The following was originally published April 18, 2011 at
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When does electronic music history begin?

Many argue that the history of electronic music began with the invention of the record player in the 1870s. Certainly the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Alva Edison. Yes, the same Edison who invented the lightbulb. The record player allowed music lovers to enjoy a concert without leaving their living room! Of course, the music establishment worried that the record player would reduce overall sales, but instead record players allowed further expression of ideas. Not only could music be distributed internationally, for the first time in history, music could be preserved and archived for study.

Phonograph Recording:

Early Electronic Instruments

There were a number of early electronic instruments from the 1900s. Among them were the Theremin (still in use today), the Ondes-Martenot, the Trautonium, and the Hammond Organ. Each of these instruments brought musicians one step closer to digital explosion of the late 20th century.

Theremin plays Legend of Zelda:

There were a number of notable electronic composers during the early part of the 20th century. Many of these composers embraced the concept of noise equals music. Often cited as one of the founders of electronic music, composer Edgard Varese experimented with percussive sounds to create the work "Ionisation" in the 1920s, which set the musical groundwork for experimental sound and composition.

As you listen to Ionisation, think about the similarities between electronic sound, timbre, and the sounds of the percussion instruments.


Notable Electronic Composers of the Early to Mid-20th Century

Karl Stockhausen (Cologne. Germany at Northwest Broadcasting Studios) "Gesang der Junglinge" 1950s (Song of the Youths)

Elektronische Studie II—the first electronic piece to be published as a score.

John Cage "William's Mix"
Musique Concrete: Music composed by mixing samples.

Composer Pauline Oliveros "Bye Bye Butterfly" 1960s
Sonic Soundscape
Deep Listening Institute

Vladimir Ussechevsky (Columbia-Princeton Studios) NY
"Sonic Contours"
Combination of traditional instruments with electronics.

Iannis Xenakis
Famous for electronic work, but most famous work was for orchestra "Metastasis" which had many electronic music components and sounds.
Much of his work was based on mathematical principles or

If it seems that much of this music sounds "sci-fi" to you, this is directly due to the fact that the evolution of electronic music correlated with growing excitement for the space race, aliens, and science fiction movies like Forbidden Planet, which had an electronic score by Louis and Bebe Barron.

Forbidden Planet

1970s Nam June Paik: Electronic Opera
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What is MIDI?

MIDI: Musical Instrument Digital Interface

The MIDI language allows different electronic instruments and computer interfaces to "talk" to each other. Before the invention of MIDI, musicians had a difficult time syncing up their instrument set-ups because the instruments were not compatible with each other. MIDI was developed in 1982 and was shared freely as open source. Today most music studios and professional software programs operate off of MIDI. At first MIDI sounds were limited to 127 specific sounds that you would most likely recognize from some of the earliest video games of the 1980s.

Ghostbusters Atari Music

Composers like Laurie Anderson took MIDI and found new ways to express music and art through technology like the Drum Suit, samplers, CD-Rom, vocoder, and video.

Puppet Motel CD Rom

O Superman

Pamela Z BodySynth

Contemporary Electronic Music

Technology, the Internet, computers, microchips, virtual reality, sensors, etc. have all revolutionized music technology and electronic music. Composers from all around the world use technology to compose and perform their works. There are a variety of new musical styles in the contemporary electronic genre.

Electronic instruments and music technology in general has helped composers and musicians create many musical sounds in a variety of situations:
  • Film composers can create entire orchestras and choirs using computer software
  • MIDI instruments like the Malletkat and electronic drum sets allow a percussionist to become a string orchestra
  • Dancers can "compose" music through their dance movements in a live concert through sensors using MIDI data
  • Composers can have a computer transcribe their music and send copies to an orchestra with a single click of the button
  • Indie musicians can share their newest album without having to worry about an agent through the internet
  • Music students can listen to music from all over the world without leaving their home
  • Musicians can collaborate internationally with musicians across the ocean
  • Music teachers can create fun music activities with music education software
  • Difficult to find instruments like bagpipes or full organs can be played on a keyboard in live performance
  • Video, video games, and audiovisual technology is combined with electronic music in a variety of hybrid arts.
Where does classical music end and technology begin?

You can read more about the importance of Music Technology in this article:

Eric Whitacre Virtual Choir Piece:
Interactive MIDI Sequencer using MaxMSP

Turing Machine Opera:

The Manekin "I'm Table Live":

Synthesized work:

iPhone Orchestra:

laptop orchestra:

Musical Tesla Coils:
Here is a sample of a vocal synthesizer singing using Vocaloid:
The animated character singing is called Miku Hatsune, and she is actually a virtual music superstar!

The You Tube Symphony Orchestra is only one example showing how the internet has changed the classical world. Comprised of 100 members who auditioned online through YouTube, the You Tube Symphony Orchestra premiered at Carnegie Hall with a work by composer Tan Dun (composer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Beijing Olympics).

"Internet Symphony" by Tan Dun:
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The above was originally published November 18, 2010 at
The tiroir of a 1975-model ondes
The tiroir of a 1975-model ondes
Image via WikipediaElectronic Music History, according to U2B

Electronic music history spans well over a century. While many music history courses never even hit upon the basics of electronic music (ex. theremin or synthesizers), music technology has overtaken the globe.

Composers need music technology to print their music, distribute their music, contact other composers, set up concerts, promote their music, and even to compose their music.

Here is just a taste of electronic music, from the theremin to today. There are so many ways that technology and electronics have affected classical music in our time. The internet alone has revolutionized the music industry, making big music producers a dinosaur of the past and giving individual artists total control over their destinies.

Enjoy this video venture into electronic music! You might never want to come back!


Ondes Martenot (Olivier Messiaen "4ème Feuillet Inédit")

Precursor to Electronic Music: Ballet Mechanique

Day the Earth Stood Still" Bernard Hermann

1955 Stockhausen ""Gesang der Junglinge" (Song of the Youths) (1955-56)"

1977 Brian Eno and Cluster

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