Late 19th century 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. 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 used in the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen and also 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, and later Music 2, to create original compositions at Bell Laboratories. Other well-known composers using computers at the time include 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 at best 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 sound special effects unit 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, most notably in "Good Vibrations" by The Beach Boys. 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.
As technology developed, and synthesizers became cheaper, more robust and portable, they were adopted by many rock bands. Examples of relatively early adopters in this field are bands like The United States of America, The Silver Apples and Pink Floyd, and although not all of their music was electronic (with the notable exception of The Silver Apples), much of the resulting sound was dependent upon the synthesiser. In the 1970s, this style was mainly popularised by 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 Tangerine Dream, Can, Popol Vuh and others.
In jazz, amplified acoustic instruments and synthesizers were combined in a series of influential recordings by Weather Report. Joe Zawinul, the synthesizer artist in that group, has continued to field ensembles of the same kind. The noted jazz pianist Herbie Hancock with his band The Headhunters in the 1970s also introduced jazz listeners to a wider palette of electronic sounds including the synthesizer, which he further explored with even more enthusiasm on the Future Shock album, a collaboration with producer Bill Laswell in the 1980s, which spawned a pop hit "Rockit" in 1983.
Musicians such as Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Brian Eno, Vangelis, 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, Stanley Kubrick's film of the Anthony Burgess novel.
The score for Forbidden Planet, by Louis and Bebe Barron, had used electronic sound, although not synthesizers per se, in 1956. 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, this changed with the development of low cost samplers. From the late 1970s onward, much popular music was developed on these machines. Groups like Gary Numan, Heaven 17, Eurythmics, Severed Heads, The Human League, John Foxx, Thomas Dolby, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Norman Iceberg, Yazoo, The Art of Noise, Depeche Mode and New Order developed entirely new ways of making popular music by electronic means. Fad Gadget is cited by some as a father to the use of electronics in New Wave.
The natural ability for music machines to make stochastic, non-harmonic, staticky noises led to a genre of music known as industrial music led by pioneering groups such as Throbbing Gristle (which commenced operation in 1975), Wavestar and Cabaret Voltaire. Some artists, like Nine Inch Nails, KMFDM, and Severed Heads, took some of the adventurous innovations of musique concrète and applied them to mechanical dance beats and, later on, metal guitars. Others, such as Test Department, Einstürzende Neubauten, took this new sound at face value and created hellish electronic compositions. Meanwhile, other groups (Robert Rich, :zoviet*france:, rapoon) took these harsh sounds and melded them into evocative soundscapes. Still others (Front 242, Skinny Puppy) combined this harshness with the earlier, more pop, or rather dance-oriented sounds, forming electronic body music (EBM).
Allied with the growing interest in electronic and industrial music were artists working in the realm of dub music. Notable in this area was producer Adrian Sherwood whose On-U Sound record label in the 1980s was responsible for integrating the industrial and noise aesthetic with tape and dub production with artists such as the industrial-funk outfit Tackhead, vocalist Mark Stewart and others. 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 early to late 1980s, and the later UK-based acid house movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s all fueled the development and acceptance of electronic music into the mainstream and to introduce electronic dance music to nightclubs. Electronic composition can create rhythms faster and more precise than is possible using traditional percussion. The sound of electronic dance music often features electronically altered sounds of traditional instruments and vocals. See dance music.
It was in UK legislation to counter the rave culture that a current definition of popular electronic dance music was given, with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 stating that music at raves, "includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats."
The falling price of suitable equipment has meant that popular music has increasingly been made electronically. Artists such as Björk and Moby have further popularized variants of this form of music within the mainstream.
- Main article: List of electronic music genres
Electronic music, especially in the late 1990s fractured into many genres, styles and sub-styles, too many to list here, and most of which are included in the main list. Although there are no hard and fast boundaries, broadly speaking we can identify the experimental and classical styles: electronic art music, musique concrète; the industrial music and synth pop styles of the 1980s; styles that are primarily intended for dance such as italo disco, techno, house, trance, electro, breakbeat, drum and bass and styles that are intended more as experimental styles or for home listening such as IDM, glitch and trip-hop. The proliferation of personal computers beginning in the 1980s brought about a new genre of electronic music, known loosely as chip music or bitpop. These styles, produced initially using specialized sound chips in PCs such as the Commodore 64, grew primarily out of the demoscene. The latter categories such as IDM, glitch and chip music share much in common with the art and musique concrète styles which predate it by several decades.
Notable artists and DJs
With the explosive growth of computers music technology and consequent reduction in the cost of equipment in the late 1990s, the number of artists and DJs working within electronic music is overwhelming. With the advent of hard disk recording systems, it is possible for any home computer user to become a musician, and hence the rise in the number of "bedroom bands", often consisting of a single person. Nevertheless notable artists can still be identified. Within the experimental and classical or "art" traditions still working today are Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and Steve Reich. The genre of ambient electronic music was formed at the turn of the 1970s in Germany by Popol Vuh, Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream. Influential musicians in industrial and later synth pop styles include Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire (both now defunct), the Human League and Kraftwerk who released their first album in over a decade in 2003. In house, techno and drum and bass pioneers such as Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Goldie, A Guy Called Gerald and LTJ Bukem are still active as of 2003. Commercially successful artists working under the "electronica" rubric such as Fatboy Slim, Faithless, Fluke, The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, The Crystal Method, Massive Attack, The Prodigy, Orbital, Propellerheads, Underworld, Überzone, Björk and Moby continue to release albums and perform regularly (sometimes in stadium-sized arenas, such has the popularity of electronic dance music grown). Some DJs such as Paul Oakenfold, John Digweed, Paul van Dyk, Armin van Buuren, Ferry Corsten and Tijs Verwest (aka Tiësto) have reached true superstar status and can command five-figure salaries for a single performance. They perform for hours on end mixing their music into pre-recorded singles. Some DJs have world wide Radio, and internet, broadcasted shows that air weekly. Such as A State Of Trance, a show mixed by Armin van Buuren. The critically acclaimed Autechre and Aphex Twin continue to put out challenging records of (mostly) home-listening music. On a more popular scale, Michael Jackson used to be heavily engaged in creating unique timbres, many of which were created electronically.
Notable record labels
Until the 1980s, there were virtually no record labels that deal with exclusively electronic music. Because of this dearth of outlets, many of the early techno pioneers started their own. For example, Juan Atkins started Metroplex Records a Detroit-based label, and Richie Hawtin started his hugely influential Plus 8 imprint. In the United Kingdom Warp Records emerged in the 1990s as one of the pre-eminent sources of home-listening and experimental music. Later arrivals include Astralwerks, Ninja Tune, Tiesto's Black Hole Recordings and Oakenfold's Perfecto Record label.
Electronic music press
United States magazine sources include the Los Angeles based Urb, BPM Magazine and San Francisco based XLR8R and other magazines such as e/i and Grooves. British electronic music sources include the London-based magazine The Wire (a monthly publication), DJ, Mixmag, Knowledge, Computer Music, Music Tech Magazine and Future Music. German magazine sources include Spex as well as Berlin-based De:bug.
Electronic music in movies
Here is a short list of movies where electronic music plays a leading role
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Primorsky Boulevard (1988)
Better Living Through Circuitry (1999) - Rave documentary.
Human Traffic (1999)
Kevin & Perry Go Large (2000)
Stark Raving Mad (2002)
24 Hour Party People (2002)
It's All Gone Pete Tong (2004)
Moog (2004) - Documentary about Robert Moog.
Party Monster (2003)
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- History of electronic musical instruments
- History of electronic music
- History of electronic music (in french)
- Synthesizer museum and magazine.
- User built database about electronic music (e.discogs.com)
- pHinnWeb/history - Long list of links relating to electronic music history.
- Art of the States: electronic - Small collection of electronic works by American composers
- Best Download Ring Tones