A ghost terrorizing my children is one thing; ...it's another thing entirely when he starts playing my Theremin!
May 14, 2010 10:21 AM   Subscribe

My wife is turning 50 next month and, as is the tradition, I was thinking I'd buy her a Theremin. Is this a good gift for my wife? You know my wife, right?

Ever since we saw this documentary together, my wife has wanted a Theremin. We have a pretty decent collection of both common and weird instruments (piano, guitars, flutes, ukuleles, banjo, musical saws, a Laotian Khene, etc) and I think a Theremin would be a nice addition.

However, I'm concerned that for a casual, non-performing musician, a Theremin might be little more than a novelty that one would get bored of quickly. She’d be playing this at home, in her limited free time, mostly solo unless I accompanied her on guitar, ukulele or banjo in which case she’d be limited to playing along to the first 1/3 of Stairway to Heaven or a couple of Beatles songs.

So of course you don’t know my wife and you can’t say whether or not she’d use a Theremin, but I’m hoping all you closeted Mefi Theremin players can help me decide.

Concerns and questions:

Other than the wankfest in the middle of Whole Lotta Love and that one Beach Boys song*, are these things actually useful as instruments?

She's not into the rock and/or the roll. She'd hate Radiohead, which seems like the sort of band that might incorporate a Theremin. Are there non-rock bands using these things?

She likes making music, not noise, though she does enjoy “weird” music as long as it's pleasing to the ear. Can one actually play melodies on these things?

Her main "instrument" is her voice. She's a classically-trained singer and has performed with a world-class chorus. Can one manipulate a Theremin the way one would manipulate their voice? She's into all the little nuances.

She has a very good ear, very good relative pitch, and can make music on just about anything. Are these things really hard to learn? Are they frustrating for a beginner?

Is everything that comes out of it going to sound like we’re waiting in line for Space Mountain or is there more control over the tone?

Other stuff:

We already have an amplifier, so I'd just be buying the Theremin. I don't have time to build a kit so I'd probably buy the lower-end Moog on-line somewhere.

So, Theremin or do I just go buy her a tenor ukulele, which she also expressed interest in?

*yeah, I know it's probably not a Theremin.
posted by bondcliff to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
If she could concentrate on both at once, she could accompany herself singing using the theramin (um, maybe). Besides that I don't have anything to add except that you and your wife sound awesome.
posted by teraspawn at 10:34 AM on May 14, 2010

One of my favorite electronic bands, Add N To (X), have a dedicated theremin player. Considering her training, it doesn't sound like she'd have a whole lot of trouble with a theremin, although the variety of sound it can make is rather limited. Your profile says you live in Boston, so I am almost entirely sure you can find a music shop/hobby store/recording studio in the metro area where you can try a theremin out yourself (assuming this is a surprise gift) as you know her capabilities better than anyone.
posted by griphus at 10:34 AM on May 14, 2010

If you want another example of theramin use, Devotchka makes pretty liberal use of them.

Whether or not that's your wife's cup of tea is another matter.
posted by politikitty at 10:34 AM on May 14, 2010

The thing about theremins is they are insanely hard to play. It's not like a guitar or drums or a piano where you mess around with it for a few hours and you can at least knock out something musical-sounding.

I've never owned one, but I've had several friends build them, and none of them ever got past the "check it out, I can sort of shittily bash my way through Good Vibrations on this, if you are tone deaf" level. Plus, because it seems so unrewarding, none of them really practiced it at all. It's also surprisingly like...not intuitive. It doesn't work like any other instrument. The fact its hard to jump pitches without portamento, the way the intensity is just continuous and based on hand motions, its really weird. It's not like singing at all, where even if you suck, you have a clear relationship between the noise you want to make and what you do that's instinctive.

If your wife saw that doc or loves Clara Rockmore, and you know she's the kind of person who, when she decides to do a new hobby, really sticks with it, then she might like it. If she's a casual musician, I think she will stop playing it pretty quickly.
posted by jeb at 10:34 AM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

I saw Spectrum use one in their set last night in D.C. and the sound was definitely not Space Mountain - it was a keening, eerie drone that you could feel right in your chest.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:38 AM on May 14, 2010

The theremin has a similar range to a musical saw.

Also a a good theremin controller can be used as a midi input to any synth you like, and can thus be easily pitch quantized (via hardware or software) if you don't like that slidey constantly out of tune quivering quality (though that kind of makes one wonder why you picked the theremin at all if you didn't want the pitch slides).
posted by idiopath at 10:38 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "She has a very good ear, very good relative pitch, and can make music on just about anything" describes my ex to a T. A friend brought over a Theremin, and the ex was immediately able to tease pleasing sounds out of it. And, with my layman's ears, it seems that the Theremin is all about some nuance, so that is a plus, as well. As far as being more than a novelty, though, I feel like it might fail on that point. It is sort of a one-trick pony.
posted by thebrokedown at 10:38 AM on May 14, 2010

They are rather difficult to play from what I understand, and take quite a bit of practice to get the hang of.... they are used more for sound effects in film, etc than as musical instruments. I would go with the Tenor Uke.
posted by peewinkle at 10:38 AM on May 14, 2010

On second thought, I realized its entirely possible that all my friend's homemade theremins were just really, really hard to play. I mean...imagine if someone went to the hardware store and bought a bunch of pipe nipples and stuff and was like "HERE I MADE YOU A TROMBONE!!!" It would probably be so hard to play.
posted by jeb at 10:38 AM on May 14, 2010 [17 favorites]

Best answer: There are a couple of classical pieces composed for the theremin. They were invented at the turn of the century, and so had 50 years or so before even coexisting with rock. The dedicated repetoire isn't especially large, though. But you can play all sorts of concertos for other instruments on the thing. Cello concertos are apparently popular.

But a theremin sounds like a theremin. Personally, I find that it sounds like a lovely female voice singing "ooh". But some people find it quite monotonous. I'm told you can somewhat alter the timbre by wiggling your fingers and whatnot. But, it's always going to be a unique, identifiable sound.

The real problem is that playing music on them is very, very difficult. A singer is really in the best position to learn, since intonation is non-mechanical for both. But everything I've ever heard is that it takes years of practice to graduate beyond freeform improvisation and off-key children's songs. If she wants to play real music from the beginning, she is probably going to get pretty frustrated with a theremin.
posted by Netzapper at 10:39 AM on May 14, 2010

Best answer: If you have not, I would suggest you cruise "theremin youtube" and explore the diversity of sounds, techniques, instruments and lessons. May help you make an informed decision.
posted by rmhsinc at 10:43 AM on May 14, 2010

You could chicken out and buy a cheap one as a novelty gift. The Gakken one (Japanese kit-magazine) can be found in the USA, e.g. here. It's hard to control the tone on that one, though.
posted by galaksit at 10:55 AM on May 14, 2010

Response by poster: As an example of how music come naturally to her, someone bought me a Stylophone for Christmas. A couple days later I was playing the chords to I Will Survive on my uke (because I'm all ironic 'n' shit) and she just picked up the stylophone and started jamming along and playing the vocal line.

Now, admittedly a Stylophone is not a Theremin, it's basically a keyboard, but she is able to just pick out melodies and scales. She did the same thing when she first picked up a ukulele. She can also play stuff on "slidey" instruments, like a violin, where the notes aren't obvious like on a piano or guitar.

So we might be able to have some fun, the two of us, playing duets for guitar/uke/banjo and Theremin. Who knows.

Still though, one trick pony. Yeah. I'm not sold on it.

Also, trying one out myself is a good idea, but it wouldn't do any good as I do not have any type of musical ear. It be as useful as me trying out a cello, or perhaps a breast pump.
posted by bondcliff at 10:59 AM on May 14, 2010

Do you have cats? That added to the novelty value when my guy made his.

It sounds kind of like maybe this would be an awesome gift but not for a grave occasion? So maybe how she approaches her 50th birthday is the direction you want to go in--if it means a lot to her or is a serious day for her maybe waiting for a lighter event. If she doesn't take it that seriously, or wants a reminder to be silly and have fun, then yeah it might be good. I mean, based on what you say (on an early date night we watched that doc, and we've had those stylophone jams at our house too!) plus the fact she said outright she'd like one sorta, it seems like a good gift, just maybe not important enough or something for a serious occasion.
posted by ifjuly at 11:03 AM on May 14, 2010

I was thinking I'd buy her a Theremin. Is this a good gift for my wife?

It depends. Did this relationship begin with a banjo?
posted by rokusan at 11:09 AM on May 14, 2010 [11 favorites]

This is a bit outside the scope of your question, but I recently came across (here maybe?) 10 Cool Electronic Music Instruments Under $100. Or how about a HAPI drum?
posted by griphus at 11:09 AM on May 14, 2010

If she has excellent relative pitch and is a talented singer, I bet she will be able to play at least something on it right away. It is played in tune just how the voice is - by adjusting the pitch until it sounds right.

What's obvious to me though, liking to play several various instruments myself, is that you should buy her BOTH the theremin and the tenor uke.

If you can't get her both for this birthday event, pick one, and get her the other on some other day. Unexpected gifts at random times of the year are even better.
posted by fritley at 11:11 AM on May 14, 2010

Here's some video of thereminist Pamelia Kurstin playing, which shows off the versatility and musicality of the theremin as an instrument.
posted by andrewraff at 11:20 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I desperately want a theremin, and your wife sounds like the kind of person I'd like to be at 50. If you can get a nice one in your budget, I say go for it.

For more thereminy inspiration, Jonathan Coulton uses theremin on a couple of his songs, Tom Cruise Crazy and The Future Soon, though they may be more rock and roll-y than she likes.

Tenor ukes are nice too though...
posted by doift at 11:28 AM on May 14, 2010

Response by poster: It depends. Did this relationship begin with a banjo?

It began in a tent, actually. The banjo came 14 years later. So far our marriage has survived, though she has threatened to kill me after the 20th repetition of an off-key Cripple Creek.
posted by bondcliff at 11:28 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

If her main instrument is her voice, and she also loves the theremin, then she has to hear Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird (Antonia Fisher-Duke plays her voice like a theremin, here beginning about 2 minutes in, and then again here and there throughout).
posted by headnsouth at 11:32 AM on May 14, 2010

I've got a Theremin that I got on a lark as a kit from Big Briar (building the kit, fwiw, went pretty quickly). I have no musical training, practiced diligently on it for a couple of months, and got precisely nowhere.

It really is a difficult instrument, which probably explains, at least in part, why there are so few musicians actually making music on the damn thing. You need to move your hands in completely independent and kind of counterintuitive ways to control pitch and volume, so there's that "pat your head and rub your belly" proprioceptive learning curve. In the (rare) right hands, it can be very expressive instrument, and can mimic the human voice about the same as a violin.

What some people might view as a problem is that even if you're a freaking virtuoso on the theremin, you're still playing a theremin, and most listeners will have a hard time getting past viewing it just as a novelty.
posted by adamrice at 11:43 AM on May 14, 2010

You really can't go wrong with either a ukelele or a Theramin. Follow your heart. Your wife is a lucky woman.
posted by Neofelis at 12:23 PM on May 14, 2010

A friend and I bought Theramins together several years ago, and promptly started Rockmore, a Theramin duo. I'm reasonably musical (can play the guitar, the recorder, used to play the piano, briefly played the banjo) but I didn't want to dedicate the time to learning how to really play the Theramin, so once the novelty wore off it was just a dust collector. My then-bandmate, who is far more musically talented than I am, dedicated the time and now can do amazing things with his Theramin.

So if she's the sort to stick with it, I say get her one. If she would want to be able to play it well right away, it might not be the instrument for her.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:34 PM on May 14, 2010

I have a theremin, can't play it but glad I can try when I have more time.
posted by saucysault at 12:39 PM on May 14, 2010

Best answer: Theremins are alive and well in contemporary music! The Octopus Project are a group of young, eclectic, musicians and several of their tracks feature theremins.

It may be a novelty. BUT IT'S A FREAKING AMAZING NOVELTY. I vote yes!
posted by fontophilic at 12:40 PM on May 14, 2010

Nth-ing what everyone above has said about the theremin being difficult. Most instruments have one (length) or two (length x width) dimensions of control and at least some physical feedback mechanism. The theremin has three axis of control for tone AND three axis of control volume and zero physical feedback.

That said, they're damned cool in the right hands.

You could always get her the theremin, let her play it until she gets bored with it, then sell it and use the proceeds on a uke.
posted by lekvar at 12:55 PM on May 14, 2010

By all means get her one, since you both loved the documentary. Then expect a brief period where she makes terrible noises with the thing, before it's put on the shelf -- but it'll be ready later for more experiments one day. And bondcliff, that's for sure a theremin in Good Vibrations but this is the first time I've ever hear that suggestion about Whole Lotta Love. Note that the Beach Boys' theremin had a small, stiff plastic sheet mounted at a slight angle over the pitch antenna with lines on the plastic marking the notes (there's a video somewhere, with a closeup of whoever's hand sliding along the plastic). On my theremin, which I assembled a long time ago, I put a strip of masking tape on the volume antenna to get the steady max volume -- yes, these are tricks for playing an incredibly difficult instrument.
posted by Rash at 1:02 PM on May 14, 2010

What about a musical saw? It's got a similar sound and, according to a theremin and saw player I know, much easier to play --- you can get a decent sound out of the saw much quicker. They are also a lot cheaper (cheap theremins are notorious for being hard to play), you could get a decent tenor uke and a musical saw for the same or less as a decent theremin.
posted by tallus at 1:29 PM on May 14, 2010

By the way: my Theremin was a beginner's model, sort of like this one. If you decide to get her one you might want one of these pitch-only ones, as they're supposed to be easier to play.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:40 PM on May 14, 2010

Best answer: I owned this theremin for a period in my life. Despite my lack of training, it was not incredibly difficult to get the basics down. The plastic casing always bothered me, but it sounded very nice for the price. It will be much less versatile than the uke will be, but it sounds like you already have one. You can definitely play melodies on them and it sounds beautiful.

There are a few videos on the linked site that will show you just how good a theremin can sound. I would really just base it on how well you know your wife. For me, the theremin turned out to be a novelty that I sold after using it for a few songs. For her, it might become much more. I would suggest buying her a theremin and packaging it with a mid-level reverb pedal and 6 or so lessons. I would have kept mine if I had seen musical improvement in my future/hadn't been a poor student.

If you do end up getting her one, she will never forget it. It will be a great addition to your instrument collection, a great conversation starter, and your wife will always be able to say that you got her a THEREMIN!!!! for her 50th birthday!!!!
posted by 200burritos at 1:49 PM on May 14, 2010

I'd never heard of a Theremin before today... but not only does it appear on MeFi, but in the Make blog!
posted by GJSchaller at 2:31 PM on May 14, 2010

Always get someone something you would want.
posted by pianomover at 3:47 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The Theremin has been shipped.
posted by bondcliff at 5:03 PM on June 6, 2010

Response by poster: Five minutes after she plugged it in she was playing the Star Trek theme on it. I'm pretty much a hero to all her friends because who else buys his wife a Theremin?

I told her she has to make you all a thank you video, but that might take some time.
posted by bondcliff at 11:22 AM on June 24, 2010 [6 favorites]

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