People may mistakenly believe that electronic music began with the invention of synthesizers, but its roots can be traced much further back. Indeed, electronic instruments first appeared near the end of 19th century.
Early pioneers of electronic music were mostly musicians and composers influenced by new technology that was becoming accessible and affordable for everyone.
The Beatles were rock royalty, yet in contrast to many of their contemporaries who turned angst into defiance or anger, the four lads from Liverpool maintained a more composed approach and challenged boundaries through more considered means – particularly experimentation with production techniques like the Moog synthesizer which would go on to revolutionise electronic music as we know it today.
The Moog was first brought into popular consciousness through its use in The Band’s 1969 song Tomorrow Never Knows, where its use pioneered tape loops and other sonic manipulation techniques while its lyrics promoted mind expansion, anti-materialism, and Eastern spirituality. Additionally, Tomorrow Never Knows helped introduce the idea of “fourth dimension”.
While The Beatles may have been one of the first artists to use synths, other acts like Raymond Scott (an audio Andy Warhol) and Bob Moog were already pioneering electronic research. Bob Moog’s Electronium allowed musicians to create their own sequencers; keyboards and oscillators provided different sounds that could be combined together into what we now refer to as electronic sound; it was due to these pioneers that modern acts such as Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem were able to incorporate it without feeling the need to declare it!
Moog’s revolutionary creation of the first commercial synthesizer in 1964 changed music forever, enabling sounds to be altered using electricity for the very first time. This had an incredible impact on electronic music with bands such as The Beatles and Frank Zappa experimenting with early synths; Wendy Carlos even created an album entitled Switched on Bach using hers; recreating pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach while using the Moog synth to craft one of the greatest tracks (if not albums) of the 1970s using it for switching on Bach pieces by recreating Johann Sebastian Bach pieces using hers Moog synth.
As early synthesisers were quite expensive, Moog offered seminars for composers to make the best use of these new tools. Many influential electronic musicians in history such as Eno and Kraftwerk used Moog synthesizers in their music compositions.
Artists like Moby were instrumental in popularizing electronic dance music (EDM), particularly its techno and breakbeat subgenres. As it spread from clubs to fields and fitness centers, EDM evolved into a form with multiple catchy elements – such as synth riffs that featured strobe-like synths or the sudden build-up known as “drop.” Now many EDM tracks take cues from these early pioneers.
The Theremin was one of the most influential electronic instruments ever developed, enabling performers to manipulate pitch and volume of sounds by moving their hands near or away from it. This enabled musicians to create synth pop sound which became hugely popular for a brief period in late 1970s/early 1980s thanks to Blancmange, Pet Shop Boys, Eurythmics, Human League Mk2, a-ha Soft Cell New Order. Nowadays theremins can still be found both digital music production software as well as more modern hardware versions like the Moog Theremini
The experimental musique concrete movement of the 1950s also contributed to pushing electronic music forward in different directions. While not as widely-acclaimed as Moog, its uncompromising philosophy helped shape much of what would later become part of synthesizers and digital sound processing technologies.
Hip hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash made an indelible mark on electronic music with his use of rhythmic looping and sampling, also used extensively by Fischerspooner and Ectomorph today. Turntables became instruments, with this style leading to creative compositions using vocal samples from different songs as part of an improvised composition – leading to the formation of mashups between different songs with each other using this style – often featuring vocal samples from one track blended in with instrumental components from another song; an approach which continues today with acts such as Fischerspooner and Ectomorph.
Electronic music in the 1960s
The 1960s witnessed an explosion of electronic music, particularly in Germany. Kraftwerk was one of the key figures behind this emerging genre and their repetitive rhythms inspired an entire generation of DJs who played underground clubs, fitness centers and warehouses across Europe. Over time they would go on to form subgenres like acid techno, hardcore or bleep techno that were all inspired by both themselves and what had come before.
Composers such as Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer used musique concrete – an innovative musical practice utilizing sound rather than traditional notes or timbres – in this decade to encourage people to think creatively about music production and sound usage. This marked an enormous paradigm shift which spurred creative thought in people.
Progressive rock keyboardists like Brian Eno were using drum machines as part of their sound, eventually inspiring Roxy Music’s John Foxx who used an ARP Odyssey to move from glam through rock electronica and back again into ambient territory, ultimately having an influence on bands such as OMD and Numan.
Electronic music in the 1970s
While most believe electronic music began with the invention of synthesizers, its roots extend much further back. Pierre Schaeffer made history when he introduced musique concrete – an experimental sound manipulation style using found sounds and experimentation with timbres and scales to produce new forms of composition – in the 1950s. This groundbreaking technique inspired many composers including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Henry or Iannis Xenakis to use unconventional forms of composition using sound modifications.
In the 1960s and 70s, artists became interested in synthesizers with Jean-Michel Jarre becoming one of the early proponents of synth music with his 1970 album Oxygene; its purpose being pure synth music with lush melodies and chords; its success proved invaluable as an influence to later acts such as Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze or Vangelis.
Meanwhile, the 808 drum machine had become an indispensable element of electro house – an electronic music genre featuring breakbeats sped up to hip-hop and funk rhythms accompanied by oscillators with wild pitch modulation – leading to further influences across other genres like dub techno and acid techno.
Electronic music in the 1980s
By the late 1960s, electronic music began to integrate with other forms of popular music and give rise to new subgenres – for instance rock musicians starting to incorporate oscillators and theremin into their sonic signature. Jeff Wayne achieved lasting fame with his 1978 song ‘War of the Worlds’ that featured digital vocoder technology which allowed humans to talk through computers or play back synthesizers and musical instruments via audio recordings that had been altered in an audible manner.
Karlheinz Stockhausen had a unique approach to how electronic sounds could be utilized to compose music with authenticity in mind, rather than musique concrete sound manipulation. He worked at Studio d’Essai and Cologne radio station WDR before founding Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center – now America’s oldest center for computer and electronic music research – in 1959.
In the 1970s, disco music flourished with hits like Donna Summer’s 1977 single ‘I Feel Love’ using drum machines and synthesized rhythms to entice dancers onto the floor. By contrast, synth-pop evolved further towards dance music through 1980s leading to techno, acid house, and trance genres being born.
Electronic dance music
The 1970s witnessed the rise of disco music, which relied on drum machines and synthesized sounds for its popularity; popular hits at this time included Donna Summer’s 1977 song ‘I Feel Love’ being especially successful. Around this same period, legendary producer Giorgio Moroder became immensely influential within electronic music.
His 1974 album ‘Autobahn’ was among the first to rely heavily on repetitive and synthetic sounds, giving rise to Synthpop as a genre and opening up doors for Ultravox and Depeche Mode bands to come.
Throughout the 1980s, music production methods underwent another revolution with Musical Instrument Digital Interface or MIDI’s introduction. This revolutionary technological advance allowed computers and instruments to communicate directly for the first time; leading to revolutionary synthesizers such as Roland’s D-50, Korg’s M1 and Yamaha’s DX7 being created.
This led to the birth of House, Techno, and Trance as distinct dance music genres. Drawing influence from their acoustic-driven counterparts, these genres used dusty drum machines and timeless synth sounds – with artists like Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, as well as German techno and hardcore scenes having significant impacts.