Electronic music

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Josef Tal in his studio for electronic music in Jerusalem (ca.1965)

Electronic music refers to music that is produced by electronic sound generators (generators) and played back with the help of loudspeakers . In German usage until the end of the 1940s, it was customary to refer to all instruments whose sound was generated or transmitted in any way with electrical current as electrical instruments . Consequently, one also spoke of electrical music . To this day there is a controversy in the terminology, because on the one hand a scientific term for acoustics and at the same time a generic term for new musical styles in popular music is meant. On the other hand, electronic music is also categorized as a genre of new music , whereby the term electroacoustic music has established itself here.

In the period around 1980 electronic music experienced a rapid boom due to the increasing availability and establishment of synthetic sound generation options. Especially in the area of music produced especially for the club scene , synthetically produced songs took on an increasingly important position from around 1980 and very quickly replaced the mostly acoustically produced disco sound that was customary in the 1970s . The phase of electronic dance music began , which was to become the sound of the era in the course of the 1980s and which, with musical styles such as synthpop , euro disco , house and finally techno, would not only have a decisive influence on the sound of the decade but also that of the decades that followed. Since that time, synthetically produced pieces of music have been extremely popular and have gradually more or less displaced traditional acoustically recorded songs, especially in the field of club music, but also in the field of pop music .


In electronic music, two opposing spheres of human creativity meet: the artistic-aesthetic of music and the scientific of physics and electrical engineering. Therefore, the development of their prerequisites must be viewed from a historical and a technical point of view. In the course of the radical musical changes that made the 20th century the century of new music , electronic music plays an important role. First of all, those concepts that required the possibilities of electronic music before they were actually (technically) available are of fundamental importance:

The first musical instrument to use electricity was the Clavessin électrique by Jean-Baptiste Delaborde . The often-mentioned Denis d'or of the Czech inventor Father Prokop Diviš from the early 1750s was able to give the player small electric shocks for fun, but probably did not use electricity to make the sound. In 1867, the director of the Neuchâtel Hipp telegraph factory constructed an electromechanical piano. A first patent in the field of electronic sound generation was granted on March 12, 1885 to E. Lorenz from Frankfurt am Main.

An unusual invention of the electronic instrument making was that of Thaddeus Cahill in 1897 developed Tele Harmonium or Dynamophon . It worked on the principle of a gear generator, weighed 200 tons and was the size of a freight wagon. For each semitone, Cahill used a huge steam-driven multiple current generator, which gave him the sinusoidal output voltages. In his 1907 draft of a new aesthetic of music art , Ferruccio Busoni developed his theory of third tones, considering the dynamophone to be the most suitable for its tonal implementation.

Leon Theremin , as head of the laboratory for electrical vibrations of the State Physical-Technical Institute in Leningrad, constructed the sensational instrument etherophone from 1920 to 1928 , which was later named theremin after him . The instrument was technically a beat buzzer construction; H. an audible tone was generated by superimposing two high-frequency and no longer audible tones. This quality of sound generation has inspired some composers to write works specifically for the theremin. In this way, the composer Anis Fuleihan created a concerto for theremin and orchestra, which was premiered at the theremin in 1945 with the New York Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski and the soloist Clara Rockmore .

At about the same time, the German elementary school teacher and organist Jörg Mager was concerned with the exact generation of microintervals and presented inventions such as the electrophone (1921) and the spherophone (1928). Mager was a supporter of the Czech composer Alois Hába , who, at the suggestion of Ferruccio Busoni , was already practically concerned with micro-intervals. In addition, Mager derived his interest in micro-intervals from the observation of the acoustician and ethnomusicologist Erich Moritz von Hornbostel that the melody always appears as one and the same shape when the pitch, but also the note length, changes. So later his Sphärophon II , his kaleidosphon and his electric sound organ were completed.

The Ondes Martenot was also a beat buzzer that generated audio frequencies, with the difference that a rope was also pulled, with which the pitch could be changed. Olivier Messiaen used this instrument in his Turangalîla symphony , the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger used it in the oratorio Johanna at the stake . As early as 1907, in his visionary and influential text Draft for a New Aesthetics in Music , Busoni had shown possible lines of development that could only be realized with the means of electronic music from the 1950s onwards. Among other things, he took up the idea of timbre melody , which Arnold Schönberg first introduced in his theory of harmony (1911) and repeatedly addressed in the following years, which was relevant to the musical concept of early electronic music. Furthermore, the compositional conception of Edgar Varèses, with its noisy nature, influenced by Busoni and the Italian futurists alike, can be seen as an anticipation of purely electronic possibilities for sound design.

The importance of broadcasting as a medium, initially for the implementation of political goals and later for entertainment, paved the way for the transmission of music.

At the same time, the development of the Trautonium by Friedrich Trautwein in 1930, which was later further developed by Oskar Sala . The first Trautonium pieces by Paul Hindemith also come from this year : seven pieces for three Trautoniums with the subtitle The Little Electro Musician Darling .

In 1935 the Hammond organ and the optical sound organ competed , with the former gaining the upper hand.


The history of electronic music is closely linked to the history of electronic sound production (instruments, apparatus). In general, until around 1940 one speaks of electric music and electric musical instruments . From the early 1950s onwards, a certain composition technique realized with electronic devices was called electronic music .

Musique concrète from Paris

In 1943 the engineer Pierre Schaeffer set up a research center for radiophonic art in Paris, the Club d'Essai , which soon attracted artists such as Pierre Henry , Pierre Boulez , Jean Barraqué , Olivier Messiaen and, in the early 1950s, Karlheinz Stockhausen . On October 5, 1948, Schaeffer's Cinq études de bruits were broadcast on Paris radio in a radio program entitled Concert des Bruits , marking the birth of Musique concrète . On March 18, 1950, the first public concert of concrete music took place in the École Normale de Musique . Since there were no tape machines outside of Germany in the early days of the Club d'Essai , the noises were recorded on records and mixed from up to eight records at the same time in one operation. The processing of these sounds, which were simple everyday noises, involved their transformation and collage-like combination. Aesthetically, the early Musique concrète thus proves to be a preliminary stage to the radio play and the radiophonic collage. The term “concrete music” proposed by Schaeffer in 1949 takes into account the use of found noises - so-called “sound objects” - but should also be understood as a distinction from composed and thus “abstract” music ( serialism ). With this radical ( bruitistic ) approach, Schaeffer also caused some irritation in its own warehouse. In the 1950s, audio recording on magnetic tape allowed the introduction of further processing techniques such as editing options, speed transformations and thus pitch changes in Paris. These possibilities gave rise to the Phonogen , a kind of Mellotron with sound transposition, and the Morphophon , comparable to a tape loop delay device .

In the UK was Daphne Oram (1925-2003), a pioneer with its concrète Musique . Inspired by Schaeffer and a visit to RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) in Paris, she built a similar studio for the BBC, the Radiophonic Workshop, despite resistance. In the 1950s she built a machine for making clay using hand-drawn shapes. This technique, known as oramics , is a drawn sound technique that draws directly onto 35mm film material.

In the consciousness of the interested public, the musique concrète was thus in direct rivalry with the “electronic music” from Cologne, which appeared at the same time. At the beginning of the 1950s, the work of Schaeffer and his colleague Pierre Henry became embroiled in a kind of ideological and sometimes chauvinistically motivated dispute. A debaculous performance of their collective composition Orphée 53 , which took place on the occasion of the Donaueschinger Musiktage on October 10, 1953, sealed their “defeat” and damaged the international reputation of Musique concrète for years. The composers who were close to the Groupe de Recherches de Musique concrète (which emerged from the Club d'Essai in 1951 ) at the beginning of the 1950s tried to introduce compositional principles into the musique concrète , but were initially unable to oppose the concept of noise Schaeffers enforce. In 1954, Edgar Varèse made the tapes for his composition Déserts as a guest . It was not until 1956/57 that works by Luc Ferrari , Iannis Xenakis , François Bayle and others began to emerge , which to a much greater extent placed compositional aspects and later even serial principles in the foreground. Consequently, Schaeffer gave up the term Musique concrète in favor of "electroacoustic music" and renamed his Groupe de Recherches de Musique concrète in 1958 to Groupe de Recherches Musicales .

Electronic music from Cologne

When Werner Meyer-Eppler suggested the term "electronic music" for a certain type of composing with technical aids, he was primarily concerned with differentiating it from the previous developments in electrical sound generation, electrical music, to which he also wrote the musique concrète and the music for tape (see below) counted.

The physicist Werner Meyer-Eppler, the sound engineer Robert Beyer , the technician Fritz Enkel and the composer Herbert Eimert founded the Cologne studio for electronic music in 1951 with the help of the NWDR . The first public concert then took place on May 26, 1953 at the “New Music Festival 1953” in Cologne. In contrast to musique concrète, an attempt was made here to scientifically record electronically generated tones according to physical rules such as Fourier analysis . The timbre , as a result of the superposition of several sinus tones , and the parameters frequency, amplitude and duration were analyzed in detail.

At first, Eimert and Beyer were (only) concerned with the differentiated design of timbres. Only a second generation of young composers, among them Henri Pousseur , Karel Goeyvaerts and Karlheinz Stockhausen , then from 1953 worked primarily on the consistent implementation of serial composition methods using electronic means. Significant for this early musical conception of the Cologne studio is the exclusive use of "synthetically" produced sounds as well as their direct processing and storage on magnetic tape and finally playback via loudspeakers. In this way (at least theoretically) two things were achieved that were revolutionary in music history: first of all, complete control over the timbre parameter , which until now had always remained imponderable for the composer and which could now also be subjected to the serial organization method. Second, the interpreter was eliminated as an intermediary - and thus potentially falsifying the compositional intention. For the first time in the history of Western music, it seemed possible for composers with works such as Stockhausen's Study II to pass on their ideas “suddenly” to the listener. The centuries-old attempts to fix the musical intention more and more precisely by notation were thus outdated.

However, since the sonic results of these early works clearly fell short of the expectations placed in them, new paths were broken in the technology of sound synthesis and the original sinus tone concept was abandoned as early as 1954. With the increasing complexity of the manufacturing process, on the one hand, the sound quality decreased and, on the other hand, the sound components were increasingly beyond the control of the composer. Stockhausen drew an initial conclusion from this in his composition Gesang der Jünglinge (1955/56), which conceptually mediated between electronic sounds and phonemes and applied statistical principles of order ( aleatorics ) through groups of loudspeakers distributed in the room.

The idea of ​​tonal mediation between heterogeneous source materials then leads consistently to the design of live electronics and also to the transformation of sounds of any origin, with which the development of Cologne-based electronic music has made its closest rapprochement to the former "hereditary enemy Musique concète". The Cologne studio was not the only place where technicians and musicians worked together to create electronic music. The Siemens studio for electronic music in Munich from 1956 under the artistic direction of Orff student Josef Anton Riedl and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York were influential . A year earlier, on March 1st, 1955, the studio for electronic composition in Darmstadt was inaugurated, and the composer Hermann Heiss was commissioned to manage it. In 1957, Hermann Heiss privatized the studio under the name Studio for Electronic Composition Hermann Heiss Darmstadt . In 1977 the IRCAM in the Paris Center Pompidou by Pierre Boulez was added. The Electronic Studio Basel and the Studio for Electronic Music in Dresden were not set up until the 1980s. Further studios for electronic music were or are in Milan, Stockholm and Utrecht.

Music for tape

In the so-called Tape Music Studio of the Columbia-Princeton University in New York, Vladimir Ussachevski and Otto Luening taught students a special way of dealing with sounds recorded on tape. They assumed that the wide range of possible electronic manipulation makes the origin of the sound more and more into the background. The first well-known studies of Music for Tape come from the New York couple Louis and Bebe Barron , who have been working in their own professional recording studio since 1948 with the expanded possibilities of tape for music production. In 1951 , John Cage realized the Project of Music for Magnetic Tape in the Barrons studio , together with composers Earle Brown, Morton Feldman , David Tudor , and Christian Wolff .

With Music for Tape , the versatility in the selection and processing of sound sources was particularly important for the musical implementation. In America, the distinction between controllable (electronic) and "uncontrollable" (mechanical) sounds was not considered useful.

Another important pioneer of electronic music in the USA was Richard Maxfield , who worked independently of the university studios that were being established .

The Canadian physicist Hugh Le Caine made decisive experiments in the touch dynamics of a keyboard between 1945 and 1948. With the Sackbut , which he invented , the player was even able to make subtle changes in pitch, volume and timbre, as well as expressive features such as vibrato, by alternately pressing the key on the side Control, intensity and transient processes. In 1955 he invented the Special Purpose Tape Recorder , which is a synthesis of a multi-channel tape machine and a Mellotron , with which unimagined possibilities arose when working with concrete sounds. The piece Dripsody , composed by Le Caine in 1955, is only a little over a minute long and consists of the sound of a drop of water recorded with the recorder , which was copied many times and arranged at different speeds on a pentatonic scale, resulting in different pitches. Starting with the original drop, the intensity and density increase through further belt loops to a climax, up to twelve-tone arpeggios, all of which are derived from the sound material of the drop.

Computer music

Lejaren Hiller founded the second American studio for electronic music, the Experimental Music Studio , at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1958 . There he experimented alongside other researchers with the ILLIAC computer and later the IBM 7090 computer .

In addition to the use in studio equipment, three major musical areas of application for computers can be identified today, which are outlined by the keywords composition (score synthesis), sound generation (through simulation) and sound control.

At the "Grand Price Of Ars Electronica " in 1979, the Fairlight music computer developed by Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel in Australia was presented to a larger international audience for the first time. This elaborate (8-bit) calculating machine brought about the sampling method as a major innovation: It made it possible for the first time to store all the sounds of our world in a computer and to not only be able to call them up at any time using the keyboard, but also to record them to be able to bring any desired pitch and also to make it malleable.

This opened up completely new musical and conceptual dimensions for composers and producers. In January 1982, for example, the album " Erdenklang Computerakustische Klangsinfonie" was released on a label and publisher founded by Ulrich Rützel in Hamburg especially for this type of music . It was the first available sound carrier with this new production technology. In her liner notes for this album, Wendy Carlos noted : “Erdenklang must no longer be viewed exclusively as a technical achievement, but rather as a musical achievement. Something that electronic music has been fighting for since it was around. "

Hubert Bognermayr and Ulrich Rützel introduced the term computer acoustic music for this music genre . The “ Sermon on the Mount - Oratorio for Music Computers and Voices”, published in 1983, solidified this development in music history and represents a milestone in computer music to this day.

At the “Million Bits In Concert” concert organized by WDR on April 25, 1987 with electronic musicians Hubert Bognermayr , Harald Zusatzrader , Johannes Schmoelling , Kristian Schultze and Matthias Thurow , various computer systems (such as the Fairlight) also came for the first time used in a live concert. Mike Oldfield was introduced to this technology by Bognermayr and Abschrader and went on tour with the Fairlight and Harald Abschrader.

In the meantime, computer music is occasionally used for technically controlled theater and open-air productions , e.g. B. as switching music for fireworks .

Development of electronic music in popular music

First appearance of electronic music in film

The 1970s

In the 1970s, progressive rock and psychedelic rock emerged in the context of rock music , some of which process elements of electronic music through the incisive use of electronic keyboard instruments. Due to the influence of computer music instruments, synthesizers and sequencers were created alongside sound modules . The synthesizer in particular became a formative instrument in pop music. Wendy "Walter" Carlos , who studied composition at Columbia University , was one of the first to take an interest in the Moog synthesizer , and since 1964 has been advising Robert Moog on its manufacture. Keith Emerson also often used the Moog synthesizer, which, thanks to its virtuoso style, shaped the style of younger musicians. The new possibility of subjecting long-lasting tones to slow tonal changes showed a strong affinity for the "flowing formlessness" of psychedelic rock ( The United States of America , Silver Apples and Fifty Foot Hose ). In the 1970s, the so-called Berlin School was founded in Germany , which later influenced Krautrock .

Until the 1980s, numerous musical genres emerged side by side that used electronically generated music as an aesthetic medium; from New Wave was Electrowave from radio was Electrofunk and later hip-hop , from disco was House .

The 1980s

In the field of synthesizer- oriented music, groups such as Kraftwerk , Depeche Mode and Suicide , who did a kind of pioneering work for upcoming styles such as EBM , electro-pop , hip-hop and techno , had a great influence on many later musicians .

The 1990s

Sampling in techno was created through several genres ( funk , electro funk , new wave , electronic body music ) in the late 1980s. There are also influences in the percussion emphasis of Afro-American and African music .

The emphasis is on electronically generated percussion - rhythm by drum machines . By sampling are loops generated, creating a repetitive music creates a characteristic sound.

From 2000

At the end of the 1990s, elements of electronic music were incorporated into the classic rock and folk genres, which had often been considered conservative up until then . Bands like Radiohead or Tortoise , but also Stereolab processed electronic elements in structures of classical songwriting and contributed to the re-establishment of electronic (dance) music outside of the techno scene.

Since 2014 there has also been a hardstyle stage at the Electric Love Festival in Salzburg.

More related music styles

Definition of terms

In common parlance, rock music is not counted as electronic music, although electronic instruments and especially electronic effects devices are also used there. In the case of electric guitars , the sound-changing effects of amplifiers and effects devices are essential, but they are not counted as electrophones . In psychedelic rock (e.g. Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple ) there are also “real” electrophones (e.g. theremin or Hammond organ ), but it is also differentiated from electronic music. In metal - depending on the sub-style - analog effects devices play an important role, but musicians and scene members often have a clear idea of ​​which devices are forbidden in order not to belong to electronic music. Digital effects devices or digital production are taboo in the whole genre of music (although keyboards with analog output are tolerated), and there is a rejection of semiconductors in guitar amplifiers .


  • Thomas Dézsy , Stefan Jena, Dieter Torkewitz (eds.): Between experiment and commerce. On the aesthetics of electronic music , Mille Tre, Vienna 2007, ISBN 978-3-900198-14-5
  • Andreas Dorschel , Gerhard Eckel, Deniz Peters (Eds.), Bodily Expression in Electronic Music: Perspectives on Reclaiming Performativity , Routledge, London / New York 2012 (Routledge Research in Music 2), ISBN 978-0-415-89080-9
  • Peter Donhauser: Electrical sound machines , Böhlau, Vienna 2007, ISBN 978-3-205-77593-5
  • Laurent Garnier with David Brun-Lambert: electric shock . Hannibal Verlag, Höfen 2005, ISBN 978-3-85445-252-2 (Original edition: Electrochoc )
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  • Peter Gradenwitz: Paths to the Music of Time. Heinrichshofen , Wilhelmshaven 1974, ISBN 3-7959-0133-2
  • Achim Heidenreich, Uwe Hochmut: W mgnieniu wieczności. Historia i znaczenie muzyki elektronicznej w Niemczech (In the blink of an eye: history and positions of electronic music in Germany), in: Daniel Cichy (ed.): Nowa muzyka niemiecka, Krakowskie Biuro Festiwalowe / Korporacja Ha! Art, Kraków 2010, p. 112-133.
  • Hans Ulrich Humpert: Electronic Music. History - technology - composition. Schott, Mainz 1987, ISBN 3-7957-1786-8
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  • Fred K. Prieberg: Musica ex machina. About the relationship between music and technology. Ullstein, Berlin 1960
  • The series , issue 1 electronic music . Universal Edition, Vienna 1955
  • André Ruschkowski: Electronic sounds and musical discoveries. Reclam, Stuttgart 1998, ISBN 3-15-009663-4
  • Matthias Sauer: The Thereminvox - construction, history, works . epOs-Music, Osnabrück 2008, ISBN 978-3-923486-96-0
  • Elena Ungeheuer: How electronic music was "invented" ... Source study for Werner Meyer-Eppler's design between 1949 and 1953. Schott, Mainz 1992, ISBN 3-7957-1891-0
  • Sebastian Vogt: I'm the musician with a laptop in hand !? The influence of technical innovations on the production process of electronic music; a review of the years 1997 to 2007. Univ.-Verl. Ilmenau, Ilmenau 2011, ISBN 978-3-86360-006-8
  • Christoph von Blumröder: The electroacoustic music, a compositional revolution and its consequences , signals from Cologne contributions to the music of the time Volume 22, Verlag Der Apfel, Vienna 2017, ISBN 978-3-85450-422-1

Web links

Commons : Electronic music  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Wolfgang Martin Stroh: Electronic Music (1975). In: Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht (Ed.): Concise dictionary of musical terminology . 14. Extradition. Franz Steiner, Wiesbaden 1987.
  2. Peer Sitter: The Denis d'or: Ancestor of the "electroacoustic" musical instruments? ( Memento from January 3, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF; 297 kB) In: Wolfgang Auhagen, Bram Gätjen, Klaus Wolfgang Niemöller (eds.): Perspectives and methods of a systemic musicology: Report on the colloquium in the musicological institute of the university Cologne 1998 (Volume 6 of Systemische Musikwissenschaft ), Verlag Lang, 2003, p. 303; Systemic musicology. ( Memento from June 26, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) Festschrift Jobst Peter Fricke on the occasion of his 65th birthday. 2003, revision 2010, Musicology Institute University of Cologne, Systematics department.
  3. a b c d e f g h i j k l m n André Ruschkowski - Soundscapes
  4. Patentschau, Patent No. 33507. In: ETZ: Elektrotechnische Zeitschrift : Edition A. 1885, Volume 6 (November), p. 504.
  5. Ferruccio Busoni: Draft of a new aesthetics of music art , full text at Wikisource .
  6. Ferruccio Busoni: Draft of a New Aesthetics of Music , p. 42 f.
  7. Matthias Sauer: The Thereminvox - Construction, History, Works , p. 72 ff.
  8. Also listen to Sala's later works from 1990 and 1997 ( My Faszinating Instrument (1990, Erdenklang 90340) and Subharmonische Mixturen (1997, Erdenklang 70962)). The combination with newer computer technology can be read in the article on Ulrich Rützel .
  9. Klaus Ebbeke: Paul Hindemith and the Trautonium.
  10. Stephanie Metzger: Utopians of Sound: The Sound Worlds of Daphne Oram, Maddalena Fagandini and Delia Derbyshire (www.br.de).
  11. ^ Ingo Techmeier: Electronics pioneer Daphne Oram: Private dreams, public nightmares . In: The daily newspaper: taz . July 10, 2015, ISSN  0931-9085 ( taz.de [accessed June 18, 2020]).
  12. Daphne Oram. September 10, 2016, accessed June 18, 2020 .
  13. Gayle Young - Hugh Le Caine.
  14. See the liner notes under Teldec 6.25030 / LC 81558
  15. This is the assessment made by Veronica Matho in: Veronica Matho: The 100 best rock and pop LPs . Ullstein Book UTB No. 36537, Berlin 1987, p. 24.
  16. See http://www.johannesschmoelling.de/html/mbic.htm