Electronic musical instrument

An electronic musical instrument is a musical instrument that produces its sounds using electronics. In contrast, the term electric instrument is used to mean instruments whose sound is produced mechanically, and only amplified electronically - for example an electric guitar. Usually the instrument will have some way of controlling the sound, such as by adjusting the pitch, frequency, or duration of each note.

All electric and electronic musical instruments can be viewed as a subset of audio signal processing applications. Simple electronic musical instruments are sometimes called sound effects; the border between sound effects and actual musical instruments is often hazy.

French composer and engineer Edgar Var賥 created a variety of compositions using electronic horns, whistles, and tape. Most notably, he wrote Po譥 ɬectronique for the Phillips pavilion at the Brussels World Fair in 1951.

Electronic musical instruments are now widely used in most styles of music.

Early electronic musical instruments

In the broadest sense, the very first electrified musical instrument was the Denis d?or dating from 1753. It was followed by the Clavecin 鬥ctrique by the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste de Laborde in 1761.

The first purely electronic musical instrument was the Telharmonium, built by Thaddeus Cahill in 1906. Employing electric generators and tonewheels to produce notes, it had a length of 60ft and a weight of 200 tons; because of a lack of suitable loudspeakers at that time, the music was distributed over the telephone network.

One of the many instruments constructed in the following decades was the Theremin, invented by Leon Theremin in 1917, which used a vacuum tube oscillator to make sounds that depended on the interactions of the user with an RF field. This was followed in 1928 by the Ondes Martenot which had a keyboard as well as several auxiliary controllers.

The sound of the Ondes Martenot is used extensively in the Turangal-Symphonie and other works by Olivier Messiaen. However, these were not true synthesizers in the modern sense, as they were not configurable to produce a range of complex sounds by additive or subtractive synthesis, instead generating single pure tones with controllable pitch, amplitude and vibrato.

Ca. 1929 Friedrich Trautwein invented the Trautonium in Berlin. It was played with a resistorwire which has to be pressed against a metal plate. Oskar Sala was one of the first players and continued development until his death in 2002. Paul Hindemith wrote some compositions for it.

These early electronic instruments produced only pure tones and were frequently used to make avant garde music. In April 1935, Laurens Hammond introduced the Hammond tonewheel organ, which generated complex tones using an electro-mechanical principle derived from the design of the Telharmonium. Later Hammonds used the Leslie speaker to achieve special modulation effects, and the resulting Hammond organ sound is still regarded as the benchmark for the "electric organ" sound. This sound can be simulated by many modern synthesizers and digital samplers.


The most commonly used electronic instruments are synthesizers, so-called because they artificially generate sound using techniques such as additive, subtractive, FM and physical modelling synthesis to create sounds.

Dr. Robert Moog introduced the first practical commercial modern music synthesizer with his Moog synthesizer. This instrument used a series of tone generators with keys that would adjust the tone generators' pitch. To gain enough money to engineer this synthesizer, Moog sold Theremins, a very peculiar instrument that uses no switches to trigger pitch or volume, relying instead upon a pair of antennae and the variable capacitance occasioned by the presence of the instrumentalist's hands.

The first digital synthesizers were academic experiments in sound synthesis using digital computers. FM synthesis was developed for this purpose, as a way of generating complex sounds digitally with the smallest number of computational operations per sound sample.


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