Physics of the Theremin Musical Instrument


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The theremin is an electronic musical instrument that is played using electrical fields. When it was first introduced, people were shocked to see this instrument that could be played without even touching it. The theremin unsually is tuned so that it has a range of three and a half octaves. The theremin's operation is based on the theory of beat frequencies. Two antennas stick out on each side. Usually a vertical antenna is located on the right which controls the pitch. The closer the players hand is, the higher the pitch. A horizontal loop antenna is located on the left and controls the volume. The closer the hand is, the louder the volume.

Patented in 1928 by Leon Theremin, the theremin has not escaped its original status as a novelty instrument. Most people have heard the theremin, even though they may not recognize it. The theremin is a staple of sci-fi films, particularly classic ones. It is not as prominent today but it has featured in recent movies such as Mars Attacks and Ed Wood.

The theremin was invented in 1921 by Leon Theremin (nee Lev Termen). It is one of the most important musical instruments of the twentieth century because it is the first electronic intsrument. Leon Theremin first came up with the idea for the theremin when in high school. He noticed depending on how close a person stands to a Tesla coil, the coil hums in different pitches. After its inveiling in 1921, Theremin toured his instrument around Russia, sparking the curiosity of almost everybody who saw it.

The theremin made its way to America in 1928, where it gained more popularity. In 1929, RCA bought the rights to manufacture the instrument. Leon Theremin stayed in America, where he met Clara Rockmore, the theremin's first virtuoso. Theremin worked on many variations of his original instrument including the Terpsitone (controlled by the entire body), an electric cello, and a theremin controlled only by the eyes.

In 1954 Robert Moog (famous for his synthesizers of the same name) started production of the theremin. His company, Big Briar Inc., still produces them today. It also produces kits for those who wish to build their own theremin. The popularity of the theremin started to rise again and it was included in several movies (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Spellbound, and Lost Weekend). The Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin both used it in their hit songs "Good Vibrations" and "Whole Lotta Love," respectively.

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Leon Theremin died in 1993, but his interesting instrument still has a cult following today. His original theremin's tubes have been replaced by transistors and soon infra-red controllers. Although it may not be the most popular instrument today, it certainly is one of the most interesting.

How the Theremin Works
(aka time for physics)



The theremin contains two radio-frequency oscillators (or resonant circuits). This is called a "beat frequency oscillator" by physicists and "ring modulation" by some guitarists. One oscillator operates at a fixed frequency, usually about 285 kHz and the other varies between 282 and 285 kHz. When these oscillators are combined, they produce two signals, one at 567-570 kHz and one at 0-3kHz. A diode detector removes the higher frequency so the lower one is left.

The variable oscillator consists of a circuit of capacitors and inductors in which the vertical pitch antenna and the player's hand serve as the a capacitor. The closer the hand is, the greater the capacitance is as capacitance is determined by the distance between the two plates of the capacitor. This is demonstrated by the equation: C=eA/d ,where C is capacitance, e is the permittivity constant, A is the area of the capacitor's plates, and d is the distance between the plates. Moving the hand towards the pitch antenna increases the capacitance of the oscillator's circuit, thereby reducing its frequency, causing a greater difference between it and the fixed oscillatior, creating a higher pitch. The higher pitch is because higher pitches have higher frequencies. When the player's hand is drawn far enough away, the difference between the oscillators is essentially zero, therby causing sound to stop.

The volume is controlled by the fixed oscillator. This oscillator creats a current that causes a high frequency voltage to be carried across its circuit's inductors. These voltages are higher when the oscillator's frquencies are the same (when the hand is away) and become lower when the player's hand introduces more capacitance. This voltage is changed into a DC voltage by a detector. This DC voltage controls a voltage-controlled amplifier. The audio signal from the pitch oscillator is amplified here. Its volume is determined by how much voltage is carried through the volume oscillator's circuit.



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