Long relegated to the world of sci-fi movie soundtracks, the world’s first electronic instrument, the Theremin, is making a comeback, appearing on tracks by artists like Sufjan Stevens, the Decemberists, Wolf Parade, Devotchka, The Polyphonic Spree, and the All-American Rejects. What is it about Leon Theremin’s almost-century-old instrument that is suddenly so appealing?
Theremin invented the instrument in 1919. He was working on a device to measure the density of gases under pressure and realized that by passing his hands over it, he could create fluctuations that sounded like musical tones. Played by waving your hands in front of what looks like a black box with one vertical and one horizontal antenna, the Theremin produces a warbling, eerie sound created by the difference in frequency between the two antennas. The story goes that Lenin, after hearing the instrument, was so impressed that he ordered 600 of them made and sent Theremin on a tour of the globe to demonstrate Soviet superiority in the field of electronic music. Unfortunately for Lenin, Theremin quickly defected to the United States and patented the instrument. Theremin was eventually forced to return to the USSR under mysterious circumstances , and the instrument was largely forgotten as other electronic instruments—the electric guitar among them—became more popular.
The Theremin briefly reappeared on the pop culture radar in the late ‘60s when Robert Moog (pioneer of that other electronic classic, the synthesizer) built a better sounding, easier to play instrument. Beach Boy Brian Wilson included it in the song “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” and Led Zeppelin jammed to it in “Whole Lotta Love.” But the sound never really caught on, and the Theremin again receded into the background, until now. (Elsewhere in Brow Beat, Dana Stevens discusses the Theremin’s various uses in the movies .)
The reasons for the current resurgence of the Theremin are a bit hard to figure. John Hoge of ThereminWorld.com says the 1995 documentary Theremin: An Electric Odyssey , helped to spark interest in the instrument as something other than a spooky sound generator. Others, like The Octopus Project’s Yvonne Lambert, say that better-quality Theremins by Robert Moog have helped make it easier to learn and incorporate the instrument into more mainstream songs. Another factor could be a larger reliance by musicians on electronics of all sorts, from the blips and beeps on a Garage Band mixer to auto-tune. Lastly, the Theremin’s stage-show value (“Look Ma, no hands!”) as well as its otherworldly sound fit with the geek-chic aesthetic currently popular among independent bands.
To get you caught up to speed, here’s a Theremin greatest hits playlist—add songs we forgot in the Fray:
Beach Boys, ”
I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
Led Zeppelin, ” Whole Lotta Love ”
The Octopus Project, ” Rorol ”
Devotchka, ” C’est Ce La ”
Wolf Parade, ” No One Saves the Day ”
Sufjan Stevens, ” In the Devil’s Territory ”
Franz Ferdinand, ” Dream Again ”
All-American Rejects, ” Stab My Back ”
Theremin versions of ” Crazy ” and ” Video Killed the Radio Star .”
Photograph of Theremin player Toby Halbrooks of The Polyphonic Spree courtesy Jim Dyson/Getty Images.