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The Development of Electronic Music (Part 1)

Says it all really

In the first part of a short series, Paul Gittins gives modern music some historical perspective...

It is probably true to say that the development of electronic music is due mainly to the desire of composers to expand their choice of composition techniques, to have greater control over the sound produced, and all aspects of that sound. We can see some of the earlier more obvious attempts to "control", or "organise" music in the work of people such as Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg and others in the beginning with their 12-tone technique; a definition of which is: "The control of pitch relations — The 12 tones into which our octave is usually divided without referential limits on tonality or key."

This technique itself was expanded in the later 1940's to encompass the duration of notes, the "timbres", and articulation in similar ways. The first "school" of 12-tone technique (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg) was considered to be of such importance as to be referred to by many as the "Second Vienese School". (The first being made up of composers such as Hayden, Mozart, etc.) As well as the need to escape from a referential tonality or key, there was a need to escape from the compulsion to use sound only in terms of notes at all. This led later to the emergence of compositions of noise, or sound (sound as opposed to music in the form of notes). The idea of the use of "noise" by composers leads to the important concept of "texture". The meaning of texture being the writing of a piece in such a way that it attempts to convey an idea or atmosphere by the use of the "colour" of the instrument rather than its ability to convey an idea by the use of a series of notes which will be recognised as meaning such an idea. An example of this style of writing using an instrument's "colour" rather that a system of "musical codes" which we have all been conditioned to recognise as meaning a particular thing, is given in Penderecki's "THRENODY FOR THE VICTIMS OF HIROSHIMA". If a composer such as, say Mozart wished to create an atmosphere, similar to that in the Penderecki, he may have used intervals such as 7ths suspensions, diminished chords etc. However Penderecki's treatment is entirely different. There are long sustained chords on the strings, the strings use unusual bowing techniques, and other effects.

Another style was that practised by composers such as Milton Babbit (one of the early experimenters in the use of computers controlling music). Later in his career Babbitt did a lot of work with the RCA music synthesizer; this was a logical step since his early work was concerned mainly with creating and using a form of music which enabled him to have control not only over pitch but all other aspects of the sound produced as well. All these diversions from the "normal" use of tonality must have partly stemmed from the fact that the limits of tonality and the 12 tones had been the entire basis for the composition of music for many hundreds of years and composers believed that it could no longer produce a new and interesting form due to its extensive use and saturation of Europe. At this time also, the emergence of new technology, the more rapid development in the field of electricity and electronics must have given composers the hope that this new and rapidly developing technology would be able to produce aids to their compositions, new sounds encouraged them in their belief that they might soon have complete control over their music.

We can summarise the developments of the early 19th century and place them into three main groups.

Replacement Of Tonality With Atonality

In search of ways of getting away from traditional scale systems many older scales were rediscovered, such as medieval modes. These and other such modes were explored in works such as Erik Satie's "Gymnopedies", also Debussy's piano concertos. Debussy uses whole tone and pentatonic scales, amongst others. There were also the Hungarian folk scales introduced by Bela Bartok. Although these composers were beginning to break away to a new less "rigid" they were all still limited by one important, the 12 tones. Despite the difference of their music to that of Bach, Scarlatti, or any other earlier composer they still used the same 12 tones in their compositions. After a short time composers who recognised, and wished to escape this limitation began to design and build instruments to play in quarter tones and smaller subdivisions. Composers such as Charles Wuorinen and Harry Partch experimented in this; Charles Wuorinen started by writing pieces in quarter tones such as "Three Quarter Tone Pieces" for two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart. Another example of subdivision of the octave into more than the 12 semitones is given by Harry Partch who wrote a piece which divided the octave up into 43 parts; he also created the instrument that could play the piece and devised the notation for it! (The validity of this may be questionable since differences of a 43rd of an octave must be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to hear.)

Noises And "Sound" In Composition

The use of noise in a piece (or in some cases a piece consisting only of noises), is an important development. If we begin to use noises in music there is no need to "resolve", to follow one particular noise/chord with another, as in atonality. Works such as Henry Cowell's 'The Banshee' where the strings of a piano are struck and plucked by hand illustrate this. Another, extreme, example of this John Cage's "Four Minutes Thirty Three" in which no sound at all is made. Other works in the same vain include John Cage's pieces for a piano specially prepared with nuts, bolts and other objects placed on the strings inside the piano at specific points along the strings.

Obtaining Noises

Glissandi on strings, squeaks produced by the over-blowing on woodwind — these attempts at obtaining a new variety of sounds from old instruments must have created a greater desire to create an instrument which had an almost unlimited range of sounds available to it.

Serial Music

This is a development which led on from Arnold Schoenberg's 12-note technique. The development of it extended the control not only to the notes but to the dynamics and articulation also. This concept of total control was named Serialism.


If we look at the time approaching the "full development" of Serialism we can see that there had been a tendency towards a more rational approach to music, and also art in general. In 1942 Messian produced his book "Technique De Language Musical", in which the mathematical approach to music is described. Prior to this in an earlier (and more important with respect to electronic music) book was Joseph Schillinger's "Electricity a Liberator of Music" and later his "The Mathematical Basis of the Arts".

The early approach to electronic music's elements was encouraged, and encouraged similar movements in "conventional" music. This was especially true in serial composition, involving the complete control over all aspects of sound. So integral serialism may be said to be fairly definitely linked to electronic music and as an illustration of this the following description of some common methods of composition of integral serialist works is given.

A simple 12-tone phrase might be written, not only with indications of the pitch of notes and their approximate volume and articulation, but with precise indications of dynamics, articulation, pitch etc (see Fig 1).

Fig 1 Example of twelve tone notation

Having created the 12-tone series the following method would be one often used to expand it and produce a complete piece.

Fig 2 Twelve-tone matrix

The 12-tones would be numbered from one to 12. Then these 12 numbers would be placed into the top line of a 12x12 matrix. The next step was to calculate the next 11 12-note rows to complete the grid. This was done by taking the original tone row and transposing it up through itself. An example of this is given in Fig 2.

It is interesting to note that this technique was used again some years later in works such as "Ave Maria" by Peter Mawell-Davies. After creating this initial matrix another was produced using the same method of transposition, except the inversion of the original matrix.

As well as the note values being obtained from this matrix the dynamics would also be calculated, as would the lengths of each note. This would be done in the following way:

Note Lengths
The fundamental time unit would be taken as the semi-quaver, then according to which row was being played the number of the note multiplied by the fundamental semi-quaver unit would give the length of the note being played; for the first row of the inversion matrix from given examples, see Fig 3.

Fig 3 Music from first row of inversion matrix

Dynamics/Modes of attack
These would be obtained in a variety of different ways, for example, to determine the dynamics diagonals could be drawn across the grid, or maybe a hexagon having two numbers for each side, and the numbers lying along the lines would give dynamic (or attack characteristic) values according to the value assigned to each number beforehand, for example Boulez used the following set of values for dynamic and attack characteristics (see Fig 4).

Fog 4 Boulez values for dynamic characteristics

There were at that time many other methods of serial composition, however, the one given demonstrates quite clearly the extremely complex and exacting pieces that this method of composition produced. It was in most cases almost if not completely impossible to perform these pieces. This limit on the complexity of the piece would mean that the composer if he wished to continue would either have to simplify his works or abandon the conventional instruments for electronic and mechanically controlled ones, in which degrees of volume, dynamics etc, were not a matter of interpretation since the level preset in the machine could not be altered, thus each performance of a particular piece would be exactly the same. From here then, the technical developments that enabled electronic music to become a practical medium and the new freedom gained from it will be discussed.

Early Developments

Early electronic music and music concrete were fairly closely linked. This is probably due to the fact that in the 1920/30's when the methods of composition of electronic and concrete music were beginning to be explored, the number of real, ie 'pure' electronic sound sources, was very small, so many of the composers of the 20's and 30's (and to lesser extent the 40's and 50's) chose to work in the 'field' of music concrete, that is, the use of natural sounds in composition that have been 'treated', modified, by electronic, electromechanical, or electro-acoustical means. (This was usually carried out by the manipulation of a recorded sound); the concrete music composers then used the new sound as a source for composition.

Composers of Music Concrete, were part of the group of "new" musicians, who preferred to experiment with natural sound. Composers such as Hindemith and Toch were experimenting in the early 30's with various gramophones playing at different speeds, a simple step in the treatment of sound. In the early development these sort of treatments were almost the only available ones. In 1939 John Cage produced a work for group instruments and two gramophones; this piece, "Imaginary Landscape No 1" consisted of oscillator frequencies recorded on two gramophone records running at 78 rpm, with which the live instruments were mixed. However a system such as this would be rather expensive to use and work with since tape, as we know it today had not been invented and even the early tape recorder working off a wire was not available. This lack of suitable "tools" to work with must have limited the composers greatly, slowing down the development of music concrete. (And in this case even more greatly the development of electronic music.) However, it was in the late 1940's, with the great number of developments in sound reproduction made necessary by the war that the music really started to move forward. One very important event, in 1948, was the broadcast on French radio of Schaeffer's "Concert of Noises". The concert of noises was based on ideas put forward by the Italian Futurist movement.

As early as 1913 the composer Luigi Russolo had written his ideas on the use of noise in music. He placed the noises into six categories.

(1) Bangs, thunder claps, explosions
(2) Whistles, Hisses, Snorts
(3) Whispers, murmurs, gurgling etc
(4) Screams, crackling, buzzes
(5) Sounds from striking metal, stone, wood etc.
(6) Cries, roars, sobs, laughter, etc.

This group performed a number of concerts in the early part of the century and were an important influence on works by following composers. Schaeffer's "Concert of Noises" was greatly influenced by the work of the Futurists and so the interest generated by the concert in 1948 is partly due to their work. Shortly after the broadcast a new group of musicians formed consisting of some important composers in the new music field. A short while after the formation of the group Radiodiffusion Francaise created a studio for the composition of music concrete especially for the newly formed group. At the time of the creation of this new studio the tape recorder was beginning to be developed; this, of course, gave the composer much greater flexibility and was, compared to the gramophone, an almost infinitely flexible and portable medium with which to work. The great flexibility of the tape recorder was due to its ability to cut the tape and treat a collection of sounds recorded onto it as a group of separate sounds which could be isolated and replayed in a repeating loop at the same speed, or a different speed, thus altering the pitch of the note; played in the correct direction thus reproducing the same sound, or in the opposite direction therefore reversing the envelope of the note.

A brief summary of the commonly used techniques in early music concrete tape recordings is given below.

Changing Speed
By recording a pitch at one speed and replaying it at another the actual pitch can be raised or lowered by several octaves, also modifying the timbre at the same time. Changing the speed of the tape recording during the process of the recording produces glissandi between notes.

Changing Tape Direction
As previously mentioned, reversing the direction of tape play changes the envelope of the sound; for example, if a piano were recorded and played in the reverse direction on the tape recorder it would sound more like an organ since, where before the piano's volume reached a maximum almost instantaneously and then took several seconds to decay, it would, when played in reverse take several seconds to reach its maximum volume and then die away suddenly. This would then clearly give a different sound especially since one of the most important characteristics which we identify a sound by is its envelope, and more specifically its "Attack" and "Decay" times.

Tape Editing
If a sound such as a piano is recorded, then due to the flexible nature of tape by cutting the tape in the correct places the 'transients' of the sound (ie the initial attack and final decay) can be edited out, thus leaving only the sound of the piano, which by itself would be very different from the sound of a piano with the transient points included.

Tape Loops
This was a commonly used technique by which a series of notes, single note, or series of noises was recorded, then the starting and finishing point of the section of music was joined physically and the loop of tape played back through the recorder. This was used to produce an ostinato type pattern usually used in the background to create a more complex and full sound.

All of these techniques were applied (in general) to recorded "natural" sounds, as opposed to the method of production of electronic music which was concerned with the building up from basic sources the sound. The development of music concrete is important in the development of pure electronic music for reasons similar to that given, that is, many of the early experiments in music concrete created an interest which lead to the founding of a music studio by a body such as Radiofusion Francaise which could afford to equip the studio with modern electronic equipment, much of which was to be very useful to the early electronic composers. However it was not until about 1950 that the first true electronic studio was built.

In 1950 in Bonn University, Germany, there were a number of experiments taking place into the production of electronic signal generators and their uses and applications in composing and music in general. Soon after the work had become more widely known many composers showed a great interest in the ideas and possibilities put forward by the work done at the university. These composers carried out some research in the use of the signal generators, the result being a broadcast on Cologne Radio in 1951. This broadcast, like that a few years earlier on Radio Francaise, generated such interest that shortly afterwards a new electronic music studio was built in Cologne. This studio (or the composers of that studio) worked in the Webern style of Pointillism; regarding it, and electronic music as being inseparable. This studio was therefore a much more useful "tool" for the electronic composer than the Paris studio.

The composers working in Cologne focused their attention on the controlling of all aspects of their music. One of the usual "starting" points in the early work was the sine wave. The sine wave was regarded as being the purest type of wave available (being pure in the sense that it contained no harmonics) and for quite a long time mahy of the composers worked with the sine wave building up all other wave patterns by superimpsoing one sine wave on another.

One of the composers at Cologne working on sine wave composition was Karlheinz Stockhausen, and working jointly with him was Herbert Eimert, the director of the studio at Cologne. Eimert saw this studio and previous events as just the beginning of a whole new range of possibilities for composition, and said on the subject: "The composer in view of the fact that he is no longer operating within a strictly ordained tonal system, finds himself confronting a completely new situation. He sees himself commanding a realm of sound in which the musical material appears for the first time as a malleable continuum of every known and unknown, every conceivable and possible sound. This demands a new way of thinking in new dimensions..."

Eimert started to work with Stockhausen on a sine generator composition; this composition was completed by 53/54 and performed by 1954. This was the Studie 1 and despite the lack in sound variety it is a very important piece in the development of electronic music. It was soon after this in Cologne that the composers began to expand on the sine wave, trying instead to start with another source. One such method used in composition was to start with white noise (noise containing all the frequencies of the sound spectrum), and filter out the sections of noise required by the composer. The composer could select the different bands, and eventually by fine filtering be left with just one frequency. Around this time the composers at Cologne (and elsewhere) were beginning to use natural sounds in their work. This marks the beginning of the acceptance by composers of electronic music as not a separate unit of music above all other forms of music, but as another "tool" with which music could be greatly expanded. This use of natural sounds in combination with electronic sounds was happening, maybe to a greater extent, in Italy in Radio-televisione Italiana in Milan, where composers such as Berio and John Cage were producing works of pure electronic, pure natural, and a mixture of sounds. One very important piece produced from Cologne was Stockhausen's "Gesang der Junglinge".

"Gesang der Junglinge" is available on a stereo record, but was performed on five channels, ie five groups of loudspeakers to be set up around the performance hall. It consists of a young boy speaking and an electronic music background. At times the speech of the boy is heard clearly, at other times it is made to blend into the background. Stockhausen said: "My work on the electronic composition Gesang der Junglinge (55/56) proceeded from the idea of bringing together into a single sound both sung notes and electronically produced ones; their speed, length, loudness, softness, density and complexity, the width and narrowness of pitch intervals and differentiations of timbre could all be made audible exactly as I imagined them."

At the time in the studio in Milan, Cage produced "Fontana Mix". In this piece microphones are placed onto the skins of, for example, some kettle drums facing loudspeakers, then by controlling the volume of the amplifier, feedback would be produced; this in turn would interact with the drum modulating the sound. At this time also, Pousseur produced a piece called "Scambi". This was created entirely from white noise.

These advances demonstrate the approach towards using the electronic sounds as composers such as Hayden or Bach used strings, brass etc. One of the earliest composers to do this was part of the smaller group of the time of composers whose interest was in 'normal' (ie nonavant-garde) tonal and rhythmical music, using identifiable tunes/melodies which they played with electronic sounds. One such composer was the Dutchman Badings whose "Capriccio for Violin and Two Sound Tracks" creates the effect of a nineteenth century concerto. Other such works by the composer include Genese, and Evolutions. (His work in fact is very similar to that of the modern composer Wendy Carlos in "The Well Tempered Synthesizer".) In America at this time electronic music was starting rather slowly when compared to the European development and during the 50's/early 60's the main work on electronic music was done in the universities. It was at one of these universities, the university of Princeton that some important work was done by Milton Babbitt amongst others on the recently developed RCA synthesizer.

In the second part of this article we'll look at the pioneering RCA synthesizer and the development of modern electronic instruments.

Series - "The Development of Electronic Music"

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Electronic Soundmaker - Jul 1984

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Composing / Art


The Development of Electronic Music

This is the only part of this series active so far.

Feature by Paul Gittins

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