Electronic Music Wiki

Electronic music

also known as
No alternate names, only misnomers




Too broad to say




House, Trance, Techno, Breakbeat, Industrial, Electronic Pop, Electro, Downtempo, more...






Blanket genre that describes electronically synthesized music

Electronic music is a blanket term used to describe music that generally is made using electronic instruments (such as drum machines or synthesizers) or uses electronic equipment to make music (cuts or pitch shifting) and is typically not organic-sounding. It is sometimes mis-refered to as "Electronica" or "Techno." While Techno is a subgenre of electronic music, it is hardly an appropriate term to classify the entire supergenre as. Electronica on the other hand is a term for electronic music that came into popular use around the late 1990s, but is considered by some to be a media buzz-word which doesn't really mean anything [1]. Another common mistake people make when thinking about electronic music is that it is all Electronic Dance Music or EDM for short. However while EDM is one subgenre of electronic music, there are many other subgenres as well. (See List of Genres, if you want to be overloaded with information.)


1800s and the early 20th century: The beginning[]

One of the first occurences of music being electromechanically produced was in 1897 with Thaddeus Cahill's Telharmonium. However, Mark I of the Telharmonium weighed 7 tons, and Mark II weighed almost 200 tons so it was considered impractical [2]. It was, however, noted for it's ability to reproduce common instruments. Before the Telharmonium, there had been some other electromechanical instruments created as well, including Hipps' Electromechanical Piano (1867), Elisha Gray's Electroharmonic (1876), Melvin Severy and George Sinclair's Choralcello (1888) and William Duddell's fully electronic Singing Arc (1899) [3]. Another early electromechanical instrument was Leon Theremin's self-named Theremin (circa 1919-1920). The Theremin retained popularity throughout the 1960s and was featured in many songs that aren't generally considered "electronic." Yet another early electronic instrument is the Ondes Martenot, created by Maurice Martenot in 1928. It is still occasionally used today, notably by the band Radiohead.

The Hammond Organ (1934) was the first electronic (actually electromechanical) instrument to achieve a measure of popularity. Hammond came close to the design of a modern synthesizer with the Novachord in 1938, but it had the disadvantages of being expensive, too novel, and going into production just as World War II was getting under way; production stopped during the war and did not resume afterwards.

1940s-1950s: Post World War II[]

After World War II, some artists and composers began experimenting by using different sounds and noises to make music. This was considered to be an avant-garde form of art and gave birth to electronic art music and musique concrète. A method known as the "tape stuido" arose in places such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the San Francisco Tape Music Center. This involved using tape recorders to record a variety of sounds, some from electronic laboratory equipment and some from non-electronic sources, and then using the capabilities of the tape recorder and other electronic equipment to change the pitch and timbre of the sounds. Then, the individual sound samples were spliced back together into a composition.

Meanwhile, electronic instruments were progressing. The 1950s saw the production of several electronic keyboard instruments which were meant to be used as adjuncts to a piano or organ, such as the Clavioline and the Solovox. Near the end of the decade, the combo organ was invented, and although the first designs employed vacuum tubes (valves), the designers soon went to use of transistors, making them amount the first uses of solid state electronics in music.

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1960s-1970s: The beginning of mainstream acceptance[]

One of the defining events that led to electronically produced music gaining mainstream acceptance was when Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop created the famous theme music for Doctor Who in 1963. The Beatles and The Beach Boys along with many other popular artists were also known to use electronic synthesizers in their music. Dr. Robert Moog and Donald Buchla independently developed the crucial concept of voltage control, and the circuits to implement it, in the early '60s. Moog and Buchla released thir first modular synthesizers in 1964, followed by Alan Pearlman's ARP Instruments in 1970. In 1971 Moog developed his famous Minimoog Model D which was a hit with the mass market, and helped popularize synthesizers even more. (ARP, Moog's main competitor at the time, promptly followed with its Odyssey, which also became a hit.) Many rock bands, began using synthesizers in their music even though rock and roll is not considered to be a style of electronic music (however, see progressive rock). The famous electronic music group, Kraftwerk, appeared in the 1970s as well. Electronic music had started to become popular.

Two crucial steps forward occurred in the latter half of the 1970s. Since the advent of the first modular Moogs, performers had been asking for a synthesizer that was polyphonc; that is, capable of playing several notes at a time. String synthesizers met this specification, but their timbral capabilities were very limited. Yamaha and E-mu Systems independently developed the concepts of the scanning keyboard and voice allocation, and Yamaha introduced the first mass produced polyphonic synthesizer based on these concepts, the CS80, starting in 1977. Not only was this an advance in itself, but it also was the first synth to establish the Japanese manufacturers as a market force in North America and Europe. The next year, Sequential Circuits, introduced their concept of a polyphonic synth, the Prophet V, containing an additional important advance -- patch memory, with the ability to recall a group of knob and switch settings at the press of a button. The list of polyphonic synths with patch memory soon grew to include famous models such as the Roland Jupiter-8, the Oberheim OB-8, and the Korg Polysix.

Late 1970s and the 1980s: An explosion of mainstream acceptance[]

As the 1980s began, two seemingly independent things converged: punk, and synth players unloading many of their first-generation, early-70s synths. Although punk began as a distinctly non-electronic form of music (among other things), punkers looking for new sounds soon discovered that they could pick up older Minimoogs, Odysseys, and the like cheaply at pawn shops. And the prices of even the newer modes started to come down rapidly as the circuit designs began to appear as commodity integrated circuits from SSM, CEM, and other manufacturers. This was truly "synthesizers for everyone", the democratization of the formerly expensive instruments, and it put many synths in the hands of a new, younger group of performers who had little connection to the academics of the 1960s or the rock stars of the 1970s. New Wave and synth pop was the result, and the invention of an entirely new genre of electronic music. However, things were moving rapidly.

Another important advance in the early 1980s was the advent of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI. Although several manufacturers had previously made attempts to form "systems" of instruments snd control devices connected with digital data interfaces, they were all specific to a manufacturer, and not compatible with one another. In 1981, representatives from Roland, Sequential Circuits and Oberheim drew up the first MIDI specification that would allow devices from different manufacturers to interface. By the late 1980s, MIDI interfaces were available that allowed some models of personal computer to interface with MIDI buses, making it possible to control a whole studio of synths with MIDI, and also to "record" a song as MIDI data, somewhat in the manner of a player piano. Some electronic music around 1990 was recorded using a technique called virtual mixing, which eliminated the then-conventional multitrack tape recorder. Instead, all of the tracks were recorded as MIDI data, and when track recording was complete, the entire song was rendered by playing back all of the MIDI tracks at once, and the resulting audio from the synths mixed directly to stereo, eliminating one generation of tape losses.

In the mid-1980s, analog synthesizers were replaced by digital synthesizers and by the middle of the decade, samplers became affordable. Thus, popular music began to rely more and more on electronic equipment and whole new styles and bands emerged. The 1980s witnessed the birth of industrial music, electronic body music (EBM), electronic dance music, and even the beginnings of techno and house music. New age music was heavily electronic during this time, with the rise in popularity of such artists as Vangelis and Kitaro. Other subgenres with strong electronic content such as space music and ambient came into being in this period as well.

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1990s-Present: The current status[]

The 1990s are notable for the rise of trance and breakbeat music. In the 1990s, it became fashionable to look down on the culture of the 1980s, including the music and so the styles of popular music from the 1980s died down although plenty of not so mainstream and mainstream styles kept going albeit more in the background. Trance music became popular among the club and rave scene, and hip hop/rap music greatly increased in popularity. Although breakbeat styles of music had been around since the early 1970s, they had never gained much mainstream acceptance (with the exception of the 1980s which is known as hip hop's Golden Age). By the 2000s however, hip hop was widely accepted.

Electronic music in the 1990s was dominated by samplers and sample playback synths. Although much good and imaginative work was done by performers with these synths, by the end of the decade some of the sampler-based sounds were becoming rather cliched. This led some performers, in search of new timbres, to take an approach from a completely different direction -- the revival of the modular synthesizer, which had last been seen around 1978. Some performers took to restoring old Moog and ARP modulars, but quickly, new manufacturers jumped into the market, with new designs taking advantage of technology that was not available in the 1970s. From this, there was a revival of 1970s analog synths in general; units that were being scrapped or given away suddenly become valuable again, and more importantly, new designs and products emerged.

However, digital synthesis had an ace up its sleeve -- the personal computer. By 2000, personal computers were reaching the necessary levels of processing performance to compute digital synthesis music in real time, and high resolution D/A converters were becoming inexpensive. Quickly a huge variety of soft synths and plug-ins appeared. Initially, many of these emulated analog synths, but soon some novel software packages appeared, some offering methods of synthesis such as additive synthesis and resynthesis, things that had previously only been available to well-heeled musicians with access to advanced studios. Standards evolved such that these soft synths and digital effects could be integrated with digital recording software to create the digital audio workstation, giving the performer the choice of working with software, hardware, or a mixture of the two.

Nowadays, electronic music proves to be harder and harder to define, because so much music has electronic elements. Most popular music incorporates synthesizers and electronic mixing, as does a lot of rock and alternative music. However, electronic music as a supergenre is generally taken to mean music that relies soley on electronics, samples and, optionally, vocals (however this is not a strict set of rules). As a supergenre, electronic music does not include rock and roll or other such genres because while they may use electronics in production, they were not born from the idea of electronically producing music. However, there are fusion genres which combine subgenres of electronic music with genres of non-electronic music. In general, however, music that is not considered "electronic music" specifically, but incorporates electronic instruments or is produced electronically can be called electronically produced music.

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