Modulations: A History of Electronic Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,

A blog about the history of electronic music, from the earliest modulations to the latest trends.


Modulations tracing the history of electronic music from its origins in the 19th century to the present day. This section looks at the very beginnings of electronic music and how it has evolved over the years.

Early electronic instruments

Some of the first electronic instruments were developed in the early 20th century, and were called theremins. These instruments created sounds without any physical contact from the musician, by using electrical fields to detect the position of the player’s hands in relation to metal rods on the instrument. The theremin was used by composers such as Léon Theremin and Clara Rockmore to create new sonic possibilities for music.

In the 1930s, American engineer Harmann executives working with British musical engineer EMI, produced an instrument called the sonovox. This instrument used recordings of speech or other sounds, which could be played back using a keyboard or other controller. The sonovox became popular in radio and film scores of the 1930s and 1940s.

In the 1950s, Japanese companies developed a number of electronic musical instruments, including one called the taiko. This instrument was a large drum that could be played with sticks or hands, and was often used in Japanese traditional music.

The 1960s saw the development of a number of new electronic instruments, including synthesisers and sequencers. These devices allowed musicians to create new sounds by manipulating electrical signals, and opened up new possibilities for music composition and performance.

The first electronic music

The first electronic music was created in the late 19th century, with the advent of electronic instruments. These instruments, such as the theremin, were originally used in the field of experimental music. In the 1930s and 1940s, electronic music began to be used in popular music, with artists such as Les Paul and Benny Goodman using electronic effects on their records. In the 1950s, composers such as Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen began to create purely electronic music, using devices such as tape recorders and oscillators. This type of music was initially known as musique concrete, and was later called avant-garde or experimental music.

The birth of synthesizers

In the early 20th century, electronic music was just beginning to take shape. invented the Theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments. This sparked a revolution in music, and soon other inventors began creating their own electronic instruments. These early synthesizers laid the groundwork for the electronic music we know today.

The first synthesizers

The first synthesizers originated in the early 1900s with electrical engineers and mathematicians who were exploring the potential of using electricity to create sound. These early machines were called “Theremins” after their inventor, Leon Theremin. The Theremin was played by moving your hands in the air near two metal rods that emitted a high-pitched tone.

In the 1930s, engineer Harald Bode developed a machine called the “Bode-Karplus”: a Theremin-like instrument with a keyboard that allowed for more precise control over pitch and timbre. Bode’s machine was used by German composers to create electronic music during the war years.

After the war, American engineer Robert Moog (pronounced “mogue”) began developing electronic music instruments. His first synthesizer, the Moog Modular System, was released in 1964. This machine allowed composers to create more complex sounds by patching together different modules – like oscillators, filters, and envelopes – using patch cords.

The Moog Modular System was used by several well-known composers in the 1960s, including Walter (now Wendy) Carlos (composer of Spiegel im Spiegel and Switched-On Bach) and Scott Joplin (composer of The Entertainer). In 1968, British band The Beatles used a Moog Modular System on their song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

With the help of Robert Moog’s inventions, electronic music began to enter the mainstream in the 1970s with artists like Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder. In 1977, Moog released his most famous synthesizer: the miniKorg 700. This small, portable keyboard made synthesizers more accessible to a wider audience and helped kickstart the synth-pop movement of the 1980s with bands like Depeche Mode and Yazoo.

The Moog synthesizer

The Moog synthesizer, invented by Robert Moog in the 1960s, was one of the first electronic instruments to be used in popular music. It sparked a revolution in sound and helped to define the genre of electronic music.

The Moog synthesizer is an electronic keyboard that uses Voltage Controlled Oscillators (VCOs) to create sound. VCOs are electronic circuits that generate a signal of a certain frequency. By controlling the voltage applied to the VCO, the musician can control the pitch of the sound produced.

The Moog synthesizer also has Voltage Controlled Filters (VCFs) which allow the musician to shape the timbre of the sound. The filters can be used to create a range of sounds, from simple melodies to complex chords and noise.

The Moog synthesizer was used by some of the most influential musicians of its time, including Wendy Carlos (Switched-On Bach), The Beatles (Abbey Road), The Doors (Waiting For The Sun), and Pink Floyd (Dark Side Of The Moon).

The 1970s

The 1970s saw the rise of electronic music, with new technology opening up new possibilities for sound. This decade saw the development of new genres, as well as the adoption of electronic music by more mainstream artists. Let’s take a look at the history of electronic music in the 1970s.

The rise of disco

The early 1970s saw the rise of disco, which became one of the most popular music genres of the decade. The genre emerged from the nightclub scene in New York City and was characterised by its flashy style, heavy drums and synthesizers.

Disco became increasingly mainstream in the mid-1970s, with artists such as Donna Summer, the Bee Gees and Gloria Gaynor achieving massive success. The genre reached its peak in 1977 with the release of Saturday Night Fever, a film starring John Travolta that popularised disco culture.

However, by the end of the decade, disco had begun to decline in popularity, due in part to its association with drug use and crime. In 1979, a mass shooting at a disco club in Chicago led to a nationwide backlash against the genre. As a result, disco began to fade from the mainstream over the course of the next few years.

The birth of punk rock

Punk rock was born in the 1970s as a reaction against the established Rock music of the time. Punk Rockers were known for their unkempt appearances, DIY ethic, and musical simplicity. Often using only three chords, Punk songs were designed to be short and to the point. Lyrically, Punk was a reaction against the materialism and complacency of mainstream society. Punk bands such as The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash would go on to influence generations of Rock musicians.

The 1980s

In the 1980s, electronic music became more diverse with the advent of new technologies such as the sampler and thesequencer. This allowed for greater experimentation with sound and composition. There was also a shift away from traditional bands and towards solo artists and producers.

The advent of digital technology

The advent of digital technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s had a profound effect on the development of electronic music. Prior to this, most music had been analog, meaning that it was recording using methods that were based on continual variation in some physical property (usually voltage or current). This made for a very rich and varied palette of sounds, but was also very difficult to control precisely.

Digital technology, on the other hand, uses a finite set of discrete values to represent a signal. This makes it much easier to create signals with very specific properties, and also makes it possible to store and recall them exactly. It also opens up new possibilities for processing and manipulating sound.

One of the earliest and most influential digital synthesis systems was the Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument), which was released in 1979. The CMI was capable of creating a wide range of sounds, both synthetic and sampled from real-world sources. It quickly became popular with musicians in a number of different genres, including pop, rock, and jazz.

The advent of digital technology also had a major impact on the way that music was composed and produced. Composers began to use computers to generate or process sounds, often employing algorithms or random processes to create new sonic textures. The use of sequencers became commonplace, making it possible to create complex pieces of music with multiple layers of sound. And the ability to store large amounts of data on compact discs made it possible to produce very high-quality recordings at home.

The 1980s were a transitional period for electronic music, as analog systems began to give way to digital ones. The increased popularity of personal computers also led to the development of a number of affordable home studios, which put the power of professional-level production techniques into the hands of amateurs and hobbyists. These developments laid the groundwork for the explosion of electronic dance music in the 1990s.

The rise of house music

In the early 1980s, a new style of dance music emerged from the discotheques of Chicago. Called house music, this underground phenomenon was the brainchild of a group of African-American DJs who were looking to create a sound that would reflect the city’s bleak reality while providing an escape from it. With its hypnotic beats, soulful vocals, and positive lyrics, house music quickly became popular in Chicago’s gay clubs before crossing over to the mainstream. By the end of the decade, house music had spread to every corner of the globe, becoming one of the most influential genres of electronic dance music.

The 1990s

In the early 1990s, electronic music was still in its infancy. Artists were just beginning to experiment with synthesizers and other electronic equipment to create new sounds. This was the decade that saw the birth of techno and other dance music genres. Modulations is a documentary that chronicles the history of electronic music.

The birth of techno

Techno is a form of electronic dance music that emerged in the Detroit area in the mid-to-late 1980s. The first techno tracks were produced by Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, who are often referred to as the Belleville Three. Techno is characterized by a repetitive four on the floor beat, usually produced by drum machines, off-beat hi-hat cymbals, and synthesized basslines.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, techno achieved moderate mainstream popularity in Europe and North America, with groups such as Manix, The KLF and Moby achieving success with their club hits “One More Chance” (1989), “3 A.M. Eternal” (1991) and “Go” (1991), respectively.

The rise of trance music

The early 1990s saw the rise of trance music, a genre characterized by repetitive, four-on-the-floor beats and simple melodies. Inspired by the hypnotic effect of acid house and techno music, trance tracks were often designed to induce a state of euphoria or ecstasy.

Trance music gained popularity in clubs and rave parties throughout Europe and the United States in the 1990s. By the mid-1990s, trance had evolved into a more commercial sound, with tracks often featuring polished production values and catchy vocal hooks. In 1997, German DJ Paul van Dyk’s album Reflections cemented trance’s place in the mainstream electronic dance music scene.

While trance music enjoyed mainstream success in the 1990s, it remained largely underground in the United States. In recent years, however, trance has experienced a resurgence in popularity, thanks in part to the success of artists like Above & Beyond and Porter Robinson.

The 2000s

The 21st century has been a time of significant exploration in the world of music. With the technological advances of the past few decades, the creative potential for music has grown exponentially. One area that has seen a great deal of innovation is electronic music. In this article, we will explore the history of electronic music, from its beginnings in the early 20th century to its present day form.

The rise of EDM

Although the 1990s saw a determined effort to bring back the organic feel of live instruments and real instruments, by the beginning of the 2000s, it was clear that electronic music had moved beyond its insurgent, underground roots and taken over the pop charts. In 2001, Britney Spears released “I’m a Slave 4 U,” which featured an industrial prog-house beat courtesy of The Neptunes. The same year, Kylie Minogue released “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” which featured a throbbing electro-disco pulse that would have made Giorgio Moroder proud. By 2003, electronic dance music was so mainstream that when 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” topped the Billboard Hot 100, it did so with a club-ready electro beat.

The early 2000s also saw the rise of a new breed of superstar DJ. Thanks in part to MTV’s reality show “True Life: I’m a DJ,” which followed the exploits of tour de force DJs like Z-Trip and Funkmaster Flex, being a DJ became aspirational for a new generation of music fans. DJs like Tiësto, David Guetta, and deadmau5 began headlining stadium shows and selling out arenas, while Skrillex and Calvin Harris became household names.

The 2010s would see electronic music become even more ubiquitous, with hits like Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” becoming global anthems. But it was in the 2000s that electronic dance music finally broke through to the mainstream consciousness.

The birth of dubstep

In the early 2000s, dubstep emerged as a new genre of electronic music, characterized by its heavy basslines and dark, atmospheric sound. The genre was pioneered by artists such as Nigel Godrich (aka Burial) and Skream, and quickly gained popularity in the UK underground scene.

In the 2010s, dubstep underwent a major revival, led by artists such as Calvin Harris and Skrillex. The genre became more mainstream and commercialized, and began to experiment with different sounds and styles. Today, dubstep is one of the most popular genres of electronic music, with a sound that is both unique and instantly recognizable.

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