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A Brief History of Early Electronic Music

When does electronic music history begin?

Many argue that the history of electronic music began with the invention of the record player in the 1870s. Certainly the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Alva Edison. Yes, the same Edison who invented the lightbulb. The record player allowed music lovers to enjoy a concert without leaving their living room! Of course, the music establishment worried that the record player would reduce overall sales, but instead record players allowed further expression of ideas. Not only could music be distributed internationally, for the first time in history, music could be preserved and archived for study.

Phonograph Recording:

There were a number of early electronic instruments from the 1900s. Among them were the Theremin (still in use today), the Ondes-Martenot, the Trautonium, and the Hammond Organ. Each of these instruments brought musicians one step closer to digital explosion of the late 20th century.

Theremin plays Legend of Zelda:

There were a number of notable electronic composers during the early part of the 20th century. Many of these composers embraced the concept of noise equals music. Often cited as one of the founders of electronic music, composer Edgard Varese experimented with percussive sounds to create the work "Ionisation" in the 1920s, which set the musical groundwork for experimental sound and composition.

As you listen to Ionisation, think about the similarities between electronic sound, timbre, and the sounds of the percussion instruments.


Notable Electronic Composers of the Early to Mid-20th Century

Karl Stockhausen (Cologne. Germany at Northwest Broadcasting Studios) "Gesang der Junglinge" 1950s (Song of the Youths)

Elektronische Studie II—the first electronic piece to be published as a score.

John Cage "William's Mix"
Musique Concrete: Music composed by mixing samples.

Composer Pauline Oliveros "Bye Bye Butterfly" 1960s
Sonic Soundscape
Deep Listening Institute

Vladimir Ussechevsky (Columbia-Princeton Studios) NY
"Sonic Contours"
Combination of traditional instruments with electronics.

Iannis Xenakis
Famous for electronic work, but most famous work was for orchestra "Metastasis" which had many electronic music components and sounds.
Much of his work was based on mathematical principles or

If it seems that much of this music sounds "sci-fi" to you, this is directly due to the fact that the evolution of electronic music correlated with growing excitement for the space race, aliens, and science fiction movies like Forbidden Planet, which had an electronic score by Louis and Bebe Barron.

Forbidden Planet

1970s Nam June Paik: Electronic Opera
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