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Electronic Music in the 20th Century


Electronic music began as early as the middle of the nineteenth century with the audio-analytical work of Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz, the German physicist, mathematician and author of the influential work Sensations of Tone: Psychological Basis for Theory of Music. With his invention of the “Hemholtz Resonator,” Hemholtz used electromagnetically vibrating metal tines and glass or metal resonating spheres in order to analyze the particular tones that create complex natural sounds. Though Hemholtz was concerned with scientific analysis of sound, the theoretical musical ideas provided by Ferruccio Busoni, an Italian composer, pianist, and author of the influential essay “Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music” largely influenced Helmholtz’s work.


Foundations: 1875-1915

Helmholtz’s first production and analysis of specific tones and complex natural sounds provided the foundation for a series of early experiments in generating electronic sound. Elisha Gray, known as the father of the modern music synthesizer, received the patent for the “Electric Telegraph for Transmitting Musical Tones” (the acoustic telegraph) in 1875. This was the first electric music synthesizer which used self vibrating electromagnetic circuits that consisted of single-note oscillators operated by a two-octave piano keyboard. The “Musical Telegraph” used steel reeds whose vibrations were created by electromagnets and transmitted over a telegraph wire. Among nearly 70 other inventions, Gray also built a simple loudspeaker in later telegraph models consisting of a vibrating diaphragm in a magnetic field to increase audibility and volume levels.

The Telharmonium was developed by Thaddeus Cahill in 1897. Similar to the later Hammond organ, the Telharmonium utilized tone wheels in order to generate musical sounds as electrical signals. The instrument’s sound output came in the form of connecting ordinary telephone receivers to large paper cones—an early precursor to the loudspeaker. Cahill’s invention was noted for its ability to reproduce the sounds of orchestral woodwind instruments such as the bassoon, flute, cello, and clarinet. Eventually, the Telharmonium and other instruments experimenting with self oscillating circuits were discontinued due to the rapid development of vacuum tube technology.


The Vacuum Tube Era: 1915-1930

At the beginning of the twentieth century, American engineer Lee De Forest patented the first vacuum tube or triode. Although the vacuum tube’s main use was in radio technology, De Forest discovered that it was possible to produce audible sounds from the tubes by a process known as heterodyning, a process which is created by two high radio frequency sound waves of similar but varying frequency combining and creating a lower audible frequency. De Forest was one amongst several engineers to realize (and actualize) the musical potential of the heterodyning effect; in 1915, he created a musical instrument known as the Audion Piano.” Between 1910 and 1920, De Forest improved his Audion as a detector, an amplifier, and later a transmitter of radio. He pioneered several radio stations and was an early, if not the first, broadcaster of entertainment-based audio, primarily opera music. In addition, between 1920 and1930, he invented and patented a system of recording a sound track on a strip of film, thus enabling accurate synchronization with the picture, which contributed to his later invention of the Talking Motion Picture.

Other instruments to utilize the vacuum tube were the Theremin (1917), the Pianorad (1926), and the Ondes Martenot (1928), the latter invention perhaps being the most influential. The sonic capabilities of the instrument were later expanded by the addition of timbral controls. Its wavering notes are produced by varying the frequency of oscillation in vacuum tubes. The Ondes Martenot has been used by many composers, most notably Olivier Messiaen, who first used it in the Fête des Belles Eaux for six ondes, produced for the 1937 International World Fair  in Paris. The production of the instrument stopped in 1988, but several conservatories in France still teach it. The Vacuum tube was to remain the primary type of audio synthesis until the invention of the integrated circuit in the 1960s.


Magnetic Audio Tape and New Styles: 1940-1950

Wartime innovation contributed to the development of magnetic audio tape in Germany, which first began with Fritz Pfleumer’s 1928 invention of paper tape with oxide powder lacquered to it. In the 1940s, the discovery of magnetic audio tape led to tape recorders that allowed new potential for recording music. Consequently, this new recording ability led to a style called Musique concrete, in which different sounds were edited together in order to form a single cohesive composition. In Europe, musicians became more interested in combining traditional musical performances with electronically generated sounds, which further developed the growing electronic music movement.


Breakthroughs: 1950-1960

In 1951, CSIRAC (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Automatic Computer) became the first computer in the world to play music. Shortly thereafter, a professor at Columbia University, Vladimir Ussachevsky, experimented with tape recorders as a method of creating new sounds out of those created by existing instruments. Ussachevsky partnered with Otto Luening to produce more sophisticated compositions, which led, in 1954, to the first acoustic – electric compositions. In the same year, Karlheinz Stockhausen composed the first electronic score, the Elektronische Studie II. More electronic studios appeared as the decade progressed. The first electronic synthesizer, the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, debuted in 1957. Designed by Herbert Belar and Harry Olson, it was installed at Columbia University and consisted of a room-sized array of interconnected sound synthesis components. The design RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer’s was constructed by Ussachevsky and Peter Mauzey.


Synthesis: 1965-1980

These fifteen years encompassed the development of large mainframe computer synthesis. Max Mathews of Bell Labs perfected the program MUSIC V, a direct digital synthesis language. Other development of smaller voltage-controlled synthesizers made instruments readily available to composers, universities and popular musicians. In addition, the sixties marked the beginning of live electronic performance, featuring the Synket, a live performance instrument used extensively by composer John Eaton in works such as Concert Piece for Synket and Orchestra (1967). The first festivals featuring multimedia theater music were organized by Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In 1967, Max Mathews and F. Richard Moore developed GROOVE, a real-time digital control system for analog synthesis, which was widely used by composers Laurie Spieglel and Emmanuel Ghent throughout the 1970s. In addition, the Moog synthesizer, designed by Dr. Robert Moog, gained traction in the music industry after it was demonstrated at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967. The commercial breakthrough of a Moog recording was made by Wendy Carlos in the 1968 record Switched-On Bach, which became one of the highest-selling classical music recordings of its era.

In 1972, Professor Jon Appleton invented the Dartmouth Digital Synthesizer, which later became known as the Digital New England Corps’ Synclavier Synthesizer System. This instrument became one of the most advanced and influential electronic musical synthesis and recording tools of the twentieth century. The songs of musicians such as Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and Sting and groups including Depeche Mode, The Cars, and Genesis, largely depended upon this instrument for their unique rhythm and sound.


Synthesizer Accessibility: 1980s

In the 1980s more commercially oriented synth pop dominated electronic rock. Analogue synthesizers largely gave way to smaller digital synthesizers and samplers. Early samplers, like early synthesizers, were large and expensive musical equipment. Companies like Fairlight and New England Digital sold instruments that cost upwards of $100,000. In the mid 1980s, however, the introduction of low-cost digital samplers made the technology even accessible to more and more to more musicians. The new kinds of electronic noise that synthesizers could create contributed to the formation of the genre known as industrial music, pioneered by groups such as Throbbing Gristle and Wavestar.


Significance: 1990s

Techno sound in Detroit, Michigan, and house music in Chicago, Illinoise began in the late 1980s, along with United Kingdom-based acid house movement were achieved largely through the expansion of advancements in the synthesizer. Throughout the1990s, electronic music became widely accepted into the mainstream and could be heard at the hundreds of electronic dance music nightclubs emerging across the country. Big beat and industrial rock were among the most significant trends. Additionally, the spread of recording software led to the expansion of distinct genres including indie electronic, electroclash, dancepunk, and new rave. Towards the middle of the decade, interactive computer-assisted performance became increasingly popular, used by musicians Yo -Yo Ma, Max Matthews, and Tod Machover.


120 Years of Electronic Music

Instrument Inventor Year
The Musical Telegraph Elisha Grey 1876
The Singing Arc William Duddel 1899
The Telharmonium Thaddeus Cahill 1897
The Choralcello Melvin Severy 1909
The “Intonarumori” Luigi Russolo 1913
The Audion Piano Lee De Forest 1915
The Optophonic Piano Vladimir Rossiné 1916
Theremin Leon Termen 1917
The Spharaphon Jörg Mager 1921
The Staccatone Hugo Gernsbak 1923
The Pianorad Hugo Gernsbak 1926
The Dynaphone René Bertrand 1927
The Celluphone Pierre Toulon & Krugg Bass 1927
The Clavier a Lampes A.Givelet & E.Coupleaux 1927
The Ondes-Martenot Maurice Martenot 1928
The Piano Radio-Electrique A.Givelet & E.Coupleaux 1929
The Givelet A.Givelet & E.Coupleaux 1929
The Sonorous Cross Nikolay Obukhov 1929
The Hellertion B.Helberger & P.Lertes 1929
The Trautonium Dr Freidrich Trautwein 1930
The Ondium Pecharde H. Péchadre 1930
The Rhythmicon Henry Cowell & Leon Termen 1930
The Theremin Cello Leon Termen 1930
The Westinghouse Organ R.C.Hitchock 1930
The Sonar N.Anan’yev 1930
The Saraga-Generator Wolja Saraga 1931
The Ekvodin Andrei Volodin & K.Kovalski 1931
The Trillion Tone Organ A. Lesti & F. Sammis. 1931
The Variophone Yevgeny Sholpo 1932
The Emiriton A.Ivanov & A.Rimsky-Korsakov 1932
The Emicon N.Langer 1932
The Rangertone Organ Richard H.Ranger 1932
L’Orgue des Ondes Armand Givelet 1933
Syntronic Organ I.Eremeef & L.Stokowski 1934
The Polytone Organ A. Lesti & F. Sammis 1934
The Hammond Organ Laurens Hammond 1935
The Electrochord - 1936
The Sonotheque L. Lavalée 1936
The Heliophon Bruno Hellberger 1936
The Grosstonorgel Oskar Vierling 1936
The Welte Licht-Ton-Orgel E.Welte 1936
The Singing Keyboard F. Sammis 1936
The Warbo Formant Organ Harald Bode & C. Warnke 1937
The Kaleidophon Jörg Mager 1939
The Novachord L Hammond & C.N.Williams 1939
The Voder & Vocoder Homer Dudley 1940
The Univox Univox Co. 1940
The Multimonica Harald Bode 1940
The Pianophon - 1940
The Ondioline Georges Jenny 1940
The Solovox Hammond Organs Company 1940
The Electronic Sackbut Hugh Le Caine 1945
The Tuttivox Harald Bode 1946
Hanert Electric Orchesrta J. Hanert 1945
The Minshall Organ - 1947
The Clavioline M. Constant Martin 1947
The Melochord Harald Bode 1947
The Monochord Dr Freidrich Trautwein 1948
The Free Music Machine Percy Grainger & Burnett Cross 1948
The Electronium Pi René Seybold 1950
The Polychord Organ Harald Bode 1950
Dr. Kent’s Electronic Music Box Dr Earle Kent 1951
The Clavivox Raymond Scott 1952
The RCA Synthesiser I & II Harry Olsen & Hebert Belar 1952
The Composertron Osmond Kendall 1953
MUSIC I-V Software Max Mathews 1957
Oramics Daphne Oram 1959
The Siemens Synthesiser H.Klein & W.Schaaf 1959
The Side Man Wurlitzer 1959
Milan Electronic Music Studio director: Luciano Berio 1960
Moog Synthesisers Robert Moog 1963
The Mellotron & Chamberlin Leslie Bradley 1963
Buchla Synthesisers Donald Buchla 1963
The Donca-Matic DA-20 Keio Corp 1963
The Synket Paul Ketoff 1963
Tonus/ARP Synthesisers Philip Dodds 1964
PAiA Electronics. Inc John Paia Simonton 1967
MUSYS Software David Cockrell & Peter Grogno 1968
EMS Synthesisers Peter Zinovieff & David Cockrell 1969
GROOVE System Max Mathews 1970
The Optigan Mattel Inc. 1970
The Electronium-Scott Raymond Scott 1970
Con Brio Synthesisers - 1971
Roland Synthesisers Roland Corporation 1972
Maplin Synthesisers Trevor G Marshall 1973
The Synclavier New England Digital Corporation 1975
Korg Synthesisers Korg 1975
EVI wind instrument Nyle Steiner 1975
EDP Wasp Chris Hugget 1978
Yamaha Synthesisers Yamaha Corp 1976
PPG Synthesisers Wolfgang Palm 1975
Oberheim Synthesisers Thomas Oberheim 1978
Serge Synthesisers - 1979
The Fairlight CMI Peter Vogel & Kim Ryrie 1979
Simmons Drum Synthesisers Simmons 1980
Casio Synthesisers Casio Ltd 1981
The McLeyvier David McLey 1981
Kawai Synthesiser Kawai Musical Instrument Co -
The Emulator Emu Systems 1981
Waldorf - -
Oxford Synthesiser Company Chris Hugget 1983
Akai Musical Instruments Akai Corporation 1984
Ensoniq Synthesisers & Samplers - 1985
Steinberg Software Steinberg -
GEM Synthesisers - -
Crumar Synthesisers - -
Kurzweil Raymond Kurzweill 1983
Synthesisers/ Samplers - -
Sequential Circuits - -
Alesis Corporation Keith Barr 1984

*Courtesy of Simon Crab


Additional Resources:

A History of Electronic Music Pioneers- This resource offers a comprehensive history of significant figures throughout the history of electronic music.

Electronic Music Foundation- This organization is devoted to exploring and fostering the creative and cultural potential in the convergence of music, sound, technology, and science.

Hyperreal- Hyperreal is a resource for information on electronic music, dance, and art.

The History of Electronic Music- This resource offers a comprehensive history of electronic music as well as a number of additional links on significant inventors, artists, and musicians.