Invented in 1927, Leon Theremin’s eponymous Theremin was a device far ahead of its time.

The theremin was the first ever electronic musical instrument, and (until very recently) the only one played without physical contact with its performer.

It uses the capacitance between the performer’s hands and two antenna-like metal rods attached to opposite sides of the device to determine the pitch and amplitude of the sound it creates. Thus, by moving their right hand close to the pitch antenna and their left hand far away from the amplitude antenna, a performer would produce a loud high-pitched tone. Be- cause it responds to extremely subtle changes in hand position, the theremin can be an extremely responsive and expressive musical device.

More importantly, it set off a hundred years of musical and technological development.

Leon Theremin

Leon Theremin

Leon Theremin (born Aug. 24, 1896, St Petersburg, Russia,—died Nov. 3, 1993, Moscow, Russia), (LEV SERGEYEVICH TERMEN), Russian scientist and inventor who created one of the first electronic instruments; originally called the Etherophone but later renamed for its inventor, the theremin provided the eerie, otherworldly sound in numerous motion pictures, the works of several composers, and such pop recordings as “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys.

The instrument was designed to be played without being touched–the movement of the player’s hands above the antenna and near a metal loop controlled pitch and volume–and was considered to have been the first synthesizer. Theremin was educated in St. Petersburg–in physics and astronomy at the university and music at the conservatory–and took a post at the Physico-Technical Institute in that city. He invented the theremin in 1920 and demonstrated it at the Kremlin for Lenin in 1922.

How a Theremin works

How a Theremin Works

The sound of the theremin has been described as “a purified and magnified saxophone” and “a cross between an amplified child’s slide whistle, a human voice and the squawks that emanated from early radio speakers” Inside the first theremins, a circuit of vacuum tubes, oscillators, coils and wires created electromagnetic fields around the instrument’s two antennae. 

Players fluttered their fingers and waved their hands near the antennae to raise or lower the Theremin’s pitch and volume. Inexperienced players often created nothing more than atonal blats and bleats. Theremin masters, however, made the instrument sound as gorgeous and haunting as any operatic aria one might have heard broadcast from Carnegie Hall.

Jimmy Page and the Theremin

Jimmy Page on Stage 1976
It can be frustrating for Led Zeppelin fans to hear the band reduced to plagiarism lawsuits or the quintessence of sexually-aggressive rock-star entitlement (though much of that is deserved). For one thing, Zeppelin’s occult songwriting tendencies, courtesy of both Page and Plant, play just as prominent a role as their blues-rock come-ons (as several generations of fantasy metal bands can attest). For another, their studio productions and live shows are renowned for pioneering mash-ups of modern rock, folk, and classical instrumentation, courtesy of both Page and Jones. And finally, the band’s recording techniques were—for the time—demonstrations of technical wizardry.

Thus it should come as no surprise that technical wizard Jimmy Page would play the Theremin, though he does play on it the kind of screaming, feedback-laden bends he unleashed from his Les Paul. Introduced to the world by Soviet inventor Leon Theremin in 1919, the early electronic instrument emits high-pitched singing when a player’s hands come within range of its invisible electrical fields. “It hasn’t got six strings,” Page says in his demonstration at the top of the post, from 2009 film It Might Get Loud, “but it’s a lot of fun.”

Page used a Sonic Wave Theremin in his Zeppelin days in a very guitar-like way—running it through a Maestro Echoplex and Orange amps and cabinets. (Watch him revive the technique in a 1995 French TV broadcast above.) For several months in 1971, writes fansite Achilles Last Stand, Page “used a double-stacked Theremin” for twice the sonic assault.

Though he seems to have gone back to just the one Theremin in the solo above, the effect is no less electrifying, if you’ll excuse the pun, as he sends echoes of ray-gun noise cascading around the theater. Well over five minutes into the hypnotic affair, Page takes to his Les Paul, creating more ragged patterns with violin bow and Echoplex. Even if you aren’t in a dazed and confused state, you’ll feel like you are if you give yourself over to this piece of performance art. Heroics? Yes, and indeed the bowed guitar act has its phallic overtones. But it begins and ends with long stretches of the kind of droning experimental noise one would expect to find onstage at an early Kraftwerk show.

Those in the know will know that Page put the theremin to use on one of the band’s most technically experimental recordings (though it also happens to be an appropriated blues stomper), “Whole Lotta Love” from 1969’s Led Zeppelin II. “I always envisioned the middle to be quite avant-garde,” Page recently told Guitar World, “The Theremin generates most of the higher pitches and my Les Paul makes the lower sounds.” Watch him rip out a theremin-and-guitar solo above in the live performance above from 1973, beginning at 1:45. Taken with the psychedelic video effects, the performance reaches mystical planes of rhythmic abstraction. 

Sheldon Cooper

Dr. Sheldon Cooper Phd.

In typical Cooper fashion; however, Sheldon decides to passive aggressively attack the situation by practicing his theremin while the other guys are working on the app, thereby driving them crazy and causing Leonard to then kick him out of the apartment altogether.

The theremin is the best instrument for such a science geek as Dr. Sheldon Cooper.  Not only is it featured in the theme song for Star Trek – the original, with Kirk and Spock of course – but it is also a very strange, avant garde instrument with an eerie sound used to produce unique music.  Because of its design, it must be played with precision.