From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Electronic music has been around for much of the twentieth century but only entered the mainstream of popular music with 1970s synth-pop and 1980s dance music such as house music and techno. The role of Japanese music machines in that evolution cannot be underestimated. Since then dance music has almost invariably been electronic."--Sholem Stein
Electronic music is music that employs electronic musical instruments and electronic music technology in its production. In general a distinction can be made between sound produced using electromechanical means and that produced using electronic technology. Examples of electromechanical sound producing devices include the telharmonium, Hammond organ, and the electric guitar. Purely electronic sound production can be achieved using devices such as the Theremin, sound synthesizer, and computer.
Electronic music was once associated almost exclusively with Western art music but from the late 1960s on the availability of affordable music technology meant that music produced using electronic means became increasingly common in the popular domain. Today electronic music includes many varieties and ranges from experimental art music to popular forms such as electronic dance music.
Late 19th century to early 20th century
Before electronic music, there was a growing desire for composers to use emerging technologies for musical purposes. Several instruments were created that employed electromechanical designs and they paved the way for the later emergence of electronic instruments. An electromechanical instrument called the Teleharmonium (or Telharmonium) was developed by Thaddeus Cahill in 1897. Simple inconvenience hindered the adoption of the Teleharmonium: the instrument weighed seven tons and was the size of a boxcar. Several more refined versions were also constructed a few years later (the final and most refined model arriving in 1907, weighing in at 200 tons). The first electronic instrument is often viewed to be the Theremin, invented by Professor Leon Theremin circa 1919 - 1920. Another early electronic instrument was the Ondes Martenot, which was most famously used in the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen as well as other works by him. It was also used by other, primarily French, composers such as Andre Jolivet.
Post-war years: 1940s to 1950s
The tape recorder was invented in Germany during World War II. It wasn't long before composers used the tape recorder to develop a new technique for composition called Musique concrète. This technique involved editing together recorded fragments of natural and industrial sounds. Frequently, composers used sounds that were produced entirely by electronic devices not designed for a musical purpose. The first pieces of musique concrète were written by Pierre Schaeffer, who later worked alongside such avant-garde classical composers as Pierre Henry, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen has worked for many years as part of Cologne's Studio for Electronic Music combining electronically generated sounds with conventional orchestras. The first electronic music for magnetic tape composed in America was completed by Louis and Bebe Barron in 1950.
Two new electronic instruments made their debut in 1957. Unlike the earlier Theremin and Ondes Martenot, these instruments were hard to use, required extensive programming, and neither could be played in real time. The first of these electronic instruments was the computer when Max Mathews used a program called Music 1, later users were Edgard Varèse, and Iannis Xenakis. The other electronic instrument that appeared that year was the first electronic synthesizer. Called the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, it used vacuum tube oscillators and incorporated the first electronic music sequencer. It was designed by RCA and installed at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center where it remains to this day.
The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, now known as the Computer Music Center, is the oldest center for electronic and computer music research in the United States. It was founded in 1958 by Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening who had been working with magnetic tape manipulation since the early 1950s. A studio was built there with the help of engineer Peter Mauzey and it became the hub of American electronic music production until about 1980. Robert Moog developed voltage controlled oscillators and envelope generators while there, and these were later used as the heart of the Moog synthesizer.
1960s to late 1970s
Because of the complexities of composing with a synthesizer or computer, let alone the lack of access, most composers continued exploring electronic sounds using musique concrète even into the 60s. But musique concrète was clumsy, and a few composers sought better technology for the task. That search led three independent teams to develop the world's first playable electronic synthesizers.
The first of these synthesizers to appear was the Buchla. Appearing in 1963, it was the product of an effort spearheaded by musique concrète composer Morton Subotnick. In 1962, working with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Subotnick and business partner Ramon Sender hired electrical engineer Don Buchla to build a "black box" for composition. Subotnick describes their idea in the following terms:
- "Our idea was to build the black box that would be a palette for composers in their homes. It would be their studio. The idea was to design it so that it was like an analog computer. It was not a musical instrument but it was modular...It was a collection of modules of voltage-controlled envelope generators and it had sequencers in it right off the bat...It was a collection of modules that you would put together. There were no two systems the same until CBS bought it...Our goal was that it should be under $400 for the entire instrument and we came very close. That's why the original instrument I fundraised for was under $500."
Another playable synthesizer, the first to use a piano styled keyboard, was the brainchild of Robert Moog. In 1964, he invited composer Herb Deutsch to visit his studio in Trumansburg. Moog had met Deutsch the year before, heard his music, and decided to follow the composer's suggestion and build electronic music modules. By the time Deutsch arrived for the visit, Moog had created prototypes of two voltage-controlled oscillators. Deutsch played with the devices for a few days; Moog found Deutsch's experiments so musically interesting that he subsequently built a voltage-controlled filter. Then, by a stroke of luck, Moog was invited that September to the AES Convention in New York City, where he presented a paper called "Electronic Music Modules" and sold his first synthesizer modules to choreographer Alwin Nikolais. By the end of the convention, Moog had entered the synthesizer business.
Also in 1964, Paul Ketoff, a sound engineer for RCA Italiana in Rome, approached William O. Smith, who headed the electronic music studio at the city's American Academy, with a proposal to build a small playable synthesizer for the academy's studio. Smith consulted with Otto Luening, John Eaton, and other composers who were in residence at the academy at the time. Smith accepted Ketoff's proposal, and Ketoff delivered his Synket (for Synthesizer Ketoff) synthesizer in early 1965.
Although electronic music began in the world of classical (or "art") composition, within a few years it had been adopted into popular culture with varying degrees of enthusiasm. One of the first electronic signature tunes for television was the theme music for Doctor Who in 1963. It was created at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop by Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire.
In the late 1960s, Wendy Carlos popularized early synthesizer music with two notable albums Switched-On Bach and The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, which took pieces of baroque classical music and reproduced them on Moog synthesizers. The Moog generated only a single note at a time, so that producing a multilayered piece, such as Carlos did, required many hours of studio time. The early machines were notoriously unstable, and went out of tune easily. Still, some musicians, notably Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake and Palmer did take them on the road. The theremin, an exceedingly difficult instrument to play, was even used in some popular music. Many people believe it to be used in "Good Vibrations" by The Beach Boys, however the instrument used was actually an Electro-Theremin. There was also the Mellotron which appeared in the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever", and the volume tone pedal was uniquely used as a backing instrument in "Yes It Is". Fifty Foot Hose used a custom built guitar synthesizer, plus reverse sounds of drums, cymbals and electric bass, along with other magnetic tape transformations, on their 1967 album Cauldron.
As technology developed, and synthesizers became cheaper, more robust and portable, they were adopted by many rock bands. Examples of relatively early pioneers in this field are bands like The United States of America, The Silver Apples, Fifty Foot Hose and Pink Floyd, and although not all of their music was electronic (with the exception of The Silver Apples), much of the resulting sound was dependent upon the synthesiser although it usually merely substituted for an organ. In the 1970s, the electronic style was revolutionised by the Düsseldorf band Kraftwerk, who used electronics and robotics to symbolise and sometimes gleefully celebrate the alienation of the modern technological world. To this day their music remains uncompromisingly electronic. In Germany particularly electronic sounds were incorporated into popular music by bands such as Cluster, Neu!, Tangerine Dream, Can, Popol Vuh, DAF and others.
Some of the leading jazz pianists, most notably Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul (Weather Report) and Jan Hammer (Mahavishnu Orchestra) started to use synthesizers on their fusion recordings during the years 1972-1974. The very first fusion albums containing synthesizer were recorded in 1972. These recordings, I Sing the Body Electric by Weather Report and Crossings by Herbie Hancock, used synthesizer for sound effects rather than a replacement for piano (and actually neither Hancock nor Zawinul played the synthesizer on those albums themselves). But in 1973, synthesizer - used now as a solo instrument - was already part of the jazz fusion sound as heard in Weather Report's Sweetnighter album and Hancock's famous The Headhunters. Corea and Hammer soon followed, and both developed unique ways of playing synthesizers - utilizing slide, vibrato, ring modulators, distortion and wahwah. Later, Hancock released the well known Future Shock album, a collaboration with producer Bill Laswell in the 1980s, which spawned a pop hit "Rockit" in 1983.
Musicians such as Kraftwerk, Cluster, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Brian Eno, Suicide, Vangelis, Mike Oldfield, Jean Michel Jarre, Ray Buttigieg, as well as the Japanese composers Isao Tomita and Kitaro, also popularised the sound of electronic music. The film industry also began to make extensive use of electronic music in soundtracks. An example is the Wendy Carlos' score for A Clockwork Orange.
The score for Forbidden Planet, by Louis and Bebe Barron, was entirely composed using custom built electronic circuits in 1956. On the album sleeve notes of the Forbidden Planet soundtrack, Louis and Bebe explain:
We design and construct electronic circuits which function electronically in a manner remarkably similar to the way that lower life-forms function psychologically. [. . .]. In scoring Forbidden Planet – as in all of our work – we created individual cybernetics circuits for particular themes and leit motifs, rather than using standard sound generators. Actually, each circuit has a characteristic activity pattern as well as a "voice". [. . .]. We were delighted to hear people tell us that the tonalities in Forbidden Planet remind them of what their dreams sound like.
Once electronic sounds became more common in popular recordings, other science fiction films such as Blade Runner and the Alien series of movies began to depend heavily for mood and ambience upon the use of electronic music and electronically derived effects. Electronic groups were also hired to produce entire soundtracks, just like other popular music stars.
Late 1970s to late 1980s
In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a great deal of innovation around the development of electronic music instruments. Analogue synthesisers largely gave way to digital synthesisers and samplers. Early samplers, like early synthesisers, were large and expensive pieces of gear. Companies like Fairlight and New England Digital sold instruments that cost upwards of $100,000. In the mid 1980s, however, the introduction of low-cost digital samplers made the technology available to more musicians.
From the late 1970s onward, much popular music was developed on these digital machines. Groups and artists such as Ultravox, Gary Numan, The Human League, Visage, Daniel Miller, Pete Shelley, Heaven 17, Eurythmics, Severed Heads, John Foxx, Thomas Dolby, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Yazoo, Erasure, Alphaville, Art of Noise, Yello, Depeche Mode and New Order developed new ways of making popular music by electronic means. Fad Gadget (Frank Tovey) is cited by some as the father of electronics in New Wave, although Ultravox, The Normal (Daniel Miller), The Human League, and Cabaret Voltaire, all released electronic singles before Fad Gadget.
The new kinds of electonic noise that synthesizers could create contributed to the formation of the genre of industrial music, pioneered by groups such as Throbbing Gristle in 1975 and Cabaret Voltaire. Artists like Nine Inch Nails in 1989, KMFDM, and Severed Heads, took the innovations of musique concrète and applied them to dance and rock music. Others, such as Test Department, Einstürzende Neubauten, took this new sound and created noisy electronic compositions. Other groups, such as (Front 242, Skinny Puppy) combined this harshness with pop and dance, creating electronic body music.
During this time, dub musicians such as industrial-funk outfit Tackhead, vocalist Mark Stewart and others on Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound record label in the 1980s integrated the aesthetics of industrial and noise music with tape and dub production. This paved the way for much of the 1990s interest in dub, first through bands such as Meat Beat Manifesto and later downtempo and trip hop producers such as Kruder & Dorfmeister.
Recent developments: 1980s to early 2000s
The development of the techno sound in Detroit, Michigan and house music in Chicago, Illinois in the 1980s, and the later UK-based acid house movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s fueled the development and acceptance of electronic music into the mainstream and introduced electronic dance music to nightclubs. Electronic composition can create faster and more precise rhythms than is possible using traditional percussion. The sound of electronic dance music often features electronically altered sounds (samples) of traditional instruments and vocals.
- Audium (theater)
- Beaver & Krause
- List of electronic music genres
- Sound installation
- Sound sculpture
- Spectral music
- Tracker music
- Industrial music
- Timeline of electronic music genres