Electronic music‘s roots date back to the 1950s, with drum machines and electric organs becoming available commercially for purchase, while studio equipment also gradually advanced over time.
Record players gradually became household appliances. Experiments using record players led to sound speed regulation that composers utilized in their works.
The birth of electronic music
Electronic instruments made it possible to manipulate sound without physical movement, with sound sources like sine or square waves, microphones, power amplifiers and quality control systems used as sound sources as well as modulation and reverberation effects providing musicians new ways of creating sounds. Equipment in electronic music studios was continually improving along with software for recording and processing audio files.
In the 1920s, advances in vacuum tube technology produced electronic instruments that were more portable, amplified, and performance-friendly than their predecessors. Futurist composers Luigi Russolo and Ferruccio Busoni recognized its potential to expand timbre, as did avant-garde composers who critiqued musical conventions at that time. Charles Ives, Dimitrios Levidis, Olivier Messiaen used Theremin technology to explore microtonal music; Percy Grainger and Edgard Varese tried using It to abandon fixed tonality altogether.
Schaeffer’s Symphonie pour un homme seul (1950) and Stockhausen’s Hymnen, dritte Region mit Orchester (1967) employ this approach to create works with concrete nature that utilize various mediums and sound sources. Furthermore, Schaeffer and his students at Ecole Normale de Musique Paris began creating pieces combining electronic sounds with orchestral arrangements to further experimentation.
By the late 1950s, electronic instruments had become more affordable and accessible to the general public. Companies like AceTone, Matsushita and Korg produced electronic music devices like percussion instruments, drum machines, electric organs and synthesizers; two composers named Toru Takemitsu and Minao Shibata independently devised ideas on how these technologies might be utilized musically.
German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk pioneered what would become known as techno at the end of the 1970s by including synthesizers and songs anchored around repetitive basslines into their musical style, thus setting in motion what later came to be known as techno. Later European electronic music styles like acid techno, hardcore techno and bleep techno developed as variations within this genre and were frequently performed in clubs or underground spaces such as fitness centers or warehouses across Europe. Techno eventually spread to North America where it quickly gained popularity both dance clubs as well as more underground locations like parks fields or gyms across this vast continent.
The 1960s was an influential decade in the evolution of electronic music. Tape recorders began becoming mainstream at this point and composers started exploring their potential using multiple tracks on tape recorders to experiment with combining sounds for complex compositions that couldn’t be recreated live. One movement that emerged during this era was Musique Concrete movement in Paris which involved composers recording different sounds onto one tape before cutting and arranging them into finished works of music.
In this decade, electronic instruments first started becoming more widely available and utilized by musicians across genres – rock and pop alike. Artists such as the Beatles and Beach Boys began including electronic instruments like Theremin and Mellotron into their production while avant-garde composers explored different aspects of sound with them – Stockhausen’s Mixtur (1964) and Hymnen, dritte Region mit Orchester (1967) both explored using electronically generated sounds in combination with conventional orchestral instrumentation to produce what might be termed “acoustic noise music”.
In Europe during the 1970s and 80s, musicians such as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Yazoo began inspiring a new wave of musicians who went on to form synth-pop, an electronic subgenre heavily influenced by disco with repetitive bass lines, drum beats and melodic synthesizer melodies as its hallmark features.
Hip hop and electro music also saw tremendous growth during this era, with artists such as Afrika Bambaataa producing genre-defining tracks like Planet Rock in 1982 using Roland’s TR-808 drum machine to usher in what would later become house music – with deep synthesized basslines, minimal vocals and minimal drum patterns, it was later popularized by Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem to dominate club scenes around the world.
Electronic music gained steam with the invention of synthesizers and drum machines. Two young German men formed Kraftwerk in 1974 and released their album ‘Autobahn’, pushing forward electronic dance music (also called techno). A synthesizer was heavily utilized within this genre with songs featuring repetitive basslines and drum beats; eventually this sound would form the core of hip hop culture.
One aspect of this movement was its use of percussion instruments and vocals, in contrast to some composers’ more mathematical approach at that time. Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh’s 1954 series entitled Leiyla and the Poet was particularly influential and is still regularly referenced as an influence on other musicians today.
This period also witnessed the creation of sound-on-film technology, allowing musicians to experiment with sounds as they were being recorded onto film. This enabled composers like Toru Takemitsu to compose works using techniques of speed adjustment and layering; his style eventually inspired avant-garde electronic artists like Varese, Babbitt and Stockhausen.
The 1970s also witnessed the introduction of the monophonic Minimoog synthesizer, which quickly gained acceptance within electronic rock and progressive rock genres. Artists including Tangerine Dream from Germany and C.J. Bolland from Belgium both used it for composition. British singer Brian Eno also gained considerable notoriety for producing numerous genre-defining albums with it.
The 1980s marked the rise of hip hop music, which mainstreamed electronic sounds into everyday culture with artists like Afrika Bambaataa and The Sugar Hill Gang using TR-808s to craft iconic electro tracks. These styles have had an effect on more contemporary electronic dance music genres like techno and hard house, yet IDM (short for intelligent Dance Music) has truly established this genre into mainstream consciousness. IDM uses synthesizers, digital manipulation and complex rhythms that place less of an emphasis on dancing than other forms of contemporary dance music. This has led to greater popularity with older listeners as well as giving rise to its popular subgenre known as braindance music which features cerebral dance movements.
In the 1980s, electronic instruments experienced an exponential surge in use due to new technologies being developed that made use simpler. This included computer technologies like Ableton Live or Reason and Roland TR-808 synthesizers; all enabling musicians to make music without using traditional equipment like keyboard piano, bass guitar and drums, which helped foster genres like synth-pop and italo disco music.
John Cage was an important pioneer in electronic music at this time. In his groundbreaking composition Imaginary Landscape No. 1, Cage utilized two variable-speed turntables, frequency recordings from muted piano and cymbals, synthesizer, and various sound sources to craft his piece that demonstrated its potential.
Hip hop was also an influential force during this era of club culture and music. Artists like Grandmaster Flash would use turntables more like musical instruments than turntables when remixing classic tracks such as Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” or Chic’s “Good Times”, thus pioneering an entirely new style of rap called hip hop which eventually lead to The Sugar Hill Gang releasing their 1979 hit record, “Rapper’s Delight”.
European electronic music was strongly influenced by German bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, while Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh made significant contributions through his Leiyla and the Poet series in 1959. These works combined folk music with electronic sounds seamlessly for an engaging experience that was both engaging and seamless.
Iannis Xenakis was another influential figure. He began creating what is known as musique stochastique or stochastic music using mathematical probability systems and various algorithms applied to create pieces such as ST/4, ST/48 and Mycenes Alpha.
Yellow Magic Orchestra from Japan and Gary Numan are responsible for pioneering synthpop in America, replacing more traditional instruments with keyboard synthesizers and legendary drum machines such as TR-808 or TB-303 drum machines.