How Clean Cut Kids Used the Theremin to “Dirty Up” Pop Music


If you have ever wondered what that eerie, wavering sound is at the beginning of Erykah Badu’s “Incense” or in the background of The Flaming Lips’ “Race for the Prize,” then you have fallen under the spell of the theremin. Although this odd instrument has never been widely used, its influence has been vibrating through the pop music world for decades, much like the invisible electromagnetic fields it generates. If you have ever used a joystick on your electronic keyboard to bend and slide pitches—a musical technique jazz and blues musicians once referred to “playing it dirty” or “dirtying it up”—you can thank the theremin and the clean-cut quintet that brought its sound into the mainstream.

The Song That Opened Pop Listeners’ Ears

In October of 1966, The Beach Boys released the smash hit single “Good Vibrations,” with a chorus accompanied by the theremin. Our modern ears have grown so accustomed to wavering, electronically generated sounds that it is almost impossible to imagine the combination of fascination and outrage that “Good Vibrations” evoked. Popular music was supposed to be made up of the fixed pitches found on a piano keyboard, not shifting, ethereal microtones.

Other musicians noticed the hype. Less than a year after “Good Vibrations” climbed to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (remaining on the chart for 14 weeks), The Rolling Stones had a theremin-driven hit of their own with “Please Go Home.” The psychedelic rock movement was soon in full swing, with all manner of sliding pitches and electronic-sounding tones at its core. Mainstream pop had been “dirtied up” for good. 

What Is A Theremin and How Is It Played?

Invented in 1928 by Soviet-Russian immigrant to the U.S. Lev Termen (Anglicized as Leon Theremin), the theremin looks more like an old-fashioned radio than a musical instrument. And theremin players look more like mystics trying to contact the dead than musicians, waving their hands in the air without ever touching the instrument.

The theremin’s main components are a straight, vertical antenna, which determines pitch, and a horizontal loop antenna, which determines volume. The instrument’s eerie, electronic sound is produced by the interaction of the musician’s hands with the electromagnetic fields surrounding the antennas. The closer the musician’s hand is to the pitch antenna, the higher the note; the farther the musician’s hand is from the volume antenna (up to about eight inches, the limit of the field), the louder that note is. Since the pitch is changed simply by moving a hand through the air, an endless array of between-the-cracks notes can be produced.

Bringing Sliding Pitches Into the American Mainstream

The Beach Boys were an unlikely choice of messengers to spread the good news of sliding pitches to the pop music world. They had often borrowed heavily (at times illegally) from the rhythm and blues-influenced rock of Chuck Berry, swapping out his masterfully shaped bent notes (today known as “blue” notes) for more conventional tones in the process. Yet what made the Beach Boys’ use of the theremin so striking was that the instrument is treated not as an attention-grabbing novelty, but instead as just one of many elements of the sound bed. If anything, its presence is understated, which is why it goes largely unnoticed by today’s listeners to the song.

Synthesizing the Theremin Sound Today

The influence of the theremin lives on in the prevalent use of sliding pitches in electro-pop, synth pop, and club music today. If you are interested in adding a classic sound that redefined the pop music pitch palette to your own music, you will be glad to know that you can do so without spending years mastering the theremin’s bizarre playing techniques. Almost all modern synthesizers come preprogrammed with a variety of theremin sounds. As you move from note to note on your keyboard, you will find that many synthesized theremin sounds mimic the continuum of pitches that the actual instrument produces passably well. For better results, combine the programmed sound with clever use of your keyboard’s pitch sliding joy stick, dial, or whammy bar to “play it dirty” in your own distinct way.