The Origins of Electronic Music and Musique Concrete

Pierre Schaeffer was struck with inspiration while working on radiodiffusion-Television Francaise (RTF) sound effects when he realized they could also be utilized musically.

That was when musique concrete first made its debut. This form of composition served as the precursor of hip-hop sampler virtuosity where deejays would manipulate vinyl samples live to create rough, groove-driven metagrooves.


Musique concrete (French for “concrete music“) is an electronic genre which employs recorded sounds as its raw material, edited through various audio signal processing techniques, and then assembled to form an abstract sound collage. Sources may include musical instruments, human voices and the natural environment as well as computer-based audio synthesis systems. Musique concrete often deviates from traditional musical forms by lacking melodies, harmonys and rhythms that would normally characterise it.

Pierre Schaeffer coined the term musique concrete in 1948 to refer to his experiments with electroacoustic tape music. In his journal from that year, he described his vision for this type of composition that would use recordings as an escape hatch from traditional performance and composition techniques; Schaeffer believed the sonic properties of recorded sounds could allow composers to explore them more fully than with live musical instrumentation.

He proposed a revolutionary listening style which focused on the pure sonic qualities of sounds rather than their cultural or indexical associations, with particular attention being paid to how recorded sounds could create spatial effects. As part of an artistic avant-garde movement with Andre Breton and Pablo Picasso as allies, his work became part of this larger artistic avant-garde movement.

Although musique concrete never became mainstream music, its influence can still be felt across styles of music. Notably, it may have laid the groundwork for sampling as a musical technique and can be heard today in works from The Beatles (their Tomorrow Never Knows album is an experiment in tape looping and studio effects) to Four Tet and field recording atmospherics of acts like Burial and Ghost Box.

Karlheinz Stockhausen and other composers like him began exploring purely electronic forms of music during the 1960s, pioneering devices that would eventually become modern electronic musical instruments and pioneering sound synthesis, an innovative method of producing sounds by manipulating acoustic signals electronically rather than through instruments.


Pierre Schaeffer descended deep into the DNA of sound itself, manipulating pitch, speed, and looping to craft an entirely unique musical landscape. He interlaced sounds from everyday life (thunderstorms, steam engines, waterfalls) with recorded musical instruments to produce compositions that transported listeners to an auditory universe – pioneering musique concrete as a genre and pioneering sound manipulation as an artform.

Contrary to conventional musical rules, musique concrete does not adhere to melodic, harmonic and rhythmical constraints as defined by melody, harmony rhythm and metre. Composers instead employ sounds from nature or electronic synthesizers for inspiration when creating pieces in this genre. Early examples, such as Schaeffer’s Etude aux chemins de fer and Varese’s Poeme electronique both employed found sounds such as thunderstorms or train stations mixed in with recordings of classical instruments or other musical sources as compositional bases for compositions.

An essential characteristic of musique concrete is its acousmatic aspect, which explores the relationship between sound and its physical properties. This term derives from Greek acousma meaning “speech-sound” or “sound that manifests itself through vibration”, an approach popular in avant-garde art at that time and which formed part of the foundation for what we now refer to as acoustic sculpture.

Musique concrete was a response to both traditional notated music and its purist form, pure elektronische Musik (revolving solely around electronic-produced sounds rather than recorded ones). Its theoretical foundation, the Traite des objets musicaux, arose during an era in which universalist and internationalist ideals were being put under severe strain; France had several colonies such as Madagascar, Southeast Asia and Algeria experiencing growing anticolonialist movements that challenged these ideals directly.

Furthermore, it was an innovative listening strategy which focused on the sound itself rather than cultural and indexical interpretations of sounds to unlock more profound truths than could ever be expressed through language. This concept of pure sound made accessible via electronic technology is often referenced in histories of modern music; similarly it became a central theme in avant-garde art at this time as evidenced by figures like Andre Breton and Pablo Picasso.


Music concrete involves taking unprocessed sound and turning it into musical form through various techniques such as recording and manipulating it into musical compositions using cutting, splicing, looping and rerecording them to produce compositions. Sound samples were taken from everyday life – thunderclaps, wind gusts, steam engines or traffic noise were often employed – such as thunder, wind turbines or train horns from everyday life such as rain or traffic noise, Schaeffer refers to this work as musique acousmatique in his book Traite des objets musicaux (Treatise on Musical Objects).

He was also interested in distinguishing musique concrete from traditional music, thus giving rise to its name (french for “concrete music”). This genre was intended as a separate style of musical creation from classical notated composition; musique concrete marked its introduction as being heavily influenced by technology with scientific foundation.

Pierre Schaeffer co-founded the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrete (RTF) studio with fellow composers Edgard Varese and Robert Poullin in 1949. Equipped with state-of-the-art magnetic tape recorders, Schaeffer experimented with this emerging technology before eventually using it to compose works using several techniques he had created himself.

One of the most significant pieces created was Symphonie pour un homme seul in 1950. As it was the first piece of musique concrete broadcast publicly, its composition required live montages created with turntables. Later that same year, Pierre Henry, an acclaimed musician and orchestral percussionist began working alongside Schaeffer on creating this difficult composition, eventually joining as co-composer on Symphonie pour un homme seul and later going on to co-found GRM as well as work together on Poeme Electronique together.

Musique Concrete had a profound effect on the development of electronic music today. It laid the groundwork for sampling as we know it today – both manipulation of existing sounds and addition of new ones – as well as creating an experimental edge in electronic music that runs throughout its repertoire today, such as Four Tet and Burial who both utilize altered or recontextualised samples in their work.


As with many musical genres, electronic music began its evolution alongside technological advancement. As the 1940s progressed, engineers and composers began experimenting with sound recording techniques; particularly Pierre Schaeffer who created musique concrete (music created using concrete sounds instead of traditional acoustic instruments).

At that time, recording technology was still relatively primitive; radio studios consisted of shellac record players, mixing desks equipped with rotating potentiometers, mechanical reverberation and filters; these early machines enabled Schaeffer to produce some groundbreaking examples of musique concrete music.

He developed his approach around the idea that sound can be understood as a signifier in its own right, devoid of cultural and indexical meanings, so as to reveal truths which go deeper than those which can be expressed with words alone. In doing so, he claimed he could hear deeper truths than can be expressed through language alone.

Halim El-Dabh was another younger Egyptian composer who began experimenting with musique concrete in 1944. He recorded natural sounds onto magnetic tape before distorting them to form melodic structures.

Musique Concrete and Electronic Music differ fundamentally, in that Musique Concrete emphasizes concrete sounds and their structure while Electronic Music seeks to perfect ideas or systems. This distinction lies at the center of many current debates between those advocating a more humanist approach to music and those preferring cold perfection in systems.

Although they had many differences, the pioneers of musique concrete shared many of the same concerns with postmodern music movement that was developing at that time. These included advocating a “new listening”, rejecting cultural and indexical meanings, and engaging with spatiality phenomena through sound.

Schaeffer first utilized musique concrete techniques in 1948 with Etude aux chemins de fer and then in 1950 produced his major work Symphonie pour un homme seul which showcased their potential as compositional tools, later widely adopted by Radiodiffusion Television Francaises (RTF) studios across Europe as well as elsewhere around the globe.