The Evolution of Electronic Music

 

The Evolution of Electronic Music: a brief overview of history

 

Music has been around since the beginning…

…of time. Even our primitive ancestors used music as a form of communication as well as expression. As society advanced, so did our music. It was not until fairly recently, however, that musical styles really shifted. The discovery of electricity by the great Thomas Edison has propelled our society foreword as a whole. Although it was never his intention, this concept has led to a revolution in the music industry. Since then, music has become much more than just instruments and vocalists. An entire world of engineers now has the chance to impact the music industry. Music is not just being played or recorded anymore; it is being programmed. This is the story of the evolution of electronic music and it is impacted by the constantly developing world of technology.

The evolution of electronic music - Moog

Moog

 

Mr. Edison could be credited with the creation of…

…electronic music since he did add the ‘electrical’ part; however he was not integral to the musical aspect. The first man to dive into the electronic musical realm was Elisha Gray. Born into a Quaker family, this electrical engineer was a telegraph specialist and has over seventy patents accredited to his name. Gray happened to invent the telephone as well, but a fellow inventor named Alexander Gram Bell received the patent for it a few short hours before Gary went to receive one. However, Gray invented something else that was arguably equally as important. It was the “Musical Telegraph.” It consisted of multitone transmitters and was the first electric music synthesizer that used self vibrating electromagnetic circuits that were single-note oscillators operated by a two-octave keyboard. It was not really a ‘synthesizer’ per se, but the sound could be transmitted over a telegraph wire. This event in 1875 paved the path for other inventors to tinker with circuits and enter the electronic music universe.

Elisha Gray broke ground with…

…the “Musical Telegraph,” but it was Thaddeus Cahill who took the next steps. Cahill was trying to figure out how to broadcast music through phone lines. He ultimately wanted to make a business out of it and install this broadcasting system in restaurants and hotels. In order to do this he had to create a loud signal, and that all depended on the size of the electricity generator. The more electricity involved, the more sound that could be produced. Then he had an idea. If he had enough generators of sufficient size, one for each note of the scale, he could switch on and off their outputs to create music. In 1901 he had his first model and it weighed seven tons. This “dynamophone” was a prototype that had multiple rheotomes or tone wheels. Each rheotome had raised bumps and the amount of bumps determined the pitch that would be produced. They would spin around a gear that was set to spin at different frequency ultimately output a tone. The “dynamophone” was renamed the teleharmonium and Cahill expanded his machine. It grew to a whopping two hundred tons and had thirty-six notes per octave! He moved his monster to New York City and people now had access to listen to it. Unfortunately, it was not very successful. It encountered multiple problems when the public tried to tap into the signal. Shortly after this failure there was another invention that came out, the radio. It was able to broadcast music to the masses and effectively killed off the teleharmonium.

Across the globe, Leon Theremin, a Russian electrical engineer…

…had an idea of his own. He wanted to make an instrument that would purely produce electronic music, and in 1917 he accomplished his goal. Originally called the “aetherphone”, this instrument was a box with antennas that were connected to very high frequency oscillators made with vacuum tubes. The playing of the instrument depended entirely on the position of the musician. The placement of hands allowed for the box, later renamed as the Theremin, to create an eerie whining sound. To this day, it is still the only musical instrument that is played without any physical contact. Leon Theremin toured Europe playing symphonies with his new instrument. Unfortunately the Theremin was not a commercial success because it was so hard to play. It can be found in more modern culture in places such as the Beach Boys “Good Vibrations” as well as many scary movies.

The next step towards electronic music was…

…brought forward by the duo of Armand Givelet and Edouard Coupleux. Givelet was a radio engineer that designed his own oscillator circuits. He developed and patented many electron and electromagnetic devices. He had an aspiring goal to build an electronic organ capable of replacing classical organs. He teamed up with Coupleux who was and organist and an organ builder. Together they built the first generation of electronic organs. These early “synthesizers” consisted of a console, two or three keyboards, one or many oscillator banks, and various amplifier and filter banks. It was able to transmit high quality sound because of Givelet’s circuits. In 1929, Givelet and Coupleux introduced the “Givelet Electric Organ” at the Paris exposition. Four years later an organ superpower entered the game of electronic music.

The “Givelet Electric Organ” may have been the first…

…actual keyboard synthesizer that could make electronic music, but it was a company back in the states that really popularized the electric organ. A Cornell graduate, aurens Hammond, invented a synchronous electric clock. This information may not sound relevant, but this clock’s motor became an essential part in the organ he was to build later in his life. Hammond discovered that by winding a wire around a magnet, he was able to pickup a current and feed it to a radio amplifier. Intrigued by what he discovered, Hammond wanted to imitate the pipe organ. Using concepts from the Teleharmonium, he was able to create his own organ. This Hammond organ had 91 tone wheels and various switches connected to drawbars that controlled the sound. These organs became more than just a science project. People started replacing their pianos with Hammond organs in their homes. The Hammond B-3 organ is the most successful organ of all time. It was beautifully crafted, had an amazing sound and was affordable enough for many people to purchase for personal use.

1955 finally gave birth to the…

…word synthesizer. Harry Olson and Herbert Belar of RCA produced an electronic music synthesizer called the “Mark I”. It used a bank of 12 oscillator circuits, which used electron tubes to generate the 12 basic notes of a scale. This was the first instrument to emulate musical sounds. Its sound could be shaped in any way by passing through other circuits, modulators, or filters. This invention was so unique because it virtualized music through artificial means. The “Mark I,” and later the “Mark II” which had twice as many tone oscillators, allowed the musician to create their own music as they composed it. The machine could also produce music when paper with punch holes was fed into it. These synthesizers laid more of the groundwork of synths to come.

Dr. Robert Moog was the next developer of…

…the synthesizer. In 1949 he built his first theremin and was fascinated. He opened a business selling them and used his spare time to design synthesizers. He made various prototypes that were monophonic, meaning they played one note at a time. He was also the first person to incorporate attack-decay-sustain-release into his models. These knobs controlled the attack, decay, sustain, and release of a note that was being played. In 1971 Moog had his breakthrough. That breakthrough was the Minimoog. It was the first synthesizer that was widely available, portable, and affordable. It led the revolution of the commercial manufacturing of modular voltage-controlled analog synthesizer systems. The Minimoog’s simplicity and small size allowed for it to be used by more people. Many famous artists began using the Minimoog not only in the studio but live in shows. An artist was able to control the Minimoog in real time, which was a huge breakthrough. On the left side of the keyboard were a pitch bender and a module slide. These two knobs can still be found on synthesizers and keyboards today. The Minimoog laid the groundwork for the modern synthesizers.

There were now many synthesizers being produced…

…around the world. Japanese companies such as Korg and Yamaha had now moved into the electronic music industry. Now with all these companies manufacturing their own synthesizers each one had a different way to control it. Each company had their own interface for their own product. Compatibility was a huge problem. The companies were losing profits and costumers. Something had to be done. The leaders in the industry decided to call a meeting and in 1983 they agreed upon a solution to their compatibility problem. As a result, “Musical Instrument Digital Interface”, or MIDI for short, was born. This was such a big event because it created a common digital language for everything electronic. A musician was able to use products from multiple companies together in harmony for the first time when making electronic music. MIDI allowed computers to enter the music making process. ALL music today is made through a computer and this would not if possible if not for MIDI. It allowed for various recording and mixing programs to exist today. What is really amazing about it is that it was one of the first universal standards to be developed and it has basically remained the same since being introduced in 1983. The MIDI is godfather of all things electronic in the era proceeding after it.

The evolution of electronic music

Generating sound

 

Like all music, electronic music evolved from…

…its predecessors. In order to talk about the electronic music genre, one must learn how it has evolved from the music before it. Fast forward to the 1950’s. Rock music has now taken over the airwaves. The cry of the electric guitar has now strummed its way into everyone’s hearts. Music has changed drastically from what it was before. The rock genre was characterized by an up-tempo sound that made people want to dance. Musicians were able to put their own twist on the sound. This was clearly evident in the 1970s when funk, synth rock, and classic rock became heavily popular. This was the beginning of the electronic music genre. The combination of electronic instruments —like the synthesizer, drum machine, and sequencer— developed and the advancement of computers set the stage for the electronic music genre to ultimately boom.

Electronic dance music was about to…

…be born. Its origins can be traced back to 1960’s Jamaica. Using reel-to-reel tape players, artists would overlay multiple tracks, usually instrumentals of existing tracks, and hook it up to an amp to create a brand new dance track. This was the creation of the disk jockey, or the DJ. These DJs would play their tapes, grab a MC, and throw a party. This style of electronic music eventually became known as Dub Music and led to the next form of electronic music known as House Music.

A man that went by the name of “Frankie Knuckles”…

…can be accredited as the founder of house music. In 1970’s Detroit, the “Godfather of House” would play at clubs with a mixer and two turntables. Using this equipment he was able to reconstruct records by mixing them, adjusting tempos and adding percussive layers. These effects are the fundamental tools that DJs and producers use today when playing a live set or recording a track in a studio. House music is the premier dance music. Its penetrating beat in 4/4 time make for an irresistible groove.

The combination of Dub Music and House Music…

…allowed for this next movement to flourish. Along with the rise of funk rock, the African-American community got hold of these rising electronic styles in electronic music. They quickly embraced them and added their own twist, ultimately creating the new style that would be called Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop may not seem like it falls into the electronic music genre, however hip-hop originally used the same techniques and equipment to create its unique style. Artists would mix various R&B records and add effects to the track using a drum machine. They would then record their poetic rhymes over the track to create the musical fusion known as Hip-Hop. The funky baselines, groovy beat, and sweet lyrics became one of the biggest musical movements of last thirty years.

Although Hip-Hop may have taken off from…

…electronic music roots, most do not classify it as electronic music. Dance music was now becoming more popular in America, but if it without Gabba, dance music may have died out. Gabba, also known as Hardcore, was simply normal dance track that had been sped up. Its fast tempo made it gave it popularity, particularly in the club scene. It is responsible for the spread of dance music in Europe. European dance music was in part the motivation force behind the resurgence of Electronic Dance Music today.

The radio, to this day, is still the…

…definition of popular music. Stations play what is demanded by its listeners and new records that they think have potential to be big. Back in the 70’s, rock n roll was still in high demand, and electronic music was still just a sidebar, until a group of German musicians came along. This group called themselves Kraftwerk. They were classically educated and were curious to experiment with all the new technology at their disposal. Kraftwerk was actually the first to use a prototype of the electronic drum set. Their record “Autobahn” made waves across the globe by getting airtime on all the major radio stations. This marked the first time a completely electronic song made it on the radio and is widely considered the birth of electro-pop.

Pure electronic music had now made it on…

…the radio, however, there was still another sound dominating the radio waves. This, of course, was Disco. This cousin of Funk music was much faster and groovy. Its 4/4 backbeat made it extremely contagious on the dance floor. It used various instruments that were electronic, but it was not electronic music. Disco became the dance music of this decade and led to the 80’s where dance music became even more prominent.

There are two artists specifically that changed…

…the music world in the 1980s. They are the king and queen of pop, Michael Jackson and Madonna, respectively. These icons revolutionized the music industry. Their catchy tracks combined with stellar music videos made them pop culture sensations. They embraced the ideas and instruments of electronic music and combined them with elements of a band. Every time one of these pop royals released a song, it would become an instant dance floor hit almost instantly. Although rock and roll was still around, no one could deny that this new dance music was taking over the world.

The 90s were a decade filled with…

…musical angst and expression. The grunge movement and boy bands dominated the popular music scene, while electronic music remained mainly underground. There was such an explosion of different styles that dance music was tossed aside. Hip-Hop was finally gaining steam along with alternative rock. Technology was being developed at an astonishing rate. Computers had now become more accessible to everyone. The technology that was being developed in the music industry was allowing for artists to produce new sounds. How did dance music become so prominent today? All “popular” music today is filled with layers of electronic synths and a backbeat that no acoustic drum set could make. Music has progressively gotten more and more electronic as the decade has gone by. A couple reasons contribute to this.

The first reason…

…is the advancement of technology. This is a given in any decade, but it was particularly prominent in the 2000’s. The development of computers has increased the electronic music scene exponentially. Music making software is now widely available to all. Even the most basic software comes free on some computers. A musician now has access to myriad tools to create the sound they are looking for. Software such as Ableton has made it easy for artists to compose, remix and alter existing music as well as create original content. The equipment at ones disposal has also become more user friendly and accessible. A set of turntables with a built in mixer can now be found at an electronic store. With all this technology at one’s disposal, any person, musical background or not, can pick it up and make a song. All it takes is a little time and a creative spirit. The next hit could be from the person next to you.

The second reason…

…that electronic music has thrived over the past decade is the Internet. The Internet has made the sharing of music unbelievably easy. If an artist created a song or a mix, it is just a few short clicks away from becoming public. The Internet has increased exposure for so many acts that it has started actual careers for some of the most talented artists. It has also allowed for music to be more of a global industry. A song made in Germany can now be accessed by a kid in California who wants to put it in his DJ set for a gig. Although the airwaves still remain dominant, the use of portable MP3 players has allowed for listening to the demanded song. In combination with the Internet, you could potentially have infinite songs. The Internet has allowed electronic music to be spread across the globe at an extremely high rate.

The last thing…

…that has helped the spread of electronic music is the experience. Today concerts and festivals have been demanding electronic acts more and more. It is so easy for a DJ to play a gig, all they need to do is have their computer and a mixer. If a stage and lights are provided, you now have a concert. A DJ could play a show every day of the week if they desired, making them very attractive to venues. Some of the biggest dance festivals in the world include Tomorrowland, Ultra Music Festival, and Electric Daisy Carnival. These major festivals draw over 150,000 people annually. The experience is filled with loud music, flashing lights and dancing which makes it appealing to a music-lover. It is an engaging experience unlike any other. It has become so lucrative that many cities are trying to get big name artists and DJs to come and put on shows and hold a festival. These concerts and festivals have given such a positive experience to the viewer that they keep coming back for more.

The evolution of electronic music - Klaus Hoffmann-Hoock & David Wright

Performance of Klaus Hoffmann-Hoock & David Wright

 

It all started with a “musical telegraph”…

…and has evolved into sold out concerts and domination of the airwaves. Electronic music has really taken off from when it began. It would not be possible without the advancement of our technology and a little creative spirit. Will electronic music continue to flourish? Who knows, it may just be a phase or a movement, but no one can doubt that is has become a phenomenon of late.

By Troy Farsakian | Fall 2012, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

 

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