The Theremin Before Sci-Fi

Theramin Alexandra Stepanoff-1930

We all know what a theremin sounds like, and we’ve heard it on dozens of sci-fi movie and TV show soundtracks, but not many of us are aware of the history of the instrument. The theremin was actually enjoyed by audiences well before it was used in scary movies.

RCA Victor produced the first commercial theremin in 1929 under license from its inventor Leon Theremin, who was actually an amateur cellist. In fact, the tone of the instrument was shaped by the RCA engineers to mimic the frequency range of a cello.

The polished wooden box hid its electronics, but also was part of the ad campaign to get the instrument into as many American living rooms as possible. The company believed that it could be even become as popular as the piano was at the time.

That ad campaign was actually aimed at middle and upper class white women, and even though men played the instrument, it was mostly women who did the demonstrations (see the picture on the left of Alexandra Stepanoff on the NBC Radio Network broadcast from 1930). The women were called “Thereminists,” and would often give concerts and recitals in the 1930s and 40s.

But the theremin was a commercial flop, as RCA only sold 485 instruments in 2 years and abandoned the product when the license ran out. The fact that the instrument was expensive at $230 (roughly equivalent to $3,300 today) in the days running up to the Great Depression most likely had a lot to do with it, but many site another factor – RCA’s claim that it was easy to learn. Anyone who’s ever tried one knows that it takes a lot of practice and isn’t the most intuitive instrument even for accomplished musicians.

Today you can buy a commercial theremin for as little as $100, with most of the nicer ones coming it at around $250. Even though the price is within reach of just about anybody, it’s still an acquired taste, although a fascinating one.

There’s a great article on New Music USA that delves much deeper into the history of the instrument. Also, check out this TED Talk and demonstration of the theremin by Pamelia Kurstin below.

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