]

Michelle: My name is Michelle Moog-Koussa. I am the executive director of the Bob Moog Foundation here in Asheville, North Carolina.

Michelle is one of Bob’s daughters and heads up the foundation to carry on the legacy of her father and his instruments.

Michelle: He was introduced to electronics by his father, my grandfather, who was an electrical engineer himself, and they started off just making small hobbyist projects, like three note organs and Geiger counters, and they were HAM radio operators together so they were definitely two geeks in a pod, if you will, down in the basement of their house.

[SFX: HAM radio]

Michelle: That really sparked my father's love of discovery through electronics. He did do a lot of reading at a very early age, and he came upon an article that kind of introduced how a Theremin is made, and he thought he would take it on. That basically began a lifelong love affair with that instrument. He really was very taken with the elegance of the design and the expressivity of the instrument. That was around the time that he was 15 years old.

[music out]

Bob Moog was brilliant. Even in his teens became so proficient at making Theremins, that he made one for a Science Fair at his high school. At 19, he wrote an article for Radio and Television News magazine, an electronic hobbyist publication.

Michelle: That article was so popular that people began writing him, saying, "I would like to build my own Theremin based on your article but I can't find the parts." He then launched his company, R.A. Moog Co with his father to provide both Theremins and Theremin parts.

That was in 1954 when Bob was a freshman in college. It was very much a small, homerun operation. He had no idea how much it would grow in popularity.

Michelle: The way it would work is that my father would build the circuitry and wind the copper coils. At that time, of course, everything was analog parts and they were very large copper coils that needed to be wound very precisely and very tightly for the instrument to work correctly, and my father had quite a knack for that and for building the circuitry itself.

My grandfather was an accomplished woodworker. So he would build all the cabinetry, so the two of them had a nice partnership.

[music in]

Bob and his father continued to build these homemade Theremins throughout his time in college. When he attended Grad school at Cornell, he and his wife moved the operation to Ithaca, New York.

Michelle: There was a pivoting point in 1961 because my mother became pregnant with my oldest sister, Laura, and she said to my father, "What are we going to do for money now because I'm going to have to stop working," and my father said, "Well, you know, I've been wanting to write this article about how to build a new transistorized Theremin."

So hid did, and with it he changed the course of the Theremin and its impact on modern electronic sound.

[music out]

Michelle: He wrote an article, how to build your own Theremin with transistors, and that again kind of re-launched his business because he wound up selling Theremin kits to build something called the melodia theremin, and he sold a thousand of those kits for $50 a piece within about a years’ time.

His exact words are, "That was a huge cachet of wealth for a graduate student at that time," which it was. $50,000 then would've probably been like a quarter million dollars now.

I remember my mom telling me that at that time when she was quite pregnant, she was putting together Theremin kits on the kitchen table.

[music in]

Bob Moog’s fascination with the Theremin was deeper than just its design; he had a great appreciation for its creator.

Michelle: He felt a really deep connection to Leon Theremin as well his entire life, and he talks about him. He refers to him as his virtual mentor. He really felt that he had Theremin's guiding hand almost his entire career. A lot of his ethic, both the visual ethic of his instruments and the design ethic of his circuitry, can be traced back to Leon Theremin's ethic.

Moog met his idol, a few times. This is , something Michelle says were the highlights of his life.

[music out]

Of course Bob Moog went on to eventually create the Moog Synthesizer, expanding the realm of electronic music. It exploded in the infamous Summer of Love, 1967.

[SFX: Music , Buffalo Springfield]

Michelle: It began being incorporated into pop music, and that's when we see The Byrds, The Doors, The Beatles using it. That all came out of one my father's reps, Paul B from Bernie Krause, bringing the Moog modular to the Monterey Pop Festival, and after that is when all of the bands started integrating it.

[SFX: Pop music]

Michelle: He was constantly seeking the feedback of these musicians, especially as you can imagine in those early years there was still a lot under evolution, these as a very evolutionary stage, and he was listening to what the musicians needed and he was creating it for them. The needs of the musicians was very much his creative beacon.

A similar dedication to the craftsmanship he admired in his idol, Leon Theremin. Not a musician…but still an artist.

Michelle: People would ask him if he was a musician and he would say, "No, I'm a toolmaker. I make tools for musicians,"That was really his calling. He did have a very high standard for his work, that, combined with the growing needs of musicians as the instrument and technology grew, really propelled him on this path, where he was constantly trying to think of new ways to put expanded sonic expression into the hands of musicians in the most accessible way.

[music in]

While the Moog Synthesizer took off, Bob never forgot his original passion and fascination with the Theremin. He started Big Briar Incorporated and refocused his energy on making Theremins again. He developed a small Theremin called the ether wave which went on to sell more than 10,000 units. This prompted yet another resurgence of the instrument, thanks in large part to the Internet.

Michelle: People have a lot more exposure to how the Theremin is being used and they have been inspired by it, and the number of Thereminists, has grown quite a bit and so have the offerings of different kinds of Theremins made by Big Briar, and now by Moog Music, but also by other companies all around the world.

[music out]

Bob Moog was also in the record business. In the late 70’s he and his wife produced, an album featuring Clara Rockmore. She was a child prodigy on the violin. But, when she injured her wrist at the age of four, she turned her talents to the Theremin.

[SFX: Clip from Clara Rockmore]

Michelle: She really had an astounding technique, and she devoted her life to the Theremin and played it her entire life. That's one more step in my father trying to gain a wider appreciation for this instrument, he believed so deeply in its importance that he passionately promoted it in one way or another almost his entire adult life.

Moog had enormous respect for Rockmore, who had a deep connection with Leon Theremin herself. She was even featured in the documentary,Theremin, An Electronic Odyssey, directed by actor and musician Steve Martin.

Michelle: He told me that when they went to film Clara for the documentary, and she was playing. Steve said, "I looked over at your father and his jaw had dropped to the floor, and when she finished playing he just looked at me and said, 'You know what she was just playing? That was technically impossible.'" So he really felt like she was able to achieve things on that instrument that nobody else could.

[SFX: Clip from Clara Rockmore]

[music in]

From a lab in Russia, to Hollywood movies, to all sorts of musical genres this instrument continues to inspire intrigue. But maybe the most fascinating story, comes from its own creator.

Rob: Regarding the disappearance of Theremin from the New York area in 1928, there have been two theories: the one that he was kidnapped by the KGB to work for them because he was an electronic genius, the other was that he was a Russian operative the whole time doing, what, industrial espionage or whatever, and that he was called back. I cannot definitively tell you what happened, but I can tell you that he did wind up working for the KGB and making all sorts of electronic inventions for them.

[music out]

[SFX: Clara Rockmore song]

The Theremin’s mysterious sound is a reflection of it’s story. It’s an instrument so strange that it astounds people nearly a hundred years after its creation. But at the same time, it can be hauntingly beautiful.

Rob: It's like magic. It's just magic, and everybody loves a good magic trick.

You look at this history of Leon Theremin, the spy and all the crazy things that happened to him, you look at the instrument that's played without being touched, you look at the movies, it's been in all these crazy movies as an iconic sound. You look at that, it's being used everywhere now, and people are still drawn to that singular magical trick. When it's combined with really cool music, it's just a winning combination.

It's just nothing like it.

[SFX: Clara Rockmore song]


Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound. A sound design studio for television, film, and games. Learn more at defacto sound dot com.

This episode was written and produced by Colby Hartburg… and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was edited, sound designed and mixed by Colin DeVarney.

Thanks to our guests Rob Schwimmer, Albert Glinsky courtesy of Moog Music and Michelle Moog-Koussa of the Bob Moog Foundation and soon to be Moogseum in Asheville, North Carolina.

The music in this episode is from of our friends at Musicbed. ...and now you can also use their music! For the first time ever they now have membership plans. Check it out and sign up at music.20k.org.

A special thanks goes out to Delos Music for letting us use Clara Rockmore’s hauntingly beautiful recordings. Her album, “The Art of the Theremin”, is available from Delos at delosmusic.com.

You find find us on Facebook, Twitter, and twenty kay dot org. You can drop us a line anytime at hi at 20k dot org. Lastly, if you enjoyed the show, please tell someone about it.

Thanks for listening.

[Music out]

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