The history of electronic music is fascinating, from the advent of electronic instruments and recording equipment to the birth of synthesizers and digital music technologies. The development of electronic music and subsequent technologies has affected every aspect of the music industry and every application of music production.
This is especially notable for professionals working in the audio production side of audiovisual media and entertainment such as film and video games. Accordingly, Southern Utah University’s online Master of Music with an Emphasis in Music Technology – Studio Technology Track weaves the history, development and application of electronic music into many of its courses.
What Is Electronic Music?
There are many definitions for electronic music. But, essentially, electronic music is music made or modified using electronic processing or manipulation. The Encyclopedia Britannica elaborates on the broad nature of this definition stating:
“… it is more precise to say that for a piece of music to be electronic, its composer must anticipate the electronic processing subsequently applied to his or her musical concept, so that the final product reflects in some way the composer’s interaction with the medium.”
An important aspect for the music technology student is the focus on electronic music as a medium or collection of techniques used in production and composition. Of specific import to professionals in studio, audiovisual and interactive entertainment production are the tools developed through and inherent to electronic music such as electronic and virtual instruments, recording software, and audio manipulation technologies.
How Did Electronic Music Develop?
Around the turn of the 20th century, Thaddeus Cahill invented the first musical instrument which generated sound electrically, the telharmonium. This instrument used telephone receivers to convert electric impulses created by rotating electromagnetic generators into sound.
The invention of amplifiers and loudspeakers in the early 1900s allowed for the potential of electronic music amplification. The 1910s and 1920s also saw the development of tone generators, filter circuits and other audio-frequency technologies. As these technologies became available, people attempted to create electronic or electromechanical instruments which could replicate and replace other acoustic instruments (e.g., the electronic organ and electric guitar). Inventors also utilized these technologies to create purely electronic instruments such as the theremin.
The next big development in electronic music was the introduction of the tape recorder after World War II. Recording sounds to tape allowed people to manipulate those sounds in various ways as well as edit them together in different sequences by cutting and splicing tape. During this era, avant-garde composers started experimenting with recording and performing using tape machines as a medium, making tape music a direct analog to modern concepts of experimental electronic music. This period also saw the establishment of the world’s first electronic music studios.
As tape recording technology continued to advance, it developed into the main mode of audio recording for decades to come. But as a compositional or performance medium, tape music had its limits.
Further advancements in the potential of electronic music came with the invention of the synthesizer, especially the development of the VCO (voltage-controlled oscillator) based synthesizer in the 1960s, which allowed musicians to trigger and manipulate generated tones in real time. Drum machines were developed soon thereafter. Drum machines like the Roland TR-808 and synthesizers like the Minimoog quickly became prevalent and created iconic sounds we still hear today.
And, of course, the development of computer music technology has had an immense impact on every aspect of music. Composers were actually experimenting with computer sound synthesis and algorithm-based composition in the mid-20th century. But digital technology was not advanced enough to have a broad impact on music until the introduction of digital synthesizers in the late 70s and early 80s.
The early 80s also saw the introduction of MIDI, a widely used acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. MIDI was developed in collaboration between many of the prominent manufacturers of the time. It was intended to create a standard interface for manipulating given computer parameters or digital and virtual instruments via external controls (or the other way around). MIDI is still in widespread use — essential to live electronic music as well as music production of every sort.
The last decades have seen many further advancements in digital music technology for audio recording, manipulation, composition and performance. Every piece of recorded music available in digital format is processed at some point through digital software, whether in initial recording and processing or the final file conversions.
What Is the Role of Electronic Music in Visual Media and Interactive Entertainment?
Electronic music innovations have many specific applications to producing and composing music for visual and interactive media. The use of virtual instruments is a prime example. Virtual instruments are collections of digital representations of sounds — actually high quality samples of real instruments. A composer may play and record a part using a MIDI controller (like a MIDI-enabled keyboard) which controls virtual instrument sounds within a software program. The recorded part can be manually edited within that software program and played back using any virtual instrument sound, allowing the composer to audition different instruments and part variations. Composers can audition whole scores this way, manipulating tempos, instrument arrangements and any other controllable parameter at will.
This is very useful in scoring an audiovisual work, where composers and music editors need absolute flexibility in manipulating sound, arrangement and timing prior to hiring musicians to perform and record the final score live. Many virtual instruments are of high enough sound quality to actually be used in the final production, saving substantial amounts of money. Listen to most any TV show or commercial, and chances are you are listening to a combination of virtual and “real” instruments.
Clearly, the history of electronic music, instruments and technology has had a much greater impact on music than simply the romantic legacy of avant-garde experimental music and invention. The tools created through the development of electronic music are integral to modern music production. They are literally the main components of music technology, used by music professionals in every audio and audiovisual industry application.