If you stand on the second floor of WonderLab Museum of Science, Health and Technology, you may hear a strange, eerie noise. Don’t worry, aliens aren’t invading! The wailing you can hear even over the sounds of the Xylopipes and the Heartbeat Drum is actually a musical instrument. That small yellow tower next to the Skyline Toolbox is actually the first electronic instrument ever made, a Theremin.
The Theremin was invented in 1917 by Leon Theremin, a Russian physicist and cello player. He patented it in the United States under the name “Thereminvox” in 1928. His invention captivated audiences with its strange sounds, and was used in the soundtracks for movies like “The Day The Earth Stood Still.”, and in the hypnotic music of Clara Rockmore, one of the first Thereminists.
Unlike most instruments, the Theremin is played without actually touching it. The silver plate or loop controls the volume. The closer your hand is, the louder the sound. If you touch it, the sound stops. The tall silver tube or antenna controls the pitch. Move your hand closer and the note rises. Farther away, the note lowers.
At the time it was invented in 1917, it seemed like magic. But in reality, SciShow explains, this instrument uses alternating current to produce a certain frequency. For a circuit to produce alternating current, it needs something called a capacitor. A capacitor consists of two conducting plates with a non-conducting material, usually air, between them.
Because the electrons in the circuit can’t jump between the two plates of the capacitor, they build up until they reverse their direction. Think of the current as a crowd of people: they come to a wall and can’t get past it, so they have to turn around and walk back the way they came.
The current then travels through the circuit until it reaches the other plate of the capacitor, where it is forced to turn around again. The process repeats and produces alternating current. The speed of the electrons, and therefore the oscillation of the current, depends on the distance between the plates.
The twist is that the circuit in the Theremin only contains one half of the capacitor. The second half is actually the pitch hand of the performer. When you play a Theremin, you are directly controlling pitch by altering the speed of the oscillations by altering the distance between the “plates” of the capacitor.
So, when you play a Theremin, you are part of the circuit. And not just any part, you control the flow of the current. When it comes to making music, that’s the most important part.
Theremins have shown up recently in pop culture in shows like “The Big Bang Theory.” And has been used by musicians from Led Zeppelin to the Beach Boys.
One of the coolest things about the Theremin is that you can build one yourself! The one at WonderLab was built using a kit. Theremin kits come in many different qualities and prices ranges and offer a chance to experiment with circuits.
Kits enable the maker to have more say in the size and shape of their Theremin, which is why we chose to use one at WonderLab. Kits are also much cheaper than pre-built instruments. In fact, you can build a pocket Theremin for about 20 dollars.
So, if you’re looking for a way to impress your friends at your next dinner party or have a love for the obscure, look no further! And if you’re ever in WonderLab Museum of Science, Health and Technology, you can test drive this eerie instrument yourself.
The Writer: Harper Humphrey is a 20-year-old who hopes to communicate her love of science through intelligent, witty writing. She is pursuing a double major from Indiana University in Astronomy and Journalism. In her spare time she builds sets for the Indiana University opera program and experiments with her crock pot.