Electronic music is a category of music that emerged in the 20th century in which music is created with electronic instruments.
Electronic music is produced from a wide variety of sound resources—from sounds picked up by microphones to those produced by electronic oscillators (generating basic acoustical waveforms such as sine waves, square waves, and sawtooth waves), complex computer installations, and microprocessors—that are recorded on tape and then edited into a permanent form. Generally, except for one type of performed music that has come to be called “live electronic music” (see below), electronic music is played back through loudspeakers either alone or in combination with ordinary musical instruments.
Luigi Russol was an Italian Futurist artist. His 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises argues that the human ear has become accustomed to the noise of the urban industrial soundscape and that this new source of sound requires a new approach to music making. He constructeda number of noise-generating devices called Intonarumori and is considered to be the first experimental noise music artist. The 80s synth-pop group Art of Noise named themselves after his manifesto.
The Hammond Organ (1934) was the first electronic (actually electromechanical) instrument to achieve a measure of popularity. Hammond came close to the design of a modern synthesizer with the Novachord in 1938, but it had the disadvantages of being expensive, too novel, and going into production just as World War II was getting under way – production stopped during the war and did not resume afterwards.
Karlheinz Stockhausen was German composer known for his groundbreaking work in electronic music. In 1953 he started working at the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne where he realized electronic works such as Elektronische Studien and Gesang der Jünglinge – the later also being noted for its early use of spatialization. Can’s Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt later studied with Stockhausen and musicians such as Kraftwerk and Björk cite him as an influence.
After World War II, some artists and composers began experimenting by using different sounds and noises to make music. This was considered to be an avant-garde form of art and gave birth to electronic art music and musique concrète. A method known as the “tape stuido” arose in places such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the San Francisco Tape Music Center. This involved using tape recorders to record a variety of sounds, some from electronic laboratory equipment and some from non-electronic
sources, and then using the capabilities of the tape recorder and other electronic equipment to change the pitch and timbre of the sounds. Then, the individual sound samples were spliced back together into a composition.
The invention of the tape recorder gave composers of the 1950s an exciting new musical instrument to use for new musical experiences. Fascination with the thing itself was the dominant motivation for composing electronic tape music. Musically, the 1950s, in contrast to the 1960s, were relatively introverted years: in all kinds of music, the focus of interest was technique and style, especially with the avant-garde. In time, the medium became fairly well understood, the techniques for handling it became increasingly standardized, and a repertory of characteristic and historically important compositions came into being.
Musical melodies were first generated by the computer CSIRAC in Australia in 1950. There were newspaper reports from America and England (early and recently) that computers may have played music earlier, but thorough research has debunked these stories as there is no evidence to support the newspaper reports (some of which were obviously speculative). Research has shown that people speculated about computers playing music, possibly because computers would make noises, but there is no evidence that they actually did it.
In the late 1960s, pop and rock musicians, including the Beach Boys and the Beatles, began to use electronic instruments, like the theremin and Mellotron, to supplement and define their sound. In his book Electronic and Experimental Music, Thom Holmes recognises the Beatles’ 1966 recording “Tomorrow Never Knows” as the song that “ushered in a new era in the use of electronic music in rock and pop music” due to the band’s incorporation of tape loops and reversed and speed-manipulated tape sounds.
During the 1960s, digital computer music was pioneered, innovation in live electronics took place, and Japanese electronic musical instruments began to influence the music industry.
In the early 1970s, Moog synthesizers and Japanese drum machines helped popularize synthesized electronic music. The 1970s also saw electronic music begin to have a significant influence on popular music, with the adoption of polyphonic synthesizers, electronic drums, drum machines, and turntables, through the emergence of genres such as disco, krautrock, new
wave, synth-pop, hip hop, and EDM.
In the early 1980s mass-produced digital synthesizers, such as the Yamaha DX7, became popular, and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was developed. In the same decade, with a greater reliance on synthesizers and the adoption of programmable drum machines, electronic popular music came to the fore.
During the 1990s, with the proliferation of increasingly affordable music technology, electronic music production became an established part of popular culture. Contemporary electronic music includes many varieties and ranges from experimental art music to popular forms such as electronic dance music. Pop electronic music is most recognizable in its 4/4 form and more connected with the mainstream than preceding forms which were popular in niche markets.
As 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.
Beginning around the year 2000, some software-based virtual studio environments emerged, with products such as Propellerhead’s Reason and Ableton Live finding popular appeal. 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. Such advances have democratized music creation, 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 (so-called “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.