Clara Rockmore: How the theramin went from impressing Lenin to inspiring modern music around the world

Google has dedicated today's Google Doodle to a pioneer of the strange musical instrument

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The Independent Tech

Clara Rockmore was a master of the Theremin, the instrument that inspired much of the best electronic music in the world and led to the first synthesiser.

On what would have been her 105th birthday, today’s Google Doodle is an interactive game to encourage learning to play the Theremin by hovering the mouse over different notes to play a melody.

What is a Theremin?

A Theremin is a musical instrument played without actually touching any part of the device and was one of the first electronic instruments.

It was created by Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor in 1928. At aged just 23, the inventor stumbled across the idea.

He was working on a gas meter to measure gas and realised as he brought his hand closer to the meter, he heard a higher squeal and as he moved it away, it be became slower.

Clara Rockmore on today's Google Doodle, on what would have been her 105th birthday

How does it work?

Made up of a small wooden cabinet, with glass tube oscillators, the instrument works by producing two high frequency sounds.

It only produces one sound at a time and the performer controls the sounds by moving their hand over the instrument.

Performers are effectively moving their hands through two electromagnetic fields around two antennas to created different pitched sounds.

One antenna is a vertical rod on the right-hand-side, which controls pitch, while the other is a horizontal loop, usually on the left, which controls volume.

Leon Theremin playing the musical synthesizer he invented

Moving the hand closer to the vertical rod raises the pitch of the sound, and moving the hand closer to the volume side decreases the sound.

The instrument takes skill to perfect due to its complicated nature of moving around the antennae at the right height.

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And how was it made famous?

After a meeting at the Kremlin with Lenin, who was highly impressed, Mr Theremin was sent off around Russia and the rest of the world to showcase his musical technology.

He performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, where the Radio Corporation of America offered him a contract to manufacture the instrument. It was in America that Mr Theremin met Ms Rockmore, where she apparently took to it immediately and from then on used it as her primary instrument in her musical performances.

The rather strange device has since laid the way for modern electronic music.

The Beach Boys used a variation of the original Theremin in their hit song "Good Vibrations" in 1966. The sound is the same, producing an almost eerie “sci-fi” electronic wave, but the Elector-Theremin, as creator Paul Tanner named it, is much easier to play.

In subculture, the Theremin is used on hit US comedy, The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon Cooper plays the Theremin, although very badly, which he attributes to loving after hearing it in the original Star Trek theme tune.