Ode to Joy played on theremins

The theremin is perhaps the first truly electronic instrument. It is played without actually being touched. Instead, by moving one’s hands near the instrument, one changes the inductance of the circuitry and thus the resonant frequency, and so can control the pitch and the volume. It is not an easy instrument to master.

Here we see the Russian inventor Leon Theremin, who patented the instrument in 1928, playing it.

The sound of the theremin is frequently used to generate an eerie space-agey effect. Here we see 247 members of the Japanese Matryomin Ensemble use theremins hidden inside Russian Matryoshka dolls to play the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It is pretty impressive to get so many to play in unison.

The Beach Boys song Good Vibrations used a variation on the theremin called the electrotheremin that is easier to play. Here is a studio recording session of Good Vibrations. You can hear the theremin-like sound first at the 0:54 mark and again later.


  1. says

    I once saw a PBS documentary on Leon Theremin. While he said he did not like rock music, and he never explicitly said he liked “Good Vibrations”, it was clear that he appreciated proper use of the instrument. Theremins were generally used in classical music. In pop culture prior to “Vibrations”, it was used only in bad sci-fi and horror movies as a sound effect, much like pipe organs.

    I’ve read that most theremin players are or were violin players. Theremins require quick and precise movements of the hand in the air. Theremins come with the problem of a permanent glissando, rising and falling sounds that come without a break (e.g. a trombone’s slide moving while blowing). Woodwind and brass players can cut off their air, and string players (e.g. guitar, violin) can mute their notes. A theremin is always on.

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