Theramins


#1

As I sit here playing wise master on the internet, I am listening to Doug Hammer and he includes an old invention called a Theramin invented in the late 1800s, and scarcely used since then into his music. What a neat sound when there are people who can “play” one. Has anyone here ever heard of or are familiar with a Theramin?


#2

Yes. One was used to record the original “Star Trek” theme, in fact. There was an episode of “Big Bang Theory” where Sheldon plays one just to annoy his friends who’d excluded him from their project. They kicked him out of the apartment–for good reason. It’s an AWFUL “instrument.”


#3

I’ve heard of it, I think. Is it the “electronic” device where the movement of the hand determines the pitch and volume? I think it is also known by a couple of different names, but they also start with “Ther-”. When I was studying music at Penn State, a book I had that depicted and described various instruments had a picture of one on the last page. It appears to be just sort-of an antenna, and movement of the hand in its proximity creates the music - up and down for pitch, and nearer or further for volume control.


#4

I expect that in the hands of an expert, it would sound nice. But I don’t think that there are many experts on it.


#5

Very eerie sound, there was one used on a Garry Moore show back in the late 50’s as a novelty. I have seen a couple of demonstrations but it really never caught on. But if one can get ‘you tube’ Doug Hammer uses one on his latest album and it works with the music played.


#6

That’s it, and as njc said, its sound is pretty eerie.

In a way, it operates on the same principle as radios and TVs. When two frequencies are mixed together electronically, the output is four frequencies, the two originals and the additive and subtractives of the originals. This is called heterodyning.

In a theramin there are two oscillators which produce the same frequency, higher in pitch than the human ear can hear. The frequency of one of the oscillators is fixed. The other includes a gap in which a human hand can vary the frequency several hundred or a few thousand hertz, depending on the position of the hand. The two frequencies are heterodyned, resulting in one audible frequency, and three that are inaudible.

It’s deceptively simple to play. Getting a tone is easy. Producing a series of pitches that are a tune is difficult, and playing it with more conventional instruments is harder still (an error of a few 10s of hertz, compared to the conventional instrument, will sound painfully horrible - think of a piano where two strings paired to produce a single pitch are slightly out of tune with each other).


#7

We had an old piano that would hold a tune. There was one key in particular - 3 strings, and it would give out 3 different tones. 2 of them were close enough, that they were relatively tolerable - unless you had and extremely good sense of pitch. I didn’t use that key often enough, because it was high enough that “everyday” playing wouldn’t reach it. But I was playing a little classical stuff then, and every time I hit that key, I cringed. Finally, I’d had it. I took a pair of pliers and turned that pin to the point that it was close enough to be tolerable. It seemed to stay put for the rest of the time we had the piano.

Even now, my relatively new piano isn’t perfectly in tune. It was pretty bad for a while, because my piano tuner died, and I had to look for a new one. Unfortunately, he’s not the best, but he’s very good with other aspects, such as sticking keys, and other issue. The last time he tuned it, it was pretty good. In any case, because it hadn’t been tuned in a long time, it wasn’t holding the tune well, for two or three years (I think that’s how long this new guy has been tuning it). And I can’t simply go out and look for a new piano tuner. They’re getting to be a rare breed. As it is, he drives about 40 miles one way to tune my piano.


#8

I remember a TV show where a theramin was used in a “talent show.” It may have been Petticoat junction. Anyway, the daughter of a real snooty woman was playing one.


#9

The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” used a keyboard-controlled (rather than hand position in a gap or space) “theramin”.