Electronic music is music created through electronic musical instruments, digital instruments and circuitry-based music technology. Pure electronic instruments do not have vibrating strings, hammers or other sound-producing mechanisms like the electric guitar or electric piano. There are special devices such as synthesizers and computers which can produce electronic sounds and are used as electronic music instruments.
The earliest surviving electric-powered musical instrument is called The clavecin électrique. Invented by a french priest, Jean-Baptiste Thillaie Delaborde, this musical instrument dates back to 1759.
It’s mechanism was based on a contemporary warning-bell device. A number of bells, two for each pitch, hang from iron bars along with their clappers (one for each pair). A globe generator charges the prime conductor and the iron bars. The musician presses a key and one of the bells of the corresponding pair is grounded, cut off from the charge source. The clapper then oscillates between the grounded and the charged bells, producing the desired tone.
Delaborde’s used a misleading name for the instrument to intentionally attempt to elevate his invention above that of a Carillon – a mere musical-box.
The Clavecine Électrique was well received by the press and the public but wasn’t developed further. The model Delaborde built still exists to this day and is kept at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.
The Electromechanical Piano
In 1867 Matthias Hipp created an ‘Electromechanical Piano’. But it was unclear how this instrument operated, there are no contemporary records that describe the instrument in any detail but modern texts suggest that it was a ‘true’ electronic instrument, generating sounds through multiple dynamos.
“Electricity was used to operate player pianos from about 1850, and the basis for many later systems was developed by Matthäus Hipp of Neuchâtel in his ‘electromechanical piano’ of 1867″
Hugh Davies. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
The Choralcelo (“heavenly Voices”) was a hybrid electronic and electro-acoustic instrument conceived as a commercial high-end domestic organ and developed by Melvin Severy with the assistance of his brother in law George B. Sinclair. It was manufactured by the ‘Choralcelo Manufacturing Co’ in Boston, Massachusetts. Severy was a brilliantly gifted, multi-faceted inventor who secured patents on a printing press, solar heating, a camera, fluid drive, and many others, besides the Choralcelo.
The instrument was sold to wealthy owners of large country houses in the USA. At least six of the instruments were sold and continued to be used up unit the 1950′s.
The Choralcelo was a direct modernization of the Telharmonium, though not as big, it was still a huge instrument using a similar electromagnetic tone wheel sound generation to the Telharmonium used in the ‘organ’ section of the instrument as well as a set of electromagnetically operated piano strings.
Even today it is a marvel of brilliant application of principles of physics. It is so disarmingly simple one could have no inkling of the years of labor which preceded it.
Invention Of The Theremin
Invented in 1920 in the then Soviet Union, the theremin is also called thereminvox, or etherophone and is named after its inventor Professor Leon Theremin. It is an electronic box of radio tubes with two long antennae.
The theremin is played without actually touching any part of the instrument. To produce music, the musician moves their hand or baton around the antennae without touching them. The right hand’s proximity to one antenna controls the pitch of the sound and the left hand’s proximity to the other antenna controls the volume.
Film scores of the 1940s and 1950s used the instrument to eerie effect and the instrument’s sound famously appears in the chorus of the Beach Boys hit Good Vibrations.
The First Electronic Music Compositions
During the 1920s and 1930s, electronic instruments were introduced and the first compositions for electronic instruments were made. By the 1940s, magnetic audio tape allowed musicians to tape sounds and then modify them by changing the tape speed or direction, leading 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. This created a new form of music. Music produced solely from electronic generators was first produced in Germany in 1953. Electronic music was also created in Japan and the United States beginning in the 1950s.
The Computer Comes To Help
A very important new development was the advent of computers to compose music. Algorithmic composition with computers was first demonstrated in the 1950s (although algorithmic composition per se without a computer had occurred much earlier, for example Mozart’s Musikalisches Würfelspiel).
Moving forward to the 1960s, live electronics were pioneered in America and Europe, Japanese electronic musical instruments began influencing the music industry and Jamaican dub music emerged as a form of popular electronic music. There were many other small steps towards electronic music, but none had the impact of the Moog synthesizer. In the early 1970s, the monophonic Minimoog synthesizer and Japanese drum machines helped popularize synthesized electronic music. A movement was born.
Composers and pop musicians alike played with Moog’s device. Electronic music began to have a significant influence on popular music in the 1970s, with the adoption of polyphonic synthesizers, electronic drums, drum machines and turntables. When we mention the 70s it is important to note the emergence of genres such as disco, new wave, synth-pop, hip hop and EDM.
Electronic Music, Dominating Popular Music
In the 1980s, electronic music became more dominant in popular music, with a greater reliance on synthesizers and the adoption of programmable drum machines such as the Roland TR-808 and bass synthesizers such as the TB-303. In the early 1980s, digital technologies for synthesizers including digital synthesizers such as the Yamaha DX7 became popular and a group of musicians and music merchants developed the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (widely known as the MIDI).
In the 1990s, with the advent of affordable music technology, electronically produced music became popular. Contemporary electronic music includes many varieties and ranges from experimental art music to popular forms such as electronic dance music.
Today’s Electronic Instruments
With computer technology becoming more accessible and music software becoming so advanced, interacting with music production technology is now possible using means that have no relationship with the traditional musical practices of earlier days. For example, today we use the term Live PA which refers to any live performance of electronic music, whether with laptops, synthesizers, or other devices. Check out any of the latest festivals, and you’ll notice laptops with the DJ decks, side by side. Even artists who started their careers playing on classical turntables now use a plethora of electronic devices and elements in their performances.
Beginning around the year 2000, a number of software-based virtual studio environments emerged, with products such as Propellerhead’s Reason and Ableton Live becoming really popular. Such tools provide viable and cost-effective alternatives to typical hardware-based production studios, and thanks to advances in microprocessor technology, it is now possible to create high quality music using little more than a single laptop computer.
This new technology has made music creation so easy and accessible, leading to a massive increase in the amount of home-produced electronic music available to the general public via the internet. Software based instruments and effect units (also known as “plugins”) can be incorporated in a computer-based studio using the VST platform. Some of these instruments are more or less exact replicas of existing hardware (such as the Roland D-50, ARP Odyssey, Yamaha DX7 or Korg M1). In many cases, these software-based instruments are sonically indistinguishable from their physical counterpart.
There’s no limit to what’s coming in the next few years for electronic music. But we can’t wait to discover what the technologists, inventors and companies come up with next. The genre has evolved so much through the years, and the tools are now more accessible to anyone who’s interested in creating and composing music electronically.