In the early 20th century, composers began using electronic instruments in their music. In the 1930s and 40s, American and European composers pioneered pieces using new technology. The birth of electronic music began with a series of innovations including the theremin, which was invented by Russian Professor Lev Sergeyevich Termen; the Telharmonium, which was developed by Thadeus Cahill beginning in 1897; and the ondes martenot, which was created by French composer Maurice Martenot in 1928.
Electronic music has been around for almost 100 years—even before Bob Moog created his first synthesizer in 1954. Here’s a brief look at electronic music history—from its early beginnings to modern times.
Music has been around for thousands of years, and throughout that time, people have constantly been looking for new ways to make music. This is no different with electronic music. Early electronic music was created using a variety of sound-creating instruments and machines.
One of the first known examples of electronic music was in 1876 when American Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. When he transmitted a message over his telephone line, he heard what he described as “singing.” He later found out that this was caused by the electricity from the line making the diaphragm in his phone vibrate.
Sound recording technology can be traced back to the late 19th century. Around 1857, Frenchman Leon Scott began working with a phonautograph, an instrument that recorded sounds visually on paper. In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, which recorded sound onto tinfoil cylinders in grooves. It played back sound by amplifying vibrations from the cylinder through a needle attached to an earpiece. The phonograph would later be improved by German inventor Emile Berliner, who created a disc-shaped record that played audio through vibrations created by a needle inside the groove of a record. In 1940, Columbia Records introduced vinyl records, which would become the industry standard for
When it comes to electronic music, most people think of the synthesizer-heavy dance music that became popular in the 1980s and ‘90s. But the first electronic instrument was invented almost a century earlier, by a German physicist and musician named Hermann von Helmholtz. In 1876, Helmholtz designed an electronic device that produced sound by sending electric current through oscillating circuits.
Over the next three decades, other scientists, including British inventor Thaddeus Cahill and French composer Edgard Varèse, created new electronic instruments capable of producing a wider range of sounds. These were all giant contraptions that required large rooms to house them; and because they were so difficult to operate, only scientists and engineers could use them. This early period of electronic music is now known as the “electroacoustic” era.
Electronic music is a form of music that uses electronic musical instruments, digital instruments and circuitry-based music technology. In general a distinction can be made between sound produced using electromechanical means, and that produced using electronics only.
Electromechanical instruments include mechanical elements, such as strings, hammers, and so on, and electric elements, such as magnetic pickups, power amplifiers and loudspeakers. Examples of electromechanical sound producing devices include the telharmonium, Hammond organ, and the electric guitar, which are typically made loud enough for performers and audiences to hear with an instrument amplifier and speaker cabinet. Pure electronic instruments do not have vibrating strings, hammers, or other sound-producing mechanisms. Devices such as the theremin, synthesizer, and computer can produce electronic sounds.
The first electronic devices for performing music were developed at the end of the 19th century, and shortly afterward Italian futurists explored sounds that had not been considered musical. During the 1920s and 1930s, electronic instruments were introduced and the first compositions for electronic instruments were made. By the 1940s, magnetic audio tape allowed musicians to tape sounds (and then play them back) and modify them by changing the tape speed or direction. In the 1980s,
The earliest musical instruments date back to around 40,000 years ago! The invention of the first musical instrument is an incredibly ancient story. A flute carved from a vulture’s wing bone was recently discovered in a cave in Germany, dating back some 40,000 years.
In the 20th century, musicians began experimenting with the newest technology of the time in order to create new sounds and instruments. The first electronic musical instruments were invented in the early 1900s and are credited to Thaddeus Cahill (telharmonium).
In the early 1900s, pioneers like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were busy inventing things like the phonograph and the telephone. They were interested in using electricity to record and play back sounds. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that truly electronic musical instruments came into being.
The first all-electronic musical instrument was invented in 1917 by Russian inventor Lev Sergeyevich Termen (aka Léon Theremin). It was originally called an “etherphone” but is now known as the theremin. The player stands in front of two metal antennae, one controlling pitch and one controlling volume. By moving his hands around the antennae, he can control these aspects of sound without even touching the instrument. This eerie, otherworldly sound became popular in movie soundtracks such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Spellbound (1945).
Another early electronic musical instrument was designed around 1930 by engineer Harry Olson and musician Herbert Belar at RCA Laboratories. The RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer could make a wide variety of sounds by combining electronically generated tones with tones recorded on magnetic tape.
There were two key events in 20th century music. The first was the invention of recording equipment, which allowed music to be saved and played back at will. The second was the invention of electronic instruments, including the synthesizer, which allowed musicians to create sounds never heard before.
The invention of recording equipment
In 1878, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. This machine recorded sound by engraving it onto a sheet of tin foil wrapped around a cylinder. When played back, the recording was amplified by a horn attached to the cylinder. The phonograph was a great success and Edison was awarded a patent for his invention on July 29, 1878.
The first commercial recordings were made by Emile Berliner in 1889 using his improved version of Edison’s original phonograph design. Instead of recording on a tinfoil cylinder, Berliner recorded sound onto a flat disc. This record player became known as the gramophone. With the improvements that came with mass production, record players eventually found their way into homes all over America and Europe.
The invention of electronic instruments
On May 16, 1897, Thaddeus Cahill applied for a patent for an electronic musical instrument he called “the telharmonium.” Two years later he received his patent for