Jonathan Pickard

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History of Electronic Music

Jonathan Pickard

The history of electronic music is a confusing one; it is interconnected with the development of technology and musical creativity. Together, this creates an infinite number of historical steps leading to electronic music known today. Thusly, this paper is not meant to be inclusive, but an overview of important and interesting facts surrounding the development of electronic music.

In the 2nd century BC Ktesibios invented the Hydraulis. Ktesibios was fascinated by pneumatics (The study of the mechanical properties of air and gases.) and wrote a dissertation on hydraulic systems and how they could be used for powering mechanical devices. His most famous invention the Hydraulis used water to regulate air pressure inside an organ. Around this time other instruments were created in Greece, including the Aeolian harp, which used strings that were activated by wind currents.

Almost two millennia later, in the 1500’s, the first mechanically driven organs were built. Further, Done Nicola Vicentino, an Italian composer, invented the Archicembalo. The Archicembalo was a “harpsichord-like” instrument with six keyboards and thirty-one steps to an octave. In the 17th century Blaise Pascal developed the first calculating machine leading the way for modern electronic music, which is based heavily on computational devices (computers).

Many other devices lead up to the computer revolution. In 1833 Charles Babbage, with the help of Ada Lovelace, built the Difference Enginer, a large mechanical computer. The previous year Samuel Morse invented the telegraph. And a director of a telegraph factory (Hipps) later invents the first Electromechanical Piano in 1876. Later that century Alezander Gram Bell realized several ways to transmit and record sounds. In 1920 Leve Theremin invented the Aetherophone (later called the Theremin). This instrument consists of two vacuum tube oscillators to produce beat notes. “Musical sounds were created by ‘heterodyning’ from oscillators which varied pitch.” Changing the distance between 2 elements altered a circuit. “The instrument had a radio antenna to control dynamics and the rod sticking out the side that controlled pitch. The performer would move his/her hand along the rod to change pitch, while simultaneously moving his/her other hand in proximity to the antenna.” Many composers used this instrument (Pic. 1).

Pic. 1

In the 1930’s the plastic audiotape was developed. A decade later Bell Labs created the solid-state transistor, one of the most significant developments in computing. In 1953 Robert Beyer, Werner Meyer-Eppler, and Eimert began experimenting with electronically generated sounds, giving presentations in Paris.1

The late 20th century was fill with developments considered part of modern electronic music. In ’55 Bebe and Loius Barron created the first electronic soundtrack for the film “Forbidden Planet”. The Mini-Moog (in ’71) changed Rock music, influencing bands such as the Chemical Brothers, The Orb, Kraftwerk, Nine Inch Nails to name a few. Pink Floyd released the Dark Site of the moon, using traditional rock instruments and the VCS3-Synthesizer, an album that toped the charts for over a decade. The Roland TB-303 (in ’83) was developed using the midi-system; this launched the production of electronic music.2

In the ‘sixties and ‘seventies a myriad new musical instruments came about, including the electric guitar, and new keyboards such as the electric organ and piano. Further, a whole new instrument came about, the synthesizer, which was based on analog electronics. Early synthesizers could only play a single note at a time. To play multiple notes musicians had to buy multiple synthesizers or record parts on tape. But, they gave musicians a new sound, and companies like Moog and ARP couldn’t sell them fast enough. With the demand for synthesizers, newer, better-sounding polyphonic synthesizers began to appear from Yamaha, Moog, Roland, and others, all able to play multiple notes simultaneously. After polyphony, one of the most important advancements in synthesizer technology was the incorporation of programmable memory into instruments. Previously, musicians needed extravagant keyboard setups on stage, because each instrument could only be setup to produce a single sound per show. The next big step came in 1979, when some keyboards came equipped with computer interface plugs on the back. In the early eighties synthesizers were no longer a techno-oddity, and there were more companies from Japan, the US and Europe producing them. To progress the music industry had to adopt the methodology of standards, just as computer designers have long depended on certain standards to ensure the compatibility of computers and other devices. Twice a year, members of the National Association of Music Merchandisers hold a huge convention to show off new products. In ’82 at the request of Dave Smith, president of Sequential Circuit, a meeting took place between popular synthesizer companies. They discussed the adoption of a universal standard for transmitting and receiving of musical performance information, between all types of electronic instruments. The proposal went though a number of revisions and became know as Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI. In three years almost no electronic instrument was made that didn’t have a MIDI plug, and soon MIDI was used for thousands of applications. MIDI was meant to be flexible, and since its creation there have been several add-ons, yet MIDI has remained simple and compatibly with all other MIDI instruments.3

In recent years MP3s have come into existence, allowing amateurs and professionals to publish their own music on the Internet. The future of electronic music is unknown, but it is almost certain that it’ll be along side of computers, which have increasingly become part of our daily lives. Some futurists believe that virtual reality will allow for the creation of new musical instruments, so advanced that it’ll make traditional instruments obsolete.




Pic1) images/theremin.gif

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