When Did Electronic Music Start?

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,

A comprehensive history of electronic music including key artists, tracks, and styles from the 1950s to present day.

The first electronic music instruments

Electronic music is music that employs electronic musical instruments and digital audio technologies for the production and performance of music. The first electronic music instruments were developed in the early 20th century. These instruments were used in various forms of music such as jazz, rock, and pop.

The theremin

The theremin is one of the earliest electronic musical instruments, and was invented by Russian physicist Léon Theremin in 1919. It is played without physical contact by the performer, who controls the pitch and volume of the sound by moving their hands in the vicinity of two conducting rods called antennae.

The theremin was used in a number of early sound films and recordings, most notably the 1929 film Spellbound, which featured a theremin performance by Clara Rockmore. It was also used by composers such as Edgar Varèse and William Walton, and found its way into pop culture with appearances in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Iron Man (2008).

The instrument fell out of favour in the 1950s due to the development of more versatile electronic instruments such as the synthesizer, but has undergone a revival in recent years with increased interest in experimental and avant-garde music.

The ondes martenot

The first electronic music instruments were invented in the early 1900s. One of the earliest was the ondes martenot, invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot. The ondes martenot was a type of keyboard instrument that used electric signals to produce sound. It was used by a number of well-known composers, including Olivier Messiaen and André Hodeir.

The first electronic music studios

Amongst the first electronic music studios were the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the UK and GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales) in France. These studios were developed in the 1950s and 60s and used a variety of electronic musical instruments, such as theremins, experimental electronic oscillators and tone generators, and early synthesizers.

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was founded in 1958 and was the first electronic music studio in the world. The workshop was created to provide sound effects and music for BBC radio and television programmes. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop became famous for its work on the original Doctor Who soundtrack, which was created using a variety of innovative techniques and instruments.

The workshop continued to produce music and sound effects for BBC programmes until 1998, when it was closed down due to financial cuts.

The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center

The first electronic music studios were developed in the early 1950s. The first studio was the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, which was established in 1952 at Columbia University and Princeton University. The music produced at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center was composed by Milton Babbitt, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and Roger Sessions.

The first commercial electronic music studio was built by French musician and composer Pierre Schaeffer in Paris in 1953. Schaeffer’s studio, known as the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC), was used to create music that was based on recorded sounds, rather than traditional instruments.

In 1955, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen began working at the Studie II studio at West German Radio (WDR) in Cologne. studie ii was one of the first studios to use multichannel tape machines, which allowed for the creation of spatial effects and sound transformations.

Other important early electronic music studios include:

-The Studio for Electronic Music (Studio für elektronische Musik) at the University of Iowa (established in 1953)
-The Heinrich Strobel Foundation Studio for Electronic Music (Stiftung Heinrich Strobel Studio für elektronische Musik) at the South West German Radio (SWR) in Freiburg (established in 1956)
-The Radiophonic Workshop at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London (established in 1958)

The first electronic music composers

The first electronic music was composed in the early 1900s. It was called “the theremin” and was created by Russian inventor Leon Theremin. The theremin was the first musical instrument that could be played without being touched. It was played by moving your hands in the air near two metal antennas. The sound of the theremin was very eerie and otherworldly.

Pierre Schaeffer

Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995) was a French composer and the first person to use the term ‘musique concrète’ (literally, ‘concrete music’). This referred to his technique of manipulating sounds that he recorded onto magnetic tape. He made his first concrete music composition, ‘Etude aux chemins de fer’, in 1948.

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Karlheinz Stockhausen was a German composer who is widely considered one of the pioneers of electronic music. He composed a number of groundbreaking works that made extensive use of electronic devices and procedures, and he also wrote a number of theoretical texts on music and sound.

Stockhausen was born in 1928 in Cologne, Germany, and he began his musical training at a young age. He studied piano, flute, and composition at the Cologne Conservatory, and he later studied with a number of renowned composers, including Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez. In 1953, he co-founded the Studio for Electronic Music at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne, which quickly became one of the most important centers for electronic music in the world.

Stockhausen’s early works were mostly concerned with exploring the possibilities of electronic sound generation and manipulation. His most famous work from this period is “Gesang der Jünglinge” (1956), which used recordings of human voice as its primary material. In subsequent years, Stockhausen increasingly incorporated other elements into his music, such as live instruments and voices, found sounds, and visual images.

While Stockhausen’s work was highly influential in the development of electronic music, it was also controversial. Some critics accused him of intellectual elitism or self-indulgence, while others praised him for his innovative approach to music composition. Regardless of the reception his work received during his lifetime, there is no doubt that Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of the most important figures in 20th-century music.

The first electronic music recordings

“The Emancipation of Dissonance” by Luigi Russolo

The first electronic music recordings were made by Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo in 1913. He called his work “The Emancipation of Dissonance,” and it was based on his theory that noise could be musical. Russolo’s music was made by using a variety of contraptions that he built himself, including a “noise machine” that he called the “Intonarumori.” These early recordings were not well received by the public, and Russolo himself was later ridiculed by his fellow Futurists. Nevertheless, his work paved the way for the development of electronic music.

“Gesang der Jünglinge” by Karlheinz Stockhausen

“Gesang der Jünglinge” (“Song of the Youths”) is a work by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, and one of the earliest pieces of electronic music. It was composed in 1955, and first performed in 1956.

“Gesang der Jünglinge” is based on a ancient Greek text, the “Song of the Youths” from the book of Daniel. The text is sung by a solo voice, accompanied by electronic sounds. The electronic sounds are produced by manipulating recordings of human voices.

The work is in three parts: “Das Wort” (“The Word”), “Der Klang” (“The Sound”), and “Die Stille” (“The Silence”). “Das Wort” consists of the voice singing the text, accompanied by clicks and short pulses of sound. “Der Klang” is a long, sustained tone, created by manipulating the recorded voices. “Die Stille” is exactly what it sounds like: silence.

The piece is notable for its use of recorded human voices, which are processed electronically to create new sounds. This use of recorded voices would become a staple of Stockhausen’s later work.

The first electronic music festivals

Although electronic music has only recently become mainstream, it has actually been around for quite a while. One of the first electronic music festivals was the BerlinLove Parade, which was held in 1989. This festival was created to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music

In the late summer of 1951, the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music took place for the first time. Ostensibly a modernist weeks-long seminar for European avant-garde composers held at the German city’s Heiner Müller Theater, it would set the precedent for what we now know as an electronic music festival.

With figures like John Cage, Luciano Berio, and Karlheinz Stockhausen in attendance, Darmstadt quickly became a mecca for progressive music. It wasn’t long before electronic music began to factor into the festival’s programming. In 1960, works by Hanns Eisler and Gottfried Michael Koenig were performed using early analog synthesizers (the latter’s Studie II even features one of the earliest recordings of a sequencer).

The following year, Stockhausen presented his groundbreaking work Kontakte for piano, percussion, and electronics. Kontakte would go on to become one of the most influential pieces of electronic music ever written – its innovative use of tape delay and ring modulation techniques would serve as inspiration for generations of artists to come.

The Berlin Atonal festival

The Berlin Atonal festival, which started in 1982, is widely regarded as the first electronic music festival. The brainchild of German musician and producer Andreas Dorau, the event was originally conceived as a showcase for avant-garde and experimental music, with a particular focus on electronic and synthesizer-based sounds. Over the years, the festival has evolved and expanded its remit to include a wider range of genres and styles, but its electronics roots remain firm.

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