The history of electronic music in a concise overview


The history of electronic music is a long one. This article highlights the milestones, thus providing a concise overview.


Electronic music is music that employs electronic musical instruments and electronic music technology in its production. The electronic musician is the person who composes and/or performs such music. In general, we can make a distinction between sound produced using electromechanical means and sound produced using electronic technology. Examples of electromechanical sound producing devices include the telharmonium, Hammond organ and the electric guitar. We can achieve purely electronic sound production using devices such as the Theremin, sound synthesizer and computer.

The first electronic devices for performing music in the history of electronic music, were developed at the end of the 19th century. Shortly afterward Italian Futurists explored sounds that had previously not been considered musical. During the 1920s and 1930s, electronic instruments were introduced and the first compositions for electronic instruments were composed. By the 1940s, magnetic audio tape allowed musicians to tape sounds and then modify them by changing the tape speed or direction. This led to the development of electroacoustic tape music in the 1940s in Egypt and France. Musique concrète, created in Paris in 1948, was based on editing together recorded fragments of natural and industrial sounds. Music produced solely from electronic generators was first produced in Germany in 1953. In the beginning of the 1950s people in Japan and the United States also created electronic music .


An important development

An important new development was the advent of computers for the purpose of composing music. In 1951 in Australia the first algorithmic composition took place. In America and Europe, the pioneering of live electronics started in the early 1960s. During the 1970s to early 1980s, the monophonic Minimoog became once the most widely used synthesizer at that time in both popular and electronic art music.

In the 1970s, electronic music began having a significant influence on popular music. Genres such as krautrock, disco, new wave and synthpop emerged. They adopted polyphonic synthesizers, electronic drums and drum machines. In the 1980s, electronic music became more dominant in popular music. Popular music relied more and more on synthesizers, programmable drum machines and bass synthesizers. Digital technologies for synthesizers including digital synthesizers became popular in the early 1980s. A group of musicians and music merchants developed the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI).

Electronically produced music became prevalent in the popular domain by the 1990s, because of the advent of affordable music technology. Contemporary electronic music includes many varieties and ranges from experimental art music to popular forms such as electronic dance music. Today, pop electronic music is most recognizable in its 4/4 form. It’s vastly more connected with the mainstream culture as opposed to its preceding forms which were specialized to niche markets.


1. Late 19th century to early 20th century


Front page of Scientific American in 1907 - Electronic music of Brainvoyager

The front page of Scientific American in 1907, demonstrating the size, operation and popularity of the Telharmonium.


At the turn of the 20th century, experimentation with emerging electronics led to the first electronic musical instruments. These initial inventions were not sold, but were instead used in demonstrations and public performances. The audiences were presented with reproductions of existing music instead of new compositions for the instruments. While some were considered novelties and produced simple tones, the Telharmonium accurately synthesized the sound of orchestral instruments. It achieved viable public interest and made commercial progress into streaming music through telephone networks.

Critics of musical conventions at the time saw promise in these developments. Ferruccio Busoni encouraged the composition of microtonal music allowed for by electronic instruments. He predicted the use of machines in future music, writing the influential Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music. Futurists such as Francesco Balilla Pratella and Luigi Russolo began composing music with acoustic noise. Thus, they wanted to evoke the sound of machinery. They predicted expansions in timbre allowed for by electronics in the influential manifesto The Art of Noises.


1.1. Early compositions

History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Léon Theremin demonstrating the theremin in 1927

Léon Theremin demonstrating the
theremin in 1927.

Developments of the vacuum tube led to electronic instruments that were smaller, amplified and more practical for performance. In particular, the Theremin, Ondes Martenot and trautonium were commercially produced by the early 1930s.

From the late 1920s, the increased practicality of electronic instruments influenced composers such as Joseph Schillinger to adopt them. They were typically used within orchestras. Most composers wrote parts for the Theremin that could otherwise be performed with string instruments.

Avant-garde composers criticized the predominant use of electronic instruments for conventional purposes. The instruments offered expansions in pitch resources. Advocates of microtonal music such as Charles Ives, Dimitrios Levidis, Olivier Messiaen and Edgard Varese, exploited these. Further, Percy Grainger used the Theremin to abandon fixed tonation entirely. But Russian composers such as Gavriil Popov treated it as a source of noise in otherwise-acoustic noise music.


1.2. Recording experiments

Developments in early recording technology paralleled that of electronic instruments. The mechanical phonograph was the first invention of means to record and reproduce audio. This was in the late 19th century. Record players became a common household item. By the 1920s composers were using them to play short recordings in performances.

Increased experimentation with record players followed the introduction of electronic recording in 1925. Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch composed several pieces in 1930 by layering recordings of instruments and vocals at adjusted speeds. Influenced by these techniques, John Cage composed “Imaginary Landscape No. 1” in 1939 by adjusting the speeds of recorded tones.

Concurrently, composers began to experiment with newly-developed sound-on-film technology. Recordings could be spliced together to create sound collages. Examples of this are recordings by Tristan Tzara, Kurt Schwitters, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Walter Ruttmann and Dziga Vertov. Further, the technology allowed sound to be graphically created and modified. These techniques were used to compose soundtracks for several films in Germany and Russia, in addition to the popular Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the United States. Experiments with graphical sound were continued by Norman McLaren from the late 1930s.


2. Development: 1940s to 1950s


2.1. Electroacoustic tape music


2.1.1. Audio tape recorder

The first practical audio tape recorder was unveiled in 1935. Improvements to the technology were made using the AC biasing technique, which significantly improved recording fidelity. As early as 1942, test recordings were being made in stereo. Although these developments were initially confined to Germany, recorders and tapes were brought to the United States following the end of World War II. These were the basis for the first commercially-produced tape recorder in 1948.

Magnetic audio tape opened up a vast new range of sonic possibilities to musicians, composers, producers and engineers. Audio tape was relatively cheap and very reliable. Its fidelity of reproduction was better than any audio medium to date. Most importantly, unlike discs, it offered the same plasticity of use as film. You can slow down tape, speed it up or even run it backwards during recording or playback, often with startling effects. It is possible to edit tape physically in much the same way as film. This allows for seamlessly removing or replacing unwanted sections of a recording. Likewise, you can edit in segments of tape from other sources. You can also join tape to form endless loops that continually play repeated patterns of pre-recorded material.


2.1.2. Audio amplification

Audio amplification and mixing equipment further expanded tape’s capabilities as a production medium. As a result, it became possible to mix together multiple pre-taped recordings (and/or live sounds, speech or music). Finally, it allowed simultaneously recording onto another tape with relatively little loss of fidelity. Another unforeseen windfall was the possibility of relatively easily modifying tape recorders to become echo machines. That way they can produce complex, controllable, high-quality echo and reverberation effects. Most of these effects would be practically impossible to achieve by mechanical means.

The spread of tape recorders eventually led to the development of electroacoustic tape music. The first known example was composed in 1944 by Halim El-Dabh, a student at Cairo, Egypt. He recorded the sounds of an ancient zaar ceremony using a cumbersome wire recorder. At the Middle East Radio studios he processed the material using reverberation, echo, voltage controls, and re-recording. The resulting work was entitled The Expression of Zaar. The presentation was in 1944 at an art gallery event in Cairo. El-Dabh’s initial experiments in tape based composition were not widely known outside of Egypt at that time. But El-Dabh is also notable for his later work in electronic music at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in the late 1950s.


History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Pierre Schaeffer presenting the Acousmonium (1974)

Pierre Schaeffer presenting the Acousmonium (1974) that was consisted of 80 loudspeakers for tape playback, at GRM.


History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Phonogene (1953) at GRMC

Phonogene (1953), a tape machine for modifying the sound structure, developed by Pierre Schaeffer et al. at GRMC.


2.2. Musique concrète


2.2.1. A new technique

It wasn’t long before composers in Paris also began using the tape recorder to develop a new technique for composition. The name of this technique was ‘musique concrète’ and involved editing together recorded fragments of natural and industrial sounds. The first pieces of musique concrète in Paris were assembled by Pierre Schaeffer. He went on to collaborate with Pierre Henry.


2.2.2. Radiodiffusion Française

On 5 October 1948, Radiodiffusion Française (RDF) broadcast composer Pierre Schaeffer’s Etude aux chemins de fer. This was the first “movement” of Cinq études de bruits. It marked the beginning of studio realizations and musique concrète (or acousmatic art). Schaeffer employed a disk-cutting lathe, four turntables, a four-channel mixer, filters, an echo chamber and a mobile recording unit. Not long after this, Henry began collaborating with Schaeffer. It was a partnership that would have profound and lasting effects on the direction of electronic music. Another associate of Schaeffer, Edgard Varèse, began work on Déserts, a work for chamber orchestra and tape. The tape parts were created at Pierre Schaeffer’s studio, and were later revised at Columbia University.

In 1950, Schaeffer gave the first public (non-broadcast) concert of musique concrète at the École Normale de Musique de Paris. Schaeffer used a PA system, several turntables and mixers. The performance did not go well, as creating live montages with turntables had never been done before. Later that same year, Pierre Henry collaborated with Schaeffer on Symphonie pour un homme seul (1950) the first major work of musique concrete. In Paris in 1951, in what was to become an important worldwide trend, RTF established the first studio for the production of electronic music. Also in 1951, Schaeffer and Henry produced an opera, Orpheus, for concrete sounds and voices.


2.3. Elektronische Musik

In Cologne (Germany) the radio studios of the NWDR officially opened in 1953. It would become the most famous electronic music studio in the world. This studio was the brain child of Werner Meyer-Eppler, Robert Beyer and Herbert Eimert (who became its first director). It was soon joined by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael Koenig. The year 1949 was the year in which Meyer-Eppler wrote his thesis Elektronische Klangerzeugung: Elektronische Musik und Synthetische Sprache. In his thesis he conceived the idea to synthesize music entirely from electronically produced signals. This way, elektronische Musik was sharply differentiated from French musique concrète, which used sounds recorded from acoustical sources.


History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Karlheinz Stockhausen in the Electronic Music Studio of WDR

Karlheinz Stockhausen in the Electronic Music Studio of WDR, Cologne, in 1991.


With Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel in residence, it became a year-round hive of charismatic avante-gardism. This refers to two occasions that combined electronically generated sounds with relatively conventional orchestras. In Mixtur (1964) and Hymnen, dritte Region mit Orchester (1967), Stockhausen stated that his listeners had told him his electronic music gave them an experience of “outer space”. They had sensations of flying, or being in a “fantastic dream world”. More recently, Stockhausen turned to producing electronic music in his own studio in Kürten. His last work in the medium was Cosmic Pulses (2007).


2.4. Contributions from Japan

History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Yamaha Magna Organ (1935)

Yamaha Magna Organ (1935).

History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Designated tone cabinet for Yamaha Magna Organ

Designated tone cabinet for Yamaha Magna Organ (1935).

2.4.1. Yamaha Magna Organ

The earliest electronic musical instruments in Japan, Yamaha Magna Organ were built in 1935. However, after World War II, Japanese composers such as Minao Shibata were aware of farther developments of electronic musical instruments. By the late 1940s, Japanese composers began experimenting with electronic music. Institutional sponsorship enabled them to experiment with cutting-edge equipment. Their infusion of Asian music into the emerging genre would eventually support Japan’s domination in the development of music technology several decades later.

Following the foundation of electronics company Sony in 1946, composers Toru Takemitsu and Minao Shibata independently conceived possible uses for electronic technology to produce music. Takemitsu had ideas similar to that of musique concrète, which he was initially unaware of. Shibata foresaw the development of synthesizers and predicted a drastic change in music. Sony began producing popular magnetic tape recorders for government and public use.

The avant-garde collective Jikken Kōbō (Experimental Workshop), founded in 1950, was offered access to emerging audio technology by Sony. The company hired Toru Takemitsu to demonstrate their tape recorders with compositions and performances of electronic tape music. The first electronic tape pieces by the group were “Toraware no Onna” (“Imprisoned Woman”) and “Piece B”. They were composed in 1951 by Kuniharu Akiyama. Many of the electroacoustic tape pieces they produced were used as incidental music for radio, film, and theatre. They also held concerts employing a slide show synchronized with a recorded soundtrack. There were also composers outside of the Jikken Kōbō. Among them were Yasushi Akutagawa, Saburo Tominaga and Shirō Fukai. They were also experimenting with radiophonic tape music between 1952 and 1953.


2.4.2. Toshiro Mayuzumi
History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Toshiro Mayuzumi

Toshiro Mayuzumi (1929-1997)

Musique concrète was introduced to Japan by Toshiro Mayuzumi, who was influenced by a Pierre Schaeffer concert. From 1952, he composed tape music pieces for a comedy film, a radio broadcast, and a radio drama. However, Schaeffer’s concept of sound object was not influential among Japanese composers. They were mainly interested in overcoming the restrictions of human performance. This led to several Japanese electroacoustic musicians making use of serialism and twelve-tone techniques. They are evident in Yoshirō Irino’s 1951 dodecaphonic piece “Concerto da Camera”. But also in the organization of electronic sounds in Mayuzumi’s “X, Y, Z for Musique Concrète”, and later in Shibata’s electronic music by 1956.


2.4.3. NHK Studio

Modelling the NWDR studio in Cologne, NHK established an electronic music studio in Tokyo in 1955. This studio became one of the world’s leading electronic music facilities. The NHK Studio was equipped with technologies such as tone-generating and audio processing equipment, recording and radiophonic equipment, Ondes Martenot, Monochord and Melochord, sine-wave oscillators, tape recorders, ring modulators, band-pass filters and four- and eight-channel mixers. Musicians associated with the studio included Toshiro Mayuzumi, Minao Shibata, Joji Yuasa, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Toru Takemitsu. The studio’s first electronic compositions were completed in 1955. They included Mayuzumi’s five-minute pieces: “Studie I – Music for Sine Wave by Proportion of Prime Number”, “Music for Modulated Wave by Proportion of Prime Number” and “Invention for Square Wave and Sawtooth Wave”. They were produced by using the studio’s various tone-generating capabilities and Shibata’s 20-minute stereo piece “Musique Concrète for Stereophonic Broadcast”.


2.5. Contributions from the United States

In the United States, electronic music was being created as early as 1939. That year John Cage published Imaginary Landscape, No. 1. He used two variable-speed turntables, frequency recordings, a muted piano and cymbal. He used no electronic means of production. Cage composed five more “Imaginary Landscapes” between 1942 and 1952 (one withdrawn). They were mostly for percussion ensemble, though No. 4 is for twelve radios and No. 5 (written in 1952) uses 42 recordings and is to be realized as a magnetic tape. According to Otto Luening, Cage also performed Williams Mix at Donaueschingen in 1954, using eight loudspeakers. That was three years after his alleged collaboration. Williams Mix was a success at the Donaueschingen Festival, where it made a “strong impression”.

The Music for Magnetic Tape Project was formed by members of the New York School. The members of the project were John Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, David Tudor and Morton Feldman. The project lasted three years until 1954. Cage wrote of this collaboration:

In this social darkness, therefore, the work of Earle Brown, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff continues to present a brilliant light, for the reason that at the several points of notation, performance, and audition, action is provocative.


Cage completed Williams Mix in 1953 while working with the Music for Magnetic Tape Project. The group had no permanent facility. They had to rely on borrowed time in commercial sound studios, including the studio of Louis and Bebe Barron.


2.6. Columbia-Princeton Center


2.6.1. Ampex machine

In the same year Columbia University purchased its first tape recorder –a professional Ampex machine– for the purpose of recording concerts. Vladimir Ussachevsky was on the music faculty of Columbia University. He was placed in charge of the device and almost immediately began experimenting with it. Herbert Russcol wrote:

Soon he was intrigued with the new sonorities he could achieve. He recorded musical instruments and then superimposed them on one another.


Ussachevsky said later:

I suddenly realized that the tape recorder could be treated as an instrument of sound transformation.


On Thursday, May 8, 1952, Ussachevsky presented several demonstrations of tape music/effects that he created at his Composers Forum. That was in the McMillin Theatre at Columbia University. These included Transposition, Reverberation, Experiment, Composition and Underwater Valse. In an interview he stated:

I presented a few examples of my discovery in a public concert in New York together with other compositions I had written for conventional instruments.


Otto Luening had attended this concert. He remarked:

The equipment at his disposal consisted of an Ampex tape recorder and a simple box-like device. The box-like device was designed by Peter Mauzey and enabled him to create feedback, a form of mechanical reverberation. Other equipment was borrowed or purchased with personal funds.


2.6.2. Luening’s experiments

Just three months later, in August 1952, Ussachevsky traveled to Bennington, Vermont at Luening’s invitation to present his experiments. There, the two collaborated on various pieces. Luening described the event:

Equipped with earphones and a flute, I began developing my first tape-recorder composition. Both of us were fluent improvisors and the medium fired our imaginations.


They played some early pieces informally at a party. A number of composers there congratulated them almost solemnly, saying, ‘This is it’ (‘it’ meaning the music of the future).

Word quickly reached New York City. Oliver Daniel telephoned and invited the pair to produce a group of short compositions for the October concert. The October concert was sponsored by the American Composers Alliance and Broadcast Music, Inc. It was under the direction of Leopold Stokowski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After some hesitation, they agreed. Henry Cowell placed his home and studio in Woodstock, New York, at their disposal. With the borrowed equipment in the back of Ussachevsky’s car, they left Bennington for Woodstock and stayed two weeks. In late September, 1952, the travelling laboratory reached Ussachevsky’s living room in New York, where they eventually completed the compositions.


2.6.3. Tape Music concert

Two months later, on October 28, Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening presented the first Tape Music concert in the United States. The concert included Luening’s Fantasy in Space (1952). It was an impressionistic virtuoso piece, using manipulated recordings of flute. The concert also included Low Speed (1952). Low Speed is an exotic composition that took the flute far below its natural range. Both pieces were created at the home of Henry Cowell in Woodstock, New York. After several concerts caused a sensation in New York City, Ussachevsky and Luening were invited onto a live broadcast of NBC’s Today Show. They were asked to do an interview demonstration. It was the first televised electroacoustic performance. Luening described this event:

I improvised some sequences for the tape recorder. Ussachevsky then and there put them through electronic transformations.


2.6.4. Varèse’s Déserts

1954 saw the advent of what would now be considered authentic electric plus acoustic compositions. It was an acoustic instrumentation augmented/accompanied by recordings of manipulated and/or electronically generated sound. Three major works were premiered that year. One was Varèse’s Déserts, for chamber ensemble and tape sounds. Two were works by Luening and Ussachevsky: Rhapsodic Variations for the Louisville Symphony and A Poem in Cycles and Bells. Both for orchestra and tape. Because he had been working at Schaeffer’s studio, the tape part for Varèse’s work contained much more concrete sounds than electronic. It was a group made up of wind instruments, percussion and piano alternates. It had mutated sounds of factory noises, ship sirens and motors, coming from two loudspeakers.

The German premiere of Déserts in Hamburg was conducted by Bruno Maderna. The tape controls were operated by Karlheinz Stockhausen. The title Déserts, suggested to Varèse not only all physical deserts like sand, sea, snow, outer space and empty streets. It also suggested the deserts in the mind of man. And it suggested not only those stripped aspects of nature that suggest bareness, aloofness and timelessness. It also suggested that remote inner space no telescope can reach, where man is alone; a world of mystery and essential loneliness.


2.6.5. RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer

In 1958, Columbia-Princeton developed the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, the first programmable synthesizer. This device was actually a special-purpose, digitally controlled analogue computer. It was the first electronic music synthesizer in which not only a large range of sounds could be produced and sequenced but also be programmed by the user. This programming feature had a profound influence on the nature of Babbitt’s electronic music. Prominent composers such as Vladimir Ussachevsky, Otto Luening, Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, Halim El-Dabh, Bülent Arel and Mario Davidovsky used the RCA Synthesizer extensively in various compositions.

One of the most influential composers associated with the early years of the studio, was Egypt’s Halim El-Dabh. He had developed the earliest known electronic tape music in 1944. After this he became more famous for Leiyla and the Poet. This was a 1959 series of electronic compositions that stood out for its immersion and seamless fusion of electronic and folk music. This aspect contrasted the more mathematical approach used by serial composers of the time such as Babbitt. El-Dabh’s Leiyla and the Poet was released as part of the album Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1961. This music would be cited as a strong influence by a number of musicians. Among them were Neil Rolnick, Charles Amirkhanian, Alice Shields, Frank Zappa and The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.


2.7. Stochastic music

An important new development was the advent of computers for the purpose of composing music, as opposed to manipulating or creating sounds. Iannis Xenakis began what is called musique stochastique, or stochastic music. This is a composing method that uses mathematical probability systems. Different probability algorithms were used to create a piece under a set of parameters. Xenakis used computers to compose pieces like ST/4 for string quartet and ST/48 for orchestra (both 1962), Morsima-Amorsima, ST/10 and Atrées. He developed the computer system UPIC for translating graphical images into musical results and composed Mycènes Alpha (1978) with it.


2.8. Mid to late 1950s


2.8.1. Elektronische Studie II
History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - CSIRAC

CSIRAC, Australia’s first digital computer,
displayed at the Melbourne Museum.

In 1954, Stockhausen composed his Elektronische Studie II. It was the first electronic piece to be published as a score. In 1955, more experimental and electronic studios began to appear. Notable was the creation of a number of studios. Among them were the Studio di fonologia musicale di Radio Milano, a studio at the NHK in Tokyo founded by Toshiro Mayuzumi and the Philips studio at Eindhoven, the Netherlands. The latter one moved to the University of Utrecht as the Institute of Sonology in 1960.

The score for Forbidden Planet, by Louis and Bebe Barron, was entirely composed using custom built electronic circuits and tape recorders in 1956.

The world’s first computer to play music was CSIRAC, which was designed and built by Trevor Pearcey and Maston Beard. Mathematician Geoff Hill programmed the CSIRAC to play popular musical melodies from the very early 1950s. In 1951 it publicly played the Colonel Bogey March, of which no known recordings exist. However, CSIRAC played standard repertoire and was not used to extend musical thinking or composition practice. CSIRAC was never recorded, but the music played was accurately reconstructed. The oldest known recordings of computer-generated music were played by the Ferranti Mark 1 computer. That was a commercial version of the Baby Machine from the University of Manchester in the autumn of 1951. The music program was written by Christopher Strachey.


2.8.2. Illiac Suite

The impact of computers continued in 1956. Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson composed Illiac Suite for string quartet. It was the first complete work of computer-assisted composition using algorithmic composition. Hiller postulated that a computer could be taught the rules of a particular style and then called on to compose accordingly. Later developments included the work of Max Mathews at Bell Laboratories. He developed the influential MUSIC I program in 1957, one of the first computer programs to play electronic music. Vocoder technology was also a major development in this early era. In 1956, Stockhausen composed Gesang der Jünglinge, the first major work of the Cologne studio. It was based on a text from the Book of Daniel. An important technological development of that year was the invention of the Clavivox synthesizer by Raymond Scott. Robert Moog did the subassembly.

Also in 1957, Kid Baltan (Dick Raaymakers) and Tom Dissevelt released their debut album. That was Song Of The Second Moon, recorded at the Philips studio. The public remained interested in the new sounds being created around the world. This can be deduced by the inclusion of Varèse’s Poème électronique. This piece was played over four hundred loudspeakers at the Philips Pavilion of the 1958 Brussels World Fair. That same year, Mauricio Kagel, an Argentine composer, composed Transición II. The work was realized at the WDR studio in Cologne. Two musicians performed on a piano, one in the traditional manner, the other playing on the strings, frame and case. Two other performers used tape to unite the presentation of live sounds with the future of prerecorded materials.


2.8.3. Oramics

In 1957 musician Daphne Oram designed Oramics. Oramics is a drawn sound technique. The machine was further developed in 1962 after receiving a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation. The technique, similar to Yevgeny Sholpo’s “Variophone”, involves drawing on 35mm film strips to control the sound produced. Oramics was also the name used by Oram to refer to her studio and business interests generally.

Oram’s composition machine consisted of a large rectangular metal frame. It provided a table-like surface traversed by ten synchronised strips of clear, sprocketed 35mm film. The musician drew shapes on the film to create a mask, which modulated the light received by photocells. Although the output from the machine was monophonic, the sounds could be added to multitrack tapes to provide more texture. The original machine was exhibited at the Science Museum in London between 2011 and 2015.

The technique has similarities to that used by Scottish filmmaker Norman McLaren. Some of his films featured sounds created by drawing or printing various patterns. These patterns consisted of triangles and circles, along the optical soundtrack area of the film.

History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Daphne Oram

Daphne Oram


History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Daphne Oram and the Oramics machine

Daphne Oram and her Oramics machine.


3. Expansion: 1960s


3.1. The fertile years


3.1.1. Musicians

These were fertile years for electronic music; not just for academia, but for independent artists too. Synthesizer technology became more accessible. By this time, a strong community of composers and musicians working with new sounds and instruments was established and growing. 1960 witnessed the composition of Luening’s Gargoyles for violin and tape. Also, there was the premiere of Stockhausen’s Kontakte for electronic sounds, piano and percussion. This piece existed in two versions: one for 4-channel tape and the other for tape with human performers. In Kontakte, Stockhausen abandoned traditional musical form based on linear development and dramatic climax. This new approach, which he termed ‘moment form’, resembles the ‘cinematic splice’ techniques in early twentieth century film.


History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Dick Mills

Dick Mills, BBC Radiophonic Workshop (2009)


The Theremin had been in use since the 1920s. It attained a degree of popular recognition through its use in science-fiction film soundtrack music in the 1950s. E.g. Bernard Herrmann’s classic score for The Day the Earth Stood Still is a good example.

In the UK in this period, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (established in 1958) came to prominence. That happened thanks in large measure to their work on the BBC science-fiction series Doctor Who. One of the most influential British electronic artists in this period was Workshop staffer Delia Derbyshire. She is now famous for her 1963 electronic realisation of the iconic Doctor Who theme, composed by Ron Grainer.


3.1.2. Josef Tal

In 1961 Josef Tal established the Centre for Electronic Music in Israel at The Hebrew University. Hugh Le Caine arrived in Jerusalem in 1962 to install his Creative Tape Recorder in the centre. During the 1990s Tal conducted together with Dr. Shlomo Markel, in cooperation with the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and VolkswagenStiftung, a research project (Talmark). This project aimed at the development of a novel musical notation system for electronic music.


History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Josef Tal at the Electronic Music Studio in Jerusalem

Israeli composer Josef Tal at the Electronic Music Studio in Jerusalem (1965). On the right, Hugh Le Caine’s sound synthesizer the Special Purpose Tape Recorder.


Milton Babbitt composed his first electronic work using the synthesizer, his Composition for Synthesizer (1961). He created this piece using the RCA synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.

For Babbitt, the RCA synthesizer was a dream come true for three reasons. First, the ability to pinpoint and control every musical element precisely. Second, the time needed to realize his elaborate serial structures were brought within practical reach. Third, the question was no longer “What are the limits of the human performer?” but rather “What are the limits of human hearing?”

The collaborations also occurred across oceans and continents. In 1961, Ussachevsky invited Varèse to the Columbia-Princeton Studio (CPEMC). Upon arrival, Varèse embarked upon a revision of Déserts. He was assisted by Mario Davidovsky and Bülent Arel.

The intense activity occurring at CPEMC and elsewhere, inspired the establishment of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1963. Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender, Anthony Martin and Terry Riley were part of this establishment.

Later, the Center moved to Mills College, directed by Pauline Oliveros, where it is today known as the Center for Contemporary Music.


3.1.3. Audium

Simultaneously in San Francisco, composer Stan Shaff and equipment designer Doug McEachern, presented the first “Audium” concert at San Francisco State College (1962). It was followed by a work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1963). This work was conceived of as in time, controlled movement of sound in space. Twelve speakers surrounded the audience. Four speakers were mounted on a rotating, mobile-like construction above. In an SFMOMA performance the following year (1964), San Francisco Chronicle music critic Alfred Frankenstein commented: “the possibilities of the space-sound continuum have seldom been so extensively explored”.

In 1967, the first Audium, a “sound-space continuum” opened, holding weekly performances through 1970. Enabled by seed money from the National Endowment for the Arts, in 1975 a new Audium opened. It was designed from floor to ceiling for spatial sound composition and performance. “In contrast, there are composers who manipulated sound space by locating multiple speakers at various locations in a performance space. Then they switch or pan the sound between the sources. In this approach, the composition of spatial manipulation is dependent on the location of the speakers. It usually exploits the acoustical properties of the enclosure. An example is Varèse’s Poeme Electronique (tape music performed in the Philips Pavilion of the 1958 World Fair, Brussels). Another example is Stanley Schaff’s Audium installation, currently active in San Francisco”. Through weekly programs (over 4,500 in 40 years), Shaff ‘sculpts’ sound, performing now-digitized spatial works live through 176 speakers.


3.1.4. Moog modular

A well-known example of the use of Moog’s full-sized Moog modular synthesizer, is the Switched-On Bach album by Wendy Carlos. This album triggered a craze for synthesizer music.

Along with the Moog modular synthesizer, other makes of this period included ARP and Buchla.

Pietro Grossi was an Italian pioneer of computer composition and tape music. He first experimented with electronic techniques in the early sixties. Grossi was a cellist and composer, born in Venice in 1917. He founded the S 2F M (Studio de Fonologia Musicale di Firenze) in 1963 in order to experiment with electronic sound and composition.


3.2. Computer music

CSIRAC, the first computer to play music, did so publicly in August 1951. One of the first large-scale public demonstrations of computer music was a pre-recorded national radio broadcast. It was on the NBC radio network program Monitor on February 10, 1962. In 1961, LaFarr Stuart programmed Iowa State University’s CYCLONE computer. This computer was a derivative of the Illiac. The program played simple, recognizable tunes through an amplified speaker. The speaker had been attached to the system originally for administrative and diagnostic purposes. An interview with Mr. Stuart accompanied his computer music.

Laurie Spiegel is also notable for her development of “Music Mouse – an Intelligent Instrument” (1986) for Macintosh, Amiga and Atari computers. The intelligent-instrument name refers to the program’s built-in knowledge of chord and scale convention and stylistic constraints. She continued to update the program through Macintosh OS 9. As of 2012, it remained available for purchase or demo download from her website.

The late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s also saw the development of large mainframe computer synthesis. Starting in 1957, Max Mathews of Bell Labs developed the MUSIC programs. This culminated in MUSIC V, a direct digital synthesis language.


3.3. Live electronics

In Europe in 1964, Karlheinz Stockhausen composed Mikrophonie I. It was a piece for tam-tam, hand-held microphones, filters and potentiometers and Mixtur for orchestra, four sine-wave generators and four ring modulators. He composed Mikrophonie II for choir, Hammond organ and ring modulators in 1965.

In 1966–67, Reed Ghazala discovered and began to teach “circuit bending”. It was the application of the creative short circuit. This process of chance short-circuiting, creates experimental electronic instruments and explores sonic elements mainly of timbre. It did so with less regard to pitch or rhythm and was influenced by John Cage’s aleatoric music concept.


4. Popularization: 1970s to early 1980s


4.1. Synthesizers


Released in 1970 by Moog Music, the Mini-Moog was among the first widely available, portable and relatively affordable synthesizers. It became once the most widely used synthesizer at that time in both popular and electronic art music. Patrick Gleeson, playing live with Herbie Hancock in the beginning of the 1970s, pioneered the use of synthesizers in a touring context, where they were subject to stresses the early machines were not designed for.

History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Mini-Moog synthesizer

Mini-Moog synthesizer.

In 1974, the WDR studio in Cologne acquired an EMS Synthi 100 synthesizer. A number of composers used this synthesizer to produce notable electronic works. These works include Rolf Gehlhaar’s Fünf deutsche Tänze (1975), Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Sirius (1975–76) and John McGuire’s Pulse Music III (1978).

The early 1980s saw the rise of bass synthesizers. The most influential one was the Roland TB-303, a bass synthesizer and sequencer. In late 1981 Roland released this instrument.

This bass synthesizer later became a fixture in electronic dance music, particularly acid house. One of the first to use it was Charanjit Singh in 1982. However, it wouldn’t be popularized until Phuture’s “Acid Tracks” in 1987.


4.2. IRCAM, STEIM and Elektronmusikstudion


History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - IRCAM

IRCAM at the Place Igor Stravinsky, Paris.


In Paris IRCAM became a major center for computer music research and realization and development of the Sogitec 4X computer system. This system featured revolutionary real-time digital signal processing. Pierre Boulez’s Répons (1981) for 24 musicians and 6 soloists, used the 4X to transform and route soloists to a loudspeaker system.

STEIM is a center for research and development of new musical instruments in the electronic performing arts. The location of the center is Amsterdam, the Netherlands. STEIM has existed since 1969. It was founded by Misha Mengelberg, Louis Andriessen, Peter Schat, Dick Raaymakers, Jan van Vlijmen, Reinbert de Leeuw and Konrad Boehmer. This group of Dutch composers had fought for the reformation of Amsterdam’s feudal music structures. They insisted on Bruno Maderna’s appointment as musical director of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The group enforced the first public fundings for experimental and improvised electronic music in the Netherlands.

Elektronmusikstudion (EMS), formerly known as Electroacoustic Music in Sweden, is the Swedish national centre for electronic music and sound art. The research organisation started in 1964 and is based in Stockholm.


4.3. Rise of electronically created music


4.3.1. The use of electronic instruments

In the late 1960s, pop and rock musicians, including The Beach Boys and The Beatles, began to use electronic instruments. They began to use the Theremin and Mellotron, to supplement and define their sound. By the end of the decade, the Moog synthesizer took a leading place in the sound of emerging progressive rock. Bands including Pink Floyd, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Genesis made all these instruments part of their sound. Instrumental prog rock was particularly significant in continental Europe, allowing musicians and bands like Klaus Schulze, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Can and Faust to circumvent the language barrier. Their synthesiser-heavy “krautrock”, along with the work of Brian Eno (for a time the keyboard player with Roxy Music), would be a major influence on subsequent electronic rock.


History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Tangerine Dream

Tangerine Dream in the early 1970s. From left to right: Edgar Froese, Chris Franke and Peter Baumann


Several Japanese musicians also produced electronic rock, including Isao Tomita’s Electric Samurai: Switched on Rock (1972). It featured Moog synthesizer renditions of contemporary pop and rock songs and Osamu Kitajima’s progressive rock album Benzaiten (1974). The mid-1970s saw the rise of electronic art music musicians such as Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis and Tomita, who with Brian Eno were a significant influence on the development of new-age music.


4.3.2. Synthpop

After the arrival of punk rock, a form of basic electronic rock emerged, increasingly using new digital technology to replace other instruments. Pioneering bands included Ultravox with their 1977 single “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, Yellow Magic Orchestra from Japan, Gary Numan, Depeche Mode and The Human League. Yellow Magic Orchestra in particular helped pioneer synthpop with their self-titled album (1978) and Solid State Survivor (1979).

The definition of MIDI and the development of digital audio made the development of purely electronic sounds much easier. These developments led to the growth of synthpop. This genre was adopted by the New Romantic movement, allowed synthesizers to dominate the pop and rock music of the early 80s. Key acts included Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, A Flock of Seagulls, Culture Club, Talk Talk, Japan and Eurythmics. Synthpop sometimes used synthesizers to replace all other instruments, until the style began to fall from popularity in the mid-1980s.


4.4. Sequencers and drum machines

Music sequencers began being used around the mid-20th century. Many albums of, among others, Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, Jean Michel Jarre and Tomita in mid-1970s, are good examples of the use of sequencers. In 1978, Yellow Magic Orchestra used computer-based technology in conjunction with a synthesiser to produce popular music. They made their early use of the microprocessor-based Roland MC-8 Microcomposer sequencer.


History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Roland TR808

Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer

The use of drum machines, also known as rhythm machines, began around the late-1950s. A later example was Osamu Kitajima’s progressive rock album Benzaiten (1974). On this album he used a rhythm machine along with electronic drums and a synthesizer. In 1977, Ultravox’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour” was one of the first singles to use the metronome-like percussion of a Roland TR-77 drum machine. In 1980, Roland Corporation released the TR-808, one of the first and most popular programmable drum machines. The first band to use it was Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1980. Later it would gain widespread popularity with the release of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” in 1982. The TR-808 was a fundamental tool in the later Detroit techno scene of the late 1980s. It also was the drum machine of choice for Derrick May and Juan Atkins.


4.5. Birth of MIDI

In 1980, a group of musicians and music merchants met to standardize an interface that new instruments could use to communicate control instructions with other instruments and computers. This standard was dubbed Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI). MIDI resulted from a collaboration between leading manufacturers, initially Sequential Circuits, Oberheim, Roland. Later other participants such as Yamaha, Korg and Kawai came on board. A paper was authored by Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits and proposed to the Audio Engineering Society in 1981. Then, in August 1983, the MIDI Specification 1.0 was finalized.

MIDI technology allows a single keystroke, control wheel motion, pedal movement, or command from a microcomputer to activate every device in the studio remotely. It does this in synchrony, with each device responding according to conditions predetermined by the composer.

MIDI instruments and software made powerful control of sophisticated instruments easily affordable by many studios and individuals. Acoustic sounds became reintegrated into studios via sampling and sampled-ROM-based instruments.

Miller Puckette developed graphic signal-processing software for 4X. It was called Max (after Max Mathews). Later Puckette ported the software to Macintosh (with Dave Zicarelli extending it for Opcode) for real-time MIDI control. Thus, it brought algorithmic composition availability to most composers with modest computer programming background.


4.6. Digital synthesis


4.6.1. FM synthesis
History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Sogitec 4X

Sogitec 4X (ca.1983)
at IRCAM machine room in 1989.

In 1975, the Japanese company Yamaha licensed the algorithms for frequency modulation synthesis (FM synthesis) from John Chowning. He had experimented with it at Stanford University since 1971. Yamaha’s engineers began adapting Chowning’s algorithm for use in a digital synthesizer, adding improvements such as the “key scaling” method to avoid the introduction of distortion. Distortion normally occurred in analog systems during frequency modulation. However, the first commercial digital synthesizer to be released would be the Australian Fairlight company’s Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument). The release of the Fairlight CMI was in 1979 as the first practical polyphonic digital synthesizer/sampler system.


4.6.2. FM digital synthesizers

In 1980, Yamaha eventually released the first FM digital synthesizer, the Yamaha GS-1, but at an expensive price. In 1983, Yamaha introduced the first stand-alone digital synthesizer, the DX-7. The DX-7 also used FM synthesis and became one of the best-selling synthesizers of all time. This synthesizer DX-7 was known for its recognizable bright tonalities that was partly due to an overachieving sampling rate of 57 kHz.

At IRCAM in Paris in 1982, flutist Larry Beauregard connected his flute to DiGiugno’s 4X audio processor. This enabled real-time pitch-following. Beauregard said:

On a Guggenheim at the time, I extended this concept to real-time score-following with automatic synchronized accompaniment. Over the next two years Larry and I gave numerous demonstrations of the computer as a chamber musician. We played Handel flute sonatas, Boulez’s Sonatine for flute and piano and by 1984 my own Synapse II for flute and computer. It was the first piece ever composed expressly for such a setup.

A major challenge was finding the right software constructs to support highly sensitive and responsive accompaniment. All of this was pre-MIDI, but the results were impressive, even though heavy doses of tempo rubato would continually surprise my Synthetic Performer. In 1985 we solved the tempo rubato problem by incorporating learning from rehearsals. Each time you played this way, the machine would get better. We were also now tracking violin, since our brilliant, young flautist had contracted a fatal cancer. Moreover, this version used a new standard called MIDI. Here I was ably assisted by former student Miller Puckette, whose initial concepts for this task he later expanded into a program called MAX.


4.7. Chiptunes

The characteristic lo-fi sound of chip music was initially the result of early sound cards’ technical limitations. However, the sound has since become sought after in its own right.


5. Late 1980s to 1990s


5.1. Rise of dance music

The trend has continued to the present day with modern nightclubs worldwide regularly playing electronic dance music (EDM). Nowadays, electronic dance music has radio stations, websites and publications like Mixmag dedicated solely to the genre. Moreover, the genre has found worldwide commercial and cultural significance thanks to the wildly popular big room house/EDM sound. This sound has been incorporated into pop music and the rise of large scale commercial raves everywhere in the World. Examples are, among others, Sensation Amsterdam, Dance Valley, Electric Daisy Carnival, Tomorrowland (festival) and Ultra Music Festival.

History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Keith Emerson

Keith Emerson performing in
St. Petersburg in 2008.

5.2. Advancements

Other recent developments included the Tod Machover (MIT and IRCAM) composition Begin Again Again for “hypercello”. It is an interactive system of sensors measuring physical movements of the cellist. Max Mathews developed the “Conductor” program for real-time tempo, dynamic and timbre control of a pre-input electronic score. Morton Subotnick released a multimedia CD-ROM All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis.


6. 2000s and 2010s

In recent years, computer technology has become more accessible and music software has advanced. Interacting with music production technology is now possible using means that bear no relationship to traditional musical performance practices. For instance: laptop performance (laptronica), live coding and Algorave. In general, the term Live PA refers to any live performance of electronic music, whether with laptops, synthesizers or other devices.


History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Qlimax

Qlimax, a large electronic music event that occurs each year in the Netherlands, celebrating the hardstyle subgenre of electronic music.


In the last decade, a number of software-based virtual studio environments have emerged. Products such as Propellerhead’s Reason and Ableton Live find popular appeal. Such tools provide viable and cost-effective alternatives to typical hardware-based production studios. Thanks to advances in microprocessor technology, it is now possible to create high quality music using little more than a single laptop computer. Such advances have democratized music creation. It led to a massive increase in the amount of home-produced electronic music available to the general public via the internet.

Artists can now also individuate their production practice by creating personalized software synthesizers, effects modules and various composition environments. Devices that once existed exclusively in the hardware domain can easily have virtual counterparts. Some of the more popular software tools for achieving such ends are commercial releases such as Max/Msp and Reaktor and open source packages such as Csound, Pure Data, SuperCollider and ChucK.


6.1. Circuit bending

History of electronic music - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager - Probing for bends

Probing for “bends” using a jeweler’s
screwdriver and alligator clips.

Circuit bending is the creative customization of the circuits within electronic devices. Examples are low voltage, battery-powered guitar effects, children’s toys and small digital synthesizers to create new musical or visual instruments and sound generators. Emphasizing spontaneity and randomness, the techniques of circuit bending have been commonly associated with noise music. However, many more conventional contemporary musicians and musical groups have been known to experiment with “bent” instruments. Circuit bending usually involves dismantling the machine and adding components such as switches and potentiometers that alter the circuit. With the revived interest for analogue synthesizers, circuit bending became a cheap solution for many experimental musicians to create their own individual analogue sound generators.

Nowadays many schematics can be found to build noise generators. Examples are the Atari Punk Console or the Dub Siren. Also good examples are simple modifications for children toys such as the famous Speak & Spells that are often modified by circuit benders. Reed Ghazala has explored circuit bending with the Speak & Spell toy and has held apprenticeships and workshops on circuit bending.


This article History of electronic music” was taken and reworked from Wikipedia