This lesson describes the term “electronic music” and gives examples of different instruments, styles, and artists that fall under this umbrella. We will also look at how technology has influenced music production in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
What does electronic music entail, and how does it function?
Electronic music is ubiquitous in twenty-first-century America, and it can be seen at multi-day festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival, on top 40 radio, and in various advertisements. Electronic music has a long and complicated history, ranging from obscure avant-garde experimental music to glittering disco ballrooms.
As the name suggests, electronic music is a piece created using electronic instruments and is better understood than acoustic or traditional music categories such as classical, jazz, or folk music. But in the 21st century, it can be difficult to distinguish between electronic and non-electronic music, as styles such as classical, jazz, and folk is often recorded with digital technology, amplified with microphones, and transmitted over the internet.
With this in mind, we can see how electronic music emerged from the extraordinary revolutions in computers, electronics, and digital technology in the 20th century. Pioneering architects, inventors, and musicians designed devices that could create previously unimaginable music in the 20th century.
Electronic music from the beginning
Leon Theremin, a Russian guitarist and inventor, invented the theremin in 1920. When a musician moves their hands around the theremin, electromagnetic fields produce sounds of different pitches. Theremins have a loud, warbling sound popularized in horror and science fiction films in the 1950s.
Several inventors worked on different models of what would become synthetics in the 1930s and 1940s. These electronic instruments were designed to imitate the sound of organs and other traditional instruments, but they quickly became recognized as distinct musical instruments in their own right. In the 1940s, the avant-garde music movement known as musique concréte used electronic devices to influence later forms of electronic music.
Bruce Haack, a highly imaginative Canadian musician who appeared many times on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood TV with his various devices in the 1950s and 1960s, began creating electronic music originally intended for children. Robert Moog started making his popular series of synthesizers in the 1960s, and they would revolutionize the world of electronic music. Today, Moog synthesizers are still in use.
The beginnings of disco and music machines
Electronic music experienced innovation, technological development, and success in the late 1960s. In many ways, this era of progress would parallel technological advances in other technology areas, such as personal computers and video games. After moving to Germany, Giorgio Moroder, an Italian-born musician, became a key figure in the development of electronic dance music, particularly the Italo disco sub-genre. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Germany was a hotbed of musical experimentation, particularly in electronic music. Groups used synthesizers and other electronic instruments, including Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, May, and Suicide, to transform rock music into new forms, encouraging many people worldwide to experiment with electronic music.
According to ethnographer and cultural theorist Sarah Thornton, the space where fans watched electronic music in the 1970s was as critical as the music itself. The Disco, later shortened to the discotheque, was where a DJ played new electronic dance records as fans danced to the beat. It was where technology reigned supreme, with no restrictions or costs to create a live band. These dance-centric environments paved the way for rave and club culture.
By the mid-1970s, disco music had reached its peak of success. Electronic synthesizers and drum machines merged to create a dance-friendly style of music that quickly became popular all over the world. The European version, led by Giorgio Moroder, was synthesizer-heavy and futuristic-sounding. Disco in America was much more influenced by funk, soul, and other African-American styles. According to some, Disco’s success in the US declined in the early 1980s because of sexism and prejudice.