Friday, April 21, 2006

There's a What??

Q:"Can you play a musical instrument without actually touching it?"
This was a question posed in 1950, and yet my 21st century mind said, "Nah."

A:"Yes, and it's not a wind instrument."
Let me explain.

In my continuing search for the strange, bizarre, and obscure, I recently purchased a couple of DVDs containing episodes of a 1950's TV show called "You Asked For It".

I'd never heard of it, but the premise was to bring Ripley's Believe It or Not-type entertainment straight into the living room of post-war America. All they had to do was ask for it (and endure the incessant huckstering of Skippy Peanut Butter, the peanut butter that doesn't taste like peanut butter, but real, fresh peanuts).

I bit. And so there I sat watching a little piece of Americana when a young lady from Atlanta, Georgia asked Art Baker, the host, a question very similar to the one above.

Then out marched a woman in a performance gown with a device, which looked like a podium with a couple of antennae sticking out of it, and began waving her arms through mid-air in front of it. And what do you know but a song started playing.

I was very surprised. But I'm not sure whether I was more surprised that such a thing existed or more surprised that a TV show from 1950 could surprise me.

Maybe you guys are intimately familiar with this strange instrument called the Theremin already, but here's some trivia that I've run down on the Internet:

-- It apparently has been around since 1919.
-- Jimmy Page used one in a Zeppelin song "Whole Lotta Love", and Brian Wilson wanted one for the weird sounds in the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" but settled for the similar sounds from a tannerin.
-- The founder of Moog synthesizers got his start building theremins.
-- There was even a movie done about the instrument itself in 1994, Theremin:An Electronic Odyssey.
-- A myth was created about the inventor being kidnapped in New York by Soviet agents
-- There's a blog site run by theremin enthusiasts.

To hear one try this site or join in a discussion with a current theremin musician in the comments section of this post.


DugALug said...


The theremin is a really cool instrument, but doesn't the wand count as 'touching it?'. Even a wind-driven instrument aren't we pushing air over the device to create music?

I play guitar and there is a device that generates an electic field over the pickups. It plays the strings and all you have to do is finger the cords. It is called the e-bow. It really sounds cool too.

Led Zepplin, and Phil Keaggy both used it.

Here is a link:

Ebow Website


Óscar said...

I love and play the theremin. That's why I dare to make some corrections here of old fake rumours with your permission ;):

-in the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" it is not a theremin, but another instrument called "Tannerin"

- Star Trek didn't have a theremin, but a female singer imitating it

- The Ten Commandments have not used it, but an "Ondes Martenot" keyboard.

- The inventor, in spite of what the documentary said, was NOT kidnapped in New York by Soviet agents - he was a sort of soviet agent himself in fact, this all was a fake story to keep his honour and give an explanation to people around. Later he was at a Soviet camp, that's true, working as an engineer.

And the true story of the inventor himself is pure cinema. Maybe one day someone will take profit of it making a fiction film but based on true History.

P&S said...

The Ebow looks cool. Does it help you play well?

There was no wand used in playing the theremin that I saw. The sound and pitch were all created by how close or far away your hands were from the antennae.

The musician had just learned the spots in the air required for each note and moved their hands around accordingly.

P&S said...

Thanks for chiming in and clarifying, Oscar. Imagine not being able to believe everything that you read on the Internet.

Are there any other interesting facts about theremin playing that you can enlighten us on?

How did you get started with it?

codepoke said...

Theremin and eBow. Both cool. Thanks, Ken.

DugALug said...


The Ebow doesn't help you play. It has a violin-sound to it. It does force you to finger your cords better.

It has a wonderfully cool sound