Electronic music has unquestionably become an influential force in popular culture, from techno to synthpop like Yellow Magic Orchestra and Depeche Mode, it can get people dancing.
But where does the music originate?
Early electronic music
Early electronic music encompassed a diverse array of genres and styles, spanning classical (or “art”) composition to popular dance music. One of the earliest breakthroughs came in 1906 with the invention of the theremin, an instrument which allowed musicians to control sounds without physical contact from players; later on, in 1920 came electronic oscillators which enabled electronic instruments to generate tones and timbres that weren’t possible with traditional instrumentation; composers like Edgard Varese and Olivier Messiaen quickly adopted these technologies by including elements in their works from early composers such as theremin and oscillator as pioneering innovators of early electronic music.
At its onset in the mid to late 1960s, electronic music emerged as a distinct musical form. A key milestone occurred when two German musicians formed Kraftwerk and popularized this style through their recordings featuring Moog synthesizers from 1968. Other pioneers in this genre include Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock who developed unique techniques for using synthesizers that included slide, vibrato, ring modulators distortion effects wah-wah effects as well as slide. Other well-known artists from that era include Tangerine Dream Klaus Schulze Jean Michel Jarre Vangelis and Isao Tomita among others.
As the disco era emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s, so too did synth-pop – music featuring synthesizers as its dominant musical instruments. This subgenre was heavily influenced by progressive rock, art-rock, punk rock and post-punk genres which utilized synthesizers extensively; and post-punk bands such as Human League Ultravox Depeche Mode as well as Japanese/British groups like Yellow Magic Orchestra Eurythmics Spandau Ballet produced electronic rock during this era.
As this era progressed, there were significant innovations in computer music: composers such as Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson were pioneering composers using algorithmic composition to compose their works using computers. Furthermore, Max Mathews of Bell Laboratories created the MUSIC I software program in 1957; Vocoder devices allowed performers to manipulate their voices to generate synthetic vocal sounds.
Early electronic instruments
Electronic music’s roots can be traced to the turn of the 20th century. The advent of theremin, an instrument which allowed musicians to manipulate sound without touching it directly, opened up new opportunities for musicians who desired creating sounds they couldn’t create with traditional instruments. Magnetic tape became widely available during the 1940s, enabling musicians to record sound and alter it, leading to musique concrete: an avant-garde musical genre which employed edited recordings of natural and industrial sounds for performance. In the 1960s, synthesizers offered composers new ways of creating complex sounds and textures. Composers such as Edgard Varese, Mauricio Kagel, and Karlheinz Stockhausen utilized electronic instruments as vehicles for exploring atonality and non-standard tunings – an innovation which led them into uncharted territory musically.
In the late 1970s, electronic music underwent a radical transformation. Artists like Ultravox, Gary Numan, Cabaret Voltaire Yellow Magic Orchestra and Depeche Mode pioneered new styles of rock music using digital technologies in place of traditional instruments – thus ushering in what became known as new wave subgenre and shaping current pop music trends today.
At this time, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop became known for its electronic rendition of the theme tune to science fiction TV series Doctor Who. One of its staffers included Delia Derbyshire who would later go on to become a major figure in experimental music with ambient being her specialization.
By the 1980s, DJs had begun using electronic equipment to play dance records at clubs and raves, such as portable speakers or larger outdoor dance events. Techno was coined in Germany around this time to describe this new style of electronic music which has since gone on to become one of the most beloved genres within electronic music; its hallmarks being a steady four-on-the-floor beat made possible with electronic devices such as drum machines (Roland TR-808 or TR-909 for example), sequencers or synthesizers.
Daft Punk, Tiesto and Skrillex achieved worldwide fame through their synth-driven Krautrock music and other styles such as IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) and techno in the 1990s and 2000s. This popularity led to large-scale commercial festivals like Tomorrowland, Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra Music Festival featuring these genres.
Electronic music in popular culture
Electronic music’s development was greatly shaped by its integration into popular culture, particularly with regard to techno, which achieved widespread popularity throughout Europe during the early 80s and gave rise to various subgenres such as acid, hardcore and bleep techno.
In the United States, serious experiments with electronic music began in 1958 when composers such as Milton Babbitt established the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.
These developments were driven by various forces. A primary influence was composers’ desire to break free of classical-Romantic tonal thinking traditions and reconstruct their ideas through different avenues; another crucial influence was searching for new technical resources and modes of expression.
Tape recorders were introduced into use during the 1930s, leading to sound speed adjustment technology and later to electronic oscillators (generating basic acoustical waveforms such as sine waves, square waves and sawtooth waves) enabling new sounds to be generated and recorded, leading to graphic sound collage as well as electronic orchestration.
By the 1970s, synthesizers had become more accessible to musicians. This led to groups such as Kraftwerk and Roxy Music experimenting with this new style; their music incorporated electronic sounds such as distortion, wah-wah, vibrato and ring modulation into its sound while they utilized synthesizers instead of traditional instruments.
Hip hop was an influential new form of dance music popular in the United States that emphasized beats per minute (BPM). This genre also featured sampling from different musical styles as well as dialogue and sound effects from films and television. Grandmaster Flash pioneered this genre by employing turntables as musical instruments – an influential practice later adopted by DJs and club culture alike.
In Europe during the 90s, rave culture emerged and became dominated by electro music composed using synthesizers or drum machines such as Roland TR-808 synthesizers or drum machines; its popularity being enhanced by access to affordable digital computers with musical software.
Electronic music in the 2000s and 2010s
As the 2000s came around, electronic music exploded with numerous genres, styles, and sub-genres. This included genres designed for dancing such as italo disco, techno, trance; styles more suitable for home listening such as ambient and IDM; as well as trip hop, dubstep, house which combined elements from hip hop with reggae soul-funk jazz dub etc.
Genres developed from this would influence both popular music and culture more broadly. EDM became widely adopted as a catchall descriptor of many different musical styles that fans embraced with enthusiasm, as well as providing convenient marketing leverage for liquor companies, car companies, cigarette companies, and other big businesses looking for opportunities in festival circuits and young audiences that they could tap.
By the middle of 2010, certain genres had achieved mainstream success. Skrillex, with his thick-framed glasses and candy-painted fingernails, became a prominent face of EDM music, appearing on album covers, music videos, billboards and billboards – his meteoric rise helped legitimize EDM as its own genre.
In the 1990s, there were several influential record labels that focused exclusively on electronic music such as Warp Records and Mute Records. Tiesto’s Black Hole Recordings and Perfecto Record Label were more focused on mixing electronic with other genres and styles rather than solely relying on electronic as their sole focus.
Although EDM has gained immense popularity over time, critics remain harsh in their assessment. Many movies have depicted rave scene culture with mixed results; one such film, We Are Your Friends (2015) was an expensive big-budget endeavor starring Zac Efron but ultimately failed at box office due to lack of sales.