Theremin Opera: The Future of Music?

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


What is a Theremin Opera? And why is it the future of music? We explore this unique form of musical expression and how it is changing the face of music as we know it.


Theremin is a unique musical instrument with a very distinct sound. It is played without physical contact, using the player’s hands to control the pitch and volume of the sound.

The theremin was invented in the early 1920s by Russian physicist Lev Termen (also known as Léon Theremin). It was originally intended as an electronic security device, but Termen soon realized that it had potential as a musical instrument. The theremin quickly became popular in Russia, and Termen toured Europe and the United States with his theremin orchestra.

The theremin fell out of fashion in the 1930s, but it experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 1950s, when it was used in film scores such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Spellbound (1945). In recent years, the theremin has enjoying something of a renaissance, with more and more people interested in playing this fascinating and unique instrument.

There are two basic types of theremin: analog and digital. Analog theremins use electronic oscillators to generate sound, while digital theremins use computer software to synthesize sound. Both types of instrument have their own advantages and disadvantages.

Analog Theremins:
1) Warm, natural sound quality 2) Easy to play 3) Often cheaper than digital instruments
-Disadvantages: 1) Can be affected by environmental factors such as temperature and humidity 2) Prone to drift 3) May require frequent calibration

Digital Theremins: -Advantages: 1) More precise tuning 2) Increased durability 3) More resistant to environmental factors 4) often have more features than analog instruments -Disadvantages: 1) Can sometimes sound “cold” or “synthetic” 2) Often more expensive than analog instruments 3) May require special software or hardware for some features

What is a Theremin?

A theremin is an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the player. It is named after the Western Electric engineer who invented it, Lev Sergeyevich Termen (Theremin Palo Alto, n.d.). It consists of two metal antennas that sense the relative position of the player’s hands and control oscillators for frequency with one hand and amplitude with the other. The electric signals from the theremin are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker.

The theremin was first demonstrated in 1920 and became very popular in the 1930s, when it was used in movie soundtracks such as Spellbound and The Lost Weekend. It declined in popularity after World War II but had a resurgence in the 1990s, when it was used in experimental and alternative music (Theremin Opera: The Future of Music?, n.d.).

The theremin is one of the earliest electronic instruments and is still widely used today. It has been featured in classical, jazz, rock, and pop music. There have even been entire operas written for the theremin (Theremin Opera: The Future of Music?, n.d.).

The History of the Theremin

The theremin was invented in the early 1920s by Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (known in the West by the Anglicized version of his name, Léon Theremin). It was the world’s first electronic musical instrument, and one of the first electronic consumer products. Though often associated with eerie sci-fi or horror movie soundtracks, it has been used in a wide variety of classical and popular music contexts over the past hundred years.

The theremin is played without physical contact between the player and the instrument. The player controls the pitch of the note by moving their hands in proximity to vertical antennas; one antenna controls pitch, and the other volume. Because of this, it can be difficult to play in tune; players must learn to control their gestures very precisely. The theremin was one of the first instruments used to create electronic music, and composers such as Clara Rockmore and Alexander Glazunov wrote pieces specifically for it.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the theremin, thanks in part to its use in popular culture (the theme song for The X-Files is perhaps the most famous example). This has led to new compositions specifically for theremin as well as new performance techniques. There is even an annual international theremin festival, which brings together players from all over the world.

So what does the future hold for the theremin? Will it continue to be used primarily as a novelty or experiment performance tool, or could it become a more mainstream musical instrument? Only time will tell…

How does a Theremin work?

The theremin is an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the user. It is named after its Russian inventor, Léon Theremin, who patented the device in 1928.

The control of the instrument is effected by two metal antennas which sense the position of the player’s hands in relation to each other. One hand controls pitch and the other volume.

The pitches produced by a theremin cover a range of more than four octaves, from sub-bass notes below low C to high soprano notes above middle C (on a piano). The ranges of most commercial theremins are about three and a half octaves to four and a half octaves.

In order to produce these pitches, most theremins use a heterodyning technique: two radiofrequency oscillators are mixed together in order to create audio-frequency beat notes. One of these oscillators is fixed in frequency while the other is variable; moving your hand towards the pitch antenna will cause the variable oscillator’s frequency to increase, producing a higher pitch. Moving your hand away will have the reverse effect.

Theremins are sometimes used as controllers for synthesizers and other electronic musical instruments, but they can also be played as standalone instruments.

The theremin has been used in countless movies, TV shows, and popular songs over the years. Some of the most famous examples include the theme from The Twilight Zone, the theme from Doctor Who, and the theme from Lost in Space. The theremin has also been used in modern pop songs like Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky” and Beyonce’s “Halo.”

Theremin Opera

First developed in the early 1900s, the theremin is one of the earliest electronic musical instruments. While it fell out of favor in the mid-20th century, the theremin has experienced a resurgence in recent years, thanks in part to its use in movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Superman.

Now, one composer is taking the theremin to new heights with his Theremin Opera. The opera, titled “Anubis Gates,” is set to premiere at the University of Michigan’s Power Center for the Performing Arts on April 28.

The Theremin Opera is the brainchild of composer Jonathan Thatcher. Thatcher became interested in the theremin after seeing it used in a documentary about Clara Rockmore, considered to be the instrument’s greatest player. Rockmore was able to create a wide range of sounds and expressions with the theremin, which Thatcher saw as a potential for musical storytelling.

“I started thinking about what other kinds of stories could be told with this instrument,” Thatcher said. “That’s when I came up with the idea for an opera.”

“Anubis Gates” tells the story of an Egyptian god who is transported to modern-day America. The opera will feature four theremin players, along with a full orchestra and choir. Thatcher said he is hopeful that “Anubis Gates” will show audiences the potential of the theremin as a musical instrument.

“I think this could be a real game-changer for music,” Thatcher said. “The theremin has so much potential and I’m excited to see where it can go.”

The Future of the Theremin

With its eerie, otherworldly sound, the theremin has been capturing the imaginations of musicians and music lovers for nearly a century. And while the instrument may not be as widely known or used as some others, it continues to influence and inspire musicians today.

So what does the future hold for the theremin? Will it become a more popular and mainstream instrument? Or will it remain a niche curiosity?

Only time will tell. But one thing is certain: the theremin is an important part of music history, and its unique sound will continue to be heard for years to come.

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