An Ode to the Theremin

Emerging in 1920, the theremin is one of the earliest electronic instruments, a whining, pitch-bending box responsible for decades of squelches, squirts, and whirs. Invented by Russian physicist Léon Theremin, the instrument has remained indelible among composers of movie soundtracks and members of forward-thinking rock bands, beloved by everyone from Jimmy Page to Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. Beyond its ghostly timbre, the theremin is notable for its mysterious method of producing sound: The player controls its volume and pitch by moving his or her hands in the air near two antennae, rarely touching the instrument at all.

Originally naming his device the etherphone, Theremin thrilled audiences with concerts across Europe and New York, even teaming with the New York Philharmonic in 1928. Soon virtuosos of the instrument emerged, most notably Theremin’s student Clara Rockmore, who played Bach, Stravinsky, and Ravel pieces at a 1938 concert in New York’s Town Hall. Forward-thinking composers like Percy Grainger and Bohuslav Martinů wrote music for it. Its alien-whoop sound then became indelibly associated with ’50 sci-fi movies like The Thing from Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Experimental-leaning psychedelic rock bands picked up the charge in the ’60s, including Lothar and The Hand People, a Denver band whose theremin was the titular Lothar. However, the most famous song with this sound, The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” was actually not played with a theremin at all: They utilized a more hands-on simulacrum called the Electro-Theremin.

In the years that followed, the instrument found its way to arena rockers (Jimmy Page would often solo with it on stage), vintage-rock noisemakers (Jack White, Jon Spencer), retro-minded electronic experimentalists (Arling & Cameron), and newer virtuosos (Carolina Eyck, Lydia Kavina, Dorit Chrysler). Here’s a generations-crossing selection of theremin tunes that pull melodies out of thin air.