Saturday, March 15, 2008


As promised in yesterday’s post, we’re going to take a look at and have a listen to the music of an instrument called the electro-theremin, and its parent, the theremin. I’m sure everybody is familiar with the haunting sounds they make, but probably never knew what was making them. This pair of instruments is responsible for those eerie out-of-this-world sounds in everything from cheesy 50s sci-fi movies to 60s pop classics to 2007 White Castle hamburger ads. Let’s take a quick look at the two.

From Russia With Love - The very first theremin was invented in the early 1900s by a Russian physicist named… Theremin - Leon Theremin. But I think Tesla would have been a good guess, too. Apparently, Leon’s invention was the result of a Russian government-sponsored research into something called “proximity sensors.” Whatever; let’s just call it a “black box” to make things easy. The most intriguing thing about the theremin (other than the fact that Lenin thought it was so cool he actually took lessons) is that it’s the only instrument you play without touching it. Simply put, the player moves his/her hands around two metal antennae to control the pitch and volume. Sounds simple 'til you realize that there are no keys, valves, or frets like on a guitar. That would pretty much make playing “air theremin” impossible. Or at least redundant. It’s like making music out of thin air! Mastering a theremin obviously takes a lot of practice and skill. Enter the electro-theremin.

Born in the USA -The electro-theremin is also called a tannerin. It was invented by a fellow from Kentucky named…Tanner - Paul Tanner (who, incidentally, played trombone with Glenn Miller’s band) and actor/electronic whiz kid Bob Whitsell. The resulting instrument had everything it’s pappy had, but is much easier to play and control. You might think of it as an otherworldly trombone with a volume knob. Brian Wilson used the electro-theremin in his 1966 masterpiece, “Good Vibrations.” In fact, it’s Paul Tanner himself who’s playing the electro-theremin on that one. Two other Beach Boys songs, “Wild Honey” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” also employ the electro-theremin. Obviously this instrument isn’t just for space aliens anymore! And once you start looking, you will find there are a lot of serious musicians today who are devoted to the amazing sounds. I don’t know about you, but I’m becoming a real fan!

Ladies and the theremin!

The Beach Boys

cute Bobby McFerrin cover

Website for UK musician Martin Solomon (above photo). Be sure to check out his sound clips of his original music, and a lovely theremin treatment of "Edelweiss."

photo by Phil Nicholls

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