Theremin musical instrument

I visited Microsoft Tech Days 2010 two days ago (I got free ticket), and if you are interested in technical stuff I leaned at the event and understand Finnish, you can my news report of that event published at Prosessori web site. I saw a quite interesting musical performance on the evening party. There was a band whose main instrument was two theremins (sorry for poor picture quality, this picure was taken on with cellular phone camera on and the lighting conditions were hard for taking photograps). The name of the band was Farther-Out (they said they have made some previous concerts and released one CD “Tuo”).


The theremin is an early electronic musical instrument controlled without contact from the player. It is named after its Russian inventor, Professor Léon Theremin, who patented the device in 1928. Theremins are distinguished by the fact that they are played without the performer touching the instrument. The musician moves his or her hands in proximity to the theremin to control the tone of the sound. I was told that mastering the theremin requires skills and lots of practicing, but only a few instrument provide the unique visual appearance of performance. The sound is quite unique for that instrument. Even if you don’t know theremin by name, you might have heard the sound of it at The beach boys -good vibrations or on the sound offects of some old scifi/horror movies.

The electronics of the theremin consists of two high frequency oscillators connected to antennas. When the player moves hand near the antenna, that changes the frequency of the oscillators, and that changes the sound (frequency or amplitude depending on antenna). Here is a block diagram of theremin from Fred Tells All article.


All DIY persons now interested in theremin instruments can also view Make a Theremin video and check theremin links.


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  2. Jon Brink says:

    What shows do you go to? RMAF? CEDIA? CES? High End Show? California Audio Show? Capital Audiofest?

  3. Jon Brink says:

    I wish there were more pictures (I admit it… I’m a photo junkie).

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  8. Jim says:

    The instrument used in Good Vibrations was NOT a Theremin, it was a Tannerin. Google to see one.

    • tomi says:

      I stand corrected. Good correction. Googling revelealed that you were right…

      The Electro-Theremin, often called the Tannerin, is an electronic musical instrument developed by trombonist Paul Tanner and amateur inventor Bob Whitsell in the late 1950s to produce a sound to mimic that of the theremin. The instrument features a tone and portamento similar to that of the theremin (or thereminvox), but with a different control mechanism.

      The pitch knob was attached to a slider on the outside of the box with some string. The player would move the slider, thus turning the knob to the desired frequency, with the help of markings drawn on the box

      The instrument was custom-built at Tanner’s request. Tanner appreciated the theremin’s sound, but wanted greater control of pitch and attack.

      Most famously, Tanner played his Electro-Theremin on three tracks by The Beach Boys: “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”, “Good Vibrations”, and “Wild Honey”. Tanner’s prototype Electro-Theremin appears to have been the only one made.


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  10. Theremin technology in touchless display « Tomi Engdahl’s ePanorama blog says:

    [...] mobile technology, but it was inspired by an invention done nearly a hundred years ago: There was a nice musical instrument invented in 1919 by a Russian guy called Theremin. With Threremin instrument you could play music [...]

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  13. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Theremin’s Bug: How the Soviet Union Spied on the US Embassy for 7 Years

    The man leaned over his creation, carefully assembling the tiny pieces. This was the hardest part, placing a thin silver plated diaphragm over the internal chamber. The diaphragm had to be strong enough to support itself, yet flexible enough to be affected by the slightest sound. One false move, and the device would be ruined.

    The man in this semi-fictional vignette was Lev Sergeyevich Termen, better known in the western world as Léon Theremin. You know Theremin for the musical instrument which bears his name. In the spy business though, he is known as the creator of one of the most successful clandestine listening devices ever used against the American government.

    In 1920, while working on his dielectric measurement device, Theremin noticed that an audio oscillator changed frequency when he moved his hand near the circuit. The Theremin was born. In November of 1920 Léon gave his first public concert with the instrument. He began touring with it in the late 1920’s and in 1928, he brought the Theremin to the United States. He set up a lab in New York and worked with RCA to produce the instrument.

    In 1938, with the Nazi threat growing stronger, Theremin returned to Russia.

    Upon arrival in Leningrad, Theremin was imprisoned, suspected of crimes against the state. He found himself working in a laboratory for the state department. This was not an unusual situation. Aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev and missile designer Sergei Korolyov were two of many others who faced a similar fate.
    It was during this time as a prisoner that Theremin designed his listening device.

    A group of 10 to 15 year old boys from the Young Pioneer Organization of the Soviet Union arrived at the US embassy carrying a hand carved great seal of the United States of America.

    The seal was given as a gesture of friendship between the US and Soviet Union. Harriman hung the plaque in the study of his residence, Spaso House.

    The device, later known as “The Thing”, would not be discovered until 1952 — roughly seven years later.

    The discovery of the great seal listening device is an interesting one. British broadcasters reported hearing American voices on the their radios in the vicinity of the American embassy. No Americans were transmitting though, which meant there had to be a bug. Numerous sweeps were performed, all of which turned up nothing.

    Powering up his equipment, Bezjian began a sweep of the building. With his receiver tuned to 1.8GHz, he heard the bug’s audio, and quickly isolated the source in the great seal.

    Close inspection of the carving found it had been hollowed out, and a strange device placed behind the eagle’s beak. No batteries or wires were evident, and the device was not powered through the nail which had been hanging the seal.

    The great seal bug quickly became known as “The Thing”. It was a passive resonant cavity device, containing no batteries or other power source. It consisted of an antenna and a small cylinder.

    Passive resonant cavities had been explored before, both in the US and abroad, but this is the first time we know of that was used for clandestine purposes. In his book Spycatcher, British operative Peter Wright claims that the US came to him for help determining how the device worked.

    Regardless of who figured out the device, the method of operation is devilishly simple. The Soviets would sit outside the embassy, either in another building or in a van. From this remote location they would aim a radio transmitter at the great seal. The bug inside would receive this signal and transmit voices in the room on a second, higher frequency. It did all of this with no standard internal components. No resistors, no tubes, no traditional capacitors, or the like. There were capacitive properties to the mechanism. For instance, a capacitor is formed between the diaphragm and the tuning peg of the device.

    While bugs of this type have fallen out of favor, the idea of “illuminating” a device with an external transmitter lives on. Check out [Elliot’s] description of the RageMaster bug from the ANT catalog here. Resonant cavities have found common use as well. Every microwave oven or radar system with a magnetron uses one.

  14. Tomi Engdahl says:

    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.

    Theremin “Terpsitone” A New Electronic Novelty

    The inventive genius of Professor Leon Theremin has at last justified a famous poet in his license. Many years ago, Tennyson wrote:

    - “The dancers dancing in tune.”

    But by the new electrical system of Theremin, which depends, like the original device named for him, on the phenomenon known as “body capacity,” it is possible for a dancer to dance in tune as well in time. In place of the rods used in the first “Theremin,” there is an insulated metal plate beneath the dancing floor. As the dancer bends towards it, the electrical capacity is increased, and thereby the pitch of an oscillating tube circuit is lowered; as she rises on tiptoe, for instance, the pitch of the oscillator is increased. The output of this oscillator is beat against that of another of fixed tune, producing an audible (not superhet.) frequency and this is amplified and fed into a large, square reproducer. Thus the motions of the danseuse are concerted into tones varying in exact synchronism with her pose.

  15. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Finally, a Modern Theremin

    Ever wanted to own your own Theremin but couldn’t justify dropping hundreds of dollars on one? Now you can build your own, or buy it for a quintuplet of Hamiltons. The Open.Theremin.UNO project has built up antenna-based oscillator control around the ubiquitous Arduino Uno board.

    So what’s the Arduino in there for? This is a digital Theremin

    As the name implies, this is Open Hardware and we’re quite happy with the documentation on their site and the BOM (found on the GitHub repo).

    If you don’t want to build your own they’re selling kits on their site for 48 Euro delivered, or on Tindie for $55.

    Open.Theremin.UNO – The real Theremin on Arduino

    Open.Theremin.UNO hardware description

    Schematics, printed circuit board (PCB) design, bill of materials (BOM) for the Open.Theremin.UNO arduino shield. For software see separate git repository.

    Build your own real theremin

  16. Tomi Engdahl says:

    The Minimin Aims To Be The Simplest Theremin 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.

    Minimin Mk1
    The world’s smallest and simplest theremin

  17. Tomi Engdahl says:

    An Arduino-based Theremin

    This open-source Theremin offers additional capabilities over traditional implementations, including a dual-pitch mode.

    Theremin were manufactured in the US for a time by RCA, and later by Moog (of Moog Synthesizer fame). In fact, you can still purchase a Moog Theremin, either pre-built or in kit form.

    I recently ran across Open.Theremin by Urs Gaudenz in Switzerland. This comes to life as an Arduino shield. Unlike many inexpensive Theremins, which often control pitch only, this device controls both pitch and volume like the original.

    Build your own real theremin

    Welcome to the Open.Theremin Website.
    Open.Theremin is a open hardware and open software project.

    Open.Theremin.UNO – The real Theremin on Arduino

    Attention: open in a new window. PDFPrintE-mail

    Open Theremin is an open source hardware and software project. The aim is to build a next generation, digital version of the legendary music instrument. The all new Open.Theremin.UNO is based on the popular ARDUINO development board and can be reprogrammed easily. Build your own, fully playable theremin with pitch and volume antenna.

  18. Tomi Engdahl says:

    MicroKits: Theremin Electronic Kit

    Let’s inspire the next generation with exciting and educational kits that anyone can build. Want to create your own theremin?

  19. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Theremin in Detail

    [Keystone Science] recently posted a video about building a theremin — you know, the instrument that makes those strange whistles when you move your hands around it. The circuit is pretty simple (and borrowed) but we liked the way the video explains the theory and even dives into some of the math behind resonant frequencies.

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  21. Tomi Engdahl says:

    A Tube Theremin, Just Like Grandpa Leon Used To Make

    The circuit for this theremin is constructed around two EF95 tubes and two ECF80 tubes with a heater voltage of 12 V, with 40 V used as the the rest of the circuitry. Unlike virtually every other crowdfunding campaign we’ve ever seen, there are pages of documentation, written down in text, with actual words, and no ominous clapping ukulele glockenspiel hipster music.

  22. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Every once in a while, we come across a project that adds a ridiculously good twist on an existing design. This is exactly what [Xiao Xiao] and the team at LAM research group at the Institut d’Alembert in Paris have done. Their project T-VOKS is a singing and Speaking Theremin that is sure to drive everyone in the office crazy.

    T-VOKS: the Singing and Speaking Theremin

  23. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Theremin on yksi maailman vaikeimmista soittimista – ja Susanna Viljanmaa aikoo tehdä Suomesta sen suurvallan

    Koskettamatta soitetettavan thereminin taitajia on Suomessa toistaiseksi vain kourallinen.

    Vlijanmaa perustaa parhaillaan yritystä, jonka tarkoitus on valmistaa sarjatuotantona eurooppalaiseen käyttöön sopivia, nykyistä edullisempia soittimia.

    Amerikkalainen Moog Music(siirryt toiseen palveluun) on tehnyt hyviä keikkasoittimia 1960-luvulta lähtien, mutta niiden hinta huitelee helposti yli 400 eurossa. Vintage-soittimien hinnat huitelevat useissa tuhansissa. Viljanmaa rakentaa jo nyt itse avointa open theremin -projektia hyödyntäviä soittimia. Sellaisen saa alle sadalla eurolla.

    Thereminin suosio hiipui 1960-luvulla, kun markkinoille tuli huomattavasti helpompia elektronisia soittimia. Renesanssi alkoi 1990-luvun puolivälissä, kun soittimen isästä Léon Thereministä(siirryt toiseen palveluun) tehtiin dokumenttielokuva.

    Vaikka theremin on vaativa soitin, lupaa Viljanmaa, että jokainen oppilas pystyy jo ensimmäisen tunnin jälkeen soittamaan Jänis istui maassa.

    – Arvelen, että Suomessa on yli sata thereminiä, mutta harva osaa soittaa niitä vielä kunnolla. Haluan, että tulevina vuosina meillä on omia theremin-mestareita, jotka osaavat opettaa ja esiintyä.

  24. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Theremin on yksi maailman vaikeimmista soittimista – ja Susanna Viljanmaa aikoo tehdä Suomesta sen suurvallan

    Koskettamatta soitetettavan thereminin taitajia on Suomessa toistaiseksi vain kourallinen.

  25. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Build Your Own Theremin That Is Played with Infrared Strings

    Voja Antonic reimagined the way a theremin is played by building this special version with infrared “strings” in place of the antennas.

    Infrared Theremin

    You know about Theremin, the amazing electronic instrument? This one is very simple, made with infrared LEDs and photodiodes. And it works!

  26. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Infrared Theremin

    You know about Theremin, the amazing electronic instrument? This one is very simple, made with infrared LEDs and photodiodes. And it works!

  27. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Optical Theremin Makes Eerie Audio With Few Parts

    The design is based on a ‘Blue Pill’ STM32 MCU development board and two Avago APDS-9960 gesture sensor breakout boards, along with a few other supporting components. Where the original Theremin sensed hand proximity using two antenna-like capacitive sensors to control note frequency and volume, this design relies on two optical sensors to do the same job.

  28. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Laser Theremin Turns Your Hand Swooshes Into Music

    In a world where smartphones have commoditized precision MEMS Sensors, the stage is set to reimagine clusters of these sensors as something totally different. That’s exactly what [chronopoulos] did, taking four proximity sensors and turning them into a custom gesture input sensor for sound generation. The result is Quadrant, a repurposable human-interface device that proves to be well-posed at detecting hand gestures and turning them into music.

    At its core, Quadrant is a human interface device built around an STM32F0 and four VL6180X time-of-flight proximity sensors. The idea is to stream the measured distance data over as fast as possible from the device side and then transform it into musical interactions on the PC side. Computing distance takes some time, though, so [chronopoulos] does a pipelined read of the array to stream the data into the PC over USB at a respectable 30 Hz.

  29. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Theremin on yksi maailman vaikeimmista soittimista – ja Susanna Viljanmaa aikoo tehdä Suomesta sen suurvallan
    Koskettamatta soitetettavan thereminin taitajia on Suomessa toistaiseksi vain kourallinen.

  30. Tomi Engdahl says:

    KATICA ILLÉNYI – Once Upon a Time in the West – Theremin

    Theremin: Katica Illényi
    Ennio Morricone: Once Upon a Time in the West
    Katica Illényi & Győr Philharmonic Orchestra
    Conductor: István Silló
    Palace of Arts, B. Bartók National Concert Hall

  31. Tomi Engdahl says:

    DIY Simple Theremin – Build & Test

    In homage to Jimmy Page, this is my own theremin build and test thru an Orange guitar amp with a bit of delay. Thinking of making another with a built in delay circuit as it sounds so good with it in there!

    Theremin Stripboard Veroboard

  32. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Make your own Simple Theremin

    In this project I will show you how the electronic instrument Theremin works and how we can create a simple version of it with the help of 2 ICs and only a few complementary components. Along the way we will talk about oscillator types, body capacitance and much more. So let’s get started!

  33. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Homemade theremin: Recycle your old radios into magic

  34. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Many people asked about the progress of our Behremin. While it might have been a bit quiet, our engineers have been working on the first prototype. The team is super excited as we’ll be adding some really cool new functions, never been seen in a Theremin product.
    And we’re still targeting 99 USD sales price.
    We hope you’re equally excited about this musical instrument:-)

  35. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Raspberry Pi Creates Melody

    For those who are not into prog rock in the 70s or old radio shows from the 40s, the Theremin may be an unfamiliar musical instrument. As a purely electronic device, it’s well outside the realm of conventional musical instruments. Two radio antennas detect the position of the musician’s hands to make a unique sound traditionally associated with eeriness or science fiction.

    Normally a set of filters and amplifiers are used to build this instrument but this build instead replaces almost everything with a Raspberry Pi Zero 2, and instead of radio antennas to detect the position of the musician’s hands a set of two HC-SR04 distance sensors are used instead. With the processing power available from the Pi, the modernized instrument is able to output MIDI as well which makes this instrument easily able to interface with programs like GarageBand or any other MIDI-capable software.

  36. Tomi Engdahl says:

    C64 Turned Theremin With A Handful Of Parts

    The theremin is popular for its eerie sound output and its non-contact playing style. While they’re typically built using analog hardware, [Linus Åkesson] decided to make one using the venerable Commodore 64.

    The instrument works by measuring the capacitance between its two antennas and the Earth. As these capacitances are changed by a human waving their hands around near the respective pitch and volume antennas, the theremin responds by changing the pitch and volume of its output.

    In this case, the humble 555 is pressed into service. It runs as an oscillator, with its frequency varying depending on the user’s hand position. There’s one each for pitch and volume, naturally, using a clamp and spoon as antennas. The C64 then reads the frequency the 555s are oscillating at, and then converts these into pitch and volume data to be fed to the SID audio chip.

    C64 Theremin

  37. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Commodore 64 Theremin
    Linus Åkesson used a C64 and 555 timers to make an SID theremin.

  38. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Theremin Baguette Brings New Meaning To Breadboarding

    Theremins are a bit of an odd instrument to begin with, but [AphexHenry] decided to put one where no theremin has gone before: into a baguette.

    The “baguetophone” is a theremin and piezo-percussion instrument inside a hollowed-out baguette. Starting with a DIY theremin tutorial from Academy of Media Arts Cologne, [AphexHenry] added some spice with a piezo pickup inside the baguette to function as a percussion instrument. One noted downside of squeezing the instrument into such an unusual enclosure is that the antenna doesn’t respond as well as it might with a more conventional arrangement. Outputs from the piezo and antenna are run through Max/MSP on a computer to turn the bread into a MIDI controller. Like many DIY theremins, it appears that this build neglects the volume antenna, but there’s no reason you couldn’t add one. Maybe disguised as a piece of cheese?

  39. Tomi Engdahl says:


    Theremins are a bit of an odd instrument to begin with, but [AphexHenry] decided to put one where no theremin has gone before: into a baguette.

    The “baguetophone” is a theremin and piezo-percussion instrument inside a hollowed-out baguette.

  40. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Leon Theremin playing his own instrument

    man he actually plays it like intended and makes it sound good instead of only spooky music

    Kind of makes sense now, how a critic described the sound of a theremin as a cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it doesn’t know how to get home.

  41. Tomi Engdahl says:

    How theremin ACTUALLY works *for non-music-tech-nerds*

  42. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Demonstration of Tannerin ( Slide Theremin ) built by Tom Polk

    This instrument was built in June 2011.

    The clicking heard while attacking the notes is the sound of the touch switch, which is a microswitch whose clicks are heard only by the performer. They are not electrical clicks that might otherwise be passed through to the amplifier.

    This instrument has a range of about 4 1/2 octaves with flat frequency response. The camera’s microphone has limited bass response, causing the audio in this clip to roll off toward the bottom end. In reality the bass is just as loud as the rest of the pitches.


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