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.
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.
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.
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.
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
|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|
|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 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 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 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 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|
|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|
|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|
|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|
|Oxford Synthesiser Company||Chris Hugget||1983|
|Akai Musical Instruments||Akai Corporation||1984|
|Ensoniq Synthesisers & Samplers||-||1985|
|Alesis Corporation||Keith Barr||1984|
*Courtesy of Simon Crab
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.