Electronic music

Electronic music
Electronic art music
Synth pop

Electronic music is a loose term for music created using electronic equipment. Any sound produced by the means of an electrical signal may reasonably be called electronic, and the term is sometimes used that way -- in music where acoustic performance is the norm, even the introduction of electronic amplifiers may touch off discussions of electronic music (jazz and folk music, for example, have gone through a good deal of argument about the topic).

As a category of criticism and marketing, however, electronic music refers to music produced largely by electronic components, such as synthesizers, samplers, computers, and drum machines. Theoretically, the music could include any of an array of other "instruments". Electronic music may also be referred to as computer music because software has allowed manipulated sounds to be processed and sequenced digitally and conveniently, in contrast to analog synthesizers that use electrical hardware to manipulate signals.



Late 19th century early 20th century

The earliest purely electronic instrument was the Teleharmonium or Telharmonium, 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 practical 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 and Andre Jolivet.

Post-war years: 1940s to 1950s

Main articles: History of electronic art music, Musique concrète

In the years following World War II, Electronic music was embraced by progressive composers, and was hailed as a way to exceed the limits of traditional instruments. Modern Electronic composition is considered to have begun in force with the development of musique concrète and tape recorders in 1948, only to rapidly evolve with the creation of early analog synthesizers. 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.

The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City (now the Computer Music Center) was founded in 1959 by Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening. They had been working with magnetic tape manipulation since the early 1950s, and a studio was built there with the help of engineer Peter Mauzey. RCA contributed the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer which used vacuum tube oscillators and incorporated the first electronic music sequencer. This became the center for American electronic music until about 1980. Robert Moog developed voltage controlled oscillators and envelope generators while there, which became the heart of the Moog synthesizer.

Max Mathews began using computers to create music at Bell Laboratories in 1957. Other well-known composers in this field include Edgar Varèse and Steve Reich. (See the main article on Electronic art music for more information.)

1960s to late 1970s

Missing image
Delia Derbyshire recording electronic music in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

At the Radiophonic Workshop, the sound special effects unit of the BBC, Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire created one of the first electronic signature tunes for television as the theme music for Doctor Who in 1963. A short OGG file sample of this can be found here.

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. In the 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 also, 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.

Moog was not the only early synthesizer developer. On the West Coast, Donald Buchla developed synthesizers that, unlike the Moog, were not keyboard-based.

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, 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, Brian Eno, Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre, the Japanese composers Isao Tomita, 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

Main articles: History of industrial music, Electropop

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 Heaven 17, Severed Heads, The Human League, Yazoo, The Art of Noise, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, 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. 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-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

Main articles: History of techno, History of house, History of trance

The development of the techno sound in Detroit and house music in Chicago in the early to late 1980s, and the later UK-based acid house movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s all fuelled 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 (samples) of traditional instruments and vocals. See dance music.

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. In the 1990s, a Turkish electronic musician, Murat Ses, published his electronic works, which incorporated original Levantine, Central Asian, Anatolian musics in a so-called trilogy with the concept: "The Timeless and Boundariless Context of Culture and Civilization". Brazilian musician, Alexandre Bischof, by contrast, with his "Dark Lounge" has taken modern electronic music far from his country's Samba roots, to a sophisticated and sombre place.



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 techno, house, trance, 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 style, 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

Main article: List of electronic music 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 possbile 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. Influential musicians in industrial and later synth pop styles include Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire (both now defunct), Tangerine Dream, 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, the Chemical Brothers, The Crystal Method, Massive Attack, The Prodigy, Underworld 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 and John Digweed have reached true superstar status and can command five-figure salaries for a single performance. The critically acclaimed Autechre and Aphex Twin continue to put out challenging records of (mostly) home-listening music.

Notable record labels

Main article: List of electronic music 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 such as Juan Atkins started Metroplex Records a Detroit-based label, and Richie Hawtin started his hugely influential Plus8 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, and Oakenfold's Perfecto Record label.

Electronic music press

United States magazine sources include the Los Angeles-based Urb and San Francisco-based XLR8R, e/i and Grooves. British electronic music sources include the London-based magazine the Wire (a monthly publication), DJ, JockeySlut, Mixmag, Knowledge Magazine and Future Music. German magazine sources include Spex as well as Berlin-based De:bug.

See also


  • Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, John Bush (editors) All Music Guide to Electronica: The Definitive Guide to Electronic Music (AMG All Music Guide Series), Backbeat Books, 2001 ISBN 0879306289
  • Ben Kettlewell Electronic Music Pioneers, ArtistPro.com, 2001 ISBN 1931140170
  • Iara Lee, Peter Shapiro (editor), Simon Reynolds Modulations: A History of Electronic Music: Throbbing Words on Sound Distributed Art Publishers, 2000 ISBN 189102406X
  • Mark Prendergast The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Trance: The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age, Bloomsbury, 2001 ISBN 0747542139, ISBN 1582341346 (hardcover eds.) ISBN 1582343233 (paper)
  • Simon Reynolds Energy Flash: a Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (UK title, Pan Macmillan, 1998, ISBN 0330350560), also released in US as Generation Ecstasy : Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture (US title, Routledge, 1999, ISBN 0415923735)
  • John Schaefer New Sounds: A Listener's Guide to New Music HarperCollins, 1987 ISBN 0060970812
  • Dan Sicko Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, Billboard Books, 1999 ISBN 0823084280

External links


fr:Musique électronique hu:Elektronikus zene pl:Muzyka elektroniczna pt:Música eletrônica fi:Elektroninen musiikki sv:Elektronisk musik zh-tw:電子音樂 ja:電子音楽 he:מוזיקה_אלקטרונית


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