Electronic musical instrument

Electronic musical instrument

An electronic musical instrument is a musical instrument that produces its sounds using electronics. In contrast, the term electric instrument is used to mean instruments whose sound is produced mechanically, and only amplified or altered electronically - for example an electric guitar.

The instrument may include a user interface for controlling its sound, often by adjusting the pitch, frequency, or duration of each note. However, it is increasingly common for the user interface and sound-generating functions to be separated into a music controller (input device) and a music synthesizer, respectively, with the two devices communicating through a musical performance description language such as MIDI or OSC.

All electric and electronic musical instruments can be viewed as a subset of audio signal processing applications. Simple electronic musical instruments are sometimes called sound effects; the border between sound effects and actual musical instruments is often hazy.

French composer and engineer Edgard Varèse created a variety of compositions using electronic horns, whistles, and tape. Most notably, he wrote Poème Électronique for the Phillips pavilion at the Brussels World Fair in 1958.

Electronic musical instruments are now widely used in most styles of music. The development of new electronic musical instruments, controllers, and synthesizers continues to be a highly active and interdisciplinary field of research. Specialized conferences, notably the International Conference on New interfaces for musical expression, have organized to report cutting edge work, as well as to provide a showcase for artists who perform or create music with new electronic music instruments, controllers, and synthesizers.

Early electronic musical instruments

Emergence of recording and electronic technologies

The ability to record sounds is not absolutely necessary for production of electronic music, but is certainly very useful.In the 18th-century, a number of acoustic instruments were adapted by composers in order to exploit the novelty of electricity. Thus, in the broadest sense, the first electrified musical instrument was the Denis d'or, dating from 1753, followed shortly by the Clavecin électrique by the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste de Laborde in 1761. The former instrument consisted of a keyboard instrument of over 700 strings, electrified temporarily in order to enhance the instrument's sonic qualities. The later was a keyboard instrument the plectra of which were activated by electric circuitry.

In 1878, Thomas A. Edison patented the phonograph, which used cylinders similar to Scott's device. Although cylinders continued in use for some time, Emile Berliner developed the disc phonograph in 1887. [Russcol 1972, 67.]

A significant invention, which was later to have a profound effect on electronic music, was Lee DeForest's triode audion. This was the first thermionic valve, or vacuum tube, invented in 1906, which led to the generation and amplification of electrical signals, radio broadcastng, and electronic computation, amongst other things.


The Telharmonium is the first music synthesizer. In 1898 Thaddeus Cahill patented an instrument called the Telharmonium (or Teleharmonium, also known as the Dynamaphone). Using tonewheels to generate musical sounds as electrical signals by additive synthesis, it was capable of producing any combination of notes and overtones, at any dynamic level. This technology was later used to design the Hammond organ. Between 1901 and 1910 Cahill had three progressively larger and more complex versions made, the first weighing seven tons, the last in excess of 200 tons. Portability was managed only by rail and with the use of thirty boxcars. By 1912, public interest had waned, and Cahill's enterprise was bankrupt. [Weidenaar 1995.]


Another development, which aroused the interest of many composers, occurred in 1919-1920. In Leningrad, Leon Theremin (actually Lev Termen) built and demonstrated his Etherophone, which was later renamed the Theremin. This led to the first compositions for electronic instruments, as opposed to noisemakers and re-purposed machines.

Composers who ultimately utilized the Theremin included Varèse—in his piece "Ecuatorial" (1934)—while conductor Leopold Stokowski experimented with its use in arrangements from the classical repertory.Fact|date=August 2007In 1929, Joseph Schillinger composed "First Airphonic Suite for Theremin and Orchestra", premièred with the Cleveland Orchestra with Leon Theremin as soloist.

Ondes Martenot

The 1920s have been called the apex of the Mechanical Age and the dawning of the Electrical Age. In 1922, in Paris, Darius Milhaud began experiments with "vocal transformation by phonograph speed change."Russcol 1972, 68.] These continued until 1927.

This decade brought a wealth of early electronic instruments—along with the Theremin—, there is the presentation of the Ondes Martenot, which was designed to reproduce the microtonal sounds found in Hindu music, and the Trautonium.Maurice Martenot invented the Ondes Martenot in 1928, and soon demonstrated it in Paris. Composers using the instrument ultimately include Boulez, Honneger, Jolivet, Koechlin, Messiaen, Milhaud, Tremblay, and Varèse. In 1937, Messiaen wrote "Fête des belles eaux" for 6 ondes Martenot, and wrote solo parts for it in "Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine" (1943–44) and the "Turangalîla Symphonie" (1946–48/90).


The Trautonium was invented in 1928, and in 1940, Richard Strauss used Trautonium in his "Japanese Festival Music". This new class of instruments, microtonal by nature, was only adopted slowly by composers at first, but by the early 1930s there was a burst of new works incorporating these and other electronic instruments.


Recording of sounds made a leap in 1927, when American inventor J. A. O'Neill developed a recording device that used magnetically coated ribbon. However, this was a commercial failure. Two years later, Laurens Hammond established his company for the manufacture of electronic instruments. He went on to produce the Hammond organ, which was based on the principals of the Telharmonium, along with other developments including early reverberation units. [Russcol 1972, 70.]


The most commonly used electronic instruments are synthesizers, so-called because they artificially generate sound using techniques such as additive, subtractive, FM and physical modelling synthesis to create sounds.

Dr. Robert Moog introduced the first practical commercial modern music synthesizer with his Moog synthesizer. This instrument used a series of tone generators with keys that would adjust the tone generators' pitch. Moog resolved to design and sell Theremins to gain enough money to engineer this synthesizer.

The first digital synthesizers were academic experiments in sound synthesis using digital computers. FM synthesis was developed for this purpose, as a way of generating complex sounds digitally with the smallest number of computational operations per sound sample.

First electronic sound synthesizer

In 1935, another significant development was made in Germany. Allgemeine Elektrizitäts Gesellschaft (AEG) demonstrated the first commercially produced magnetic tape recorder, called the "Magnetophon". Audio tape, which had the advantage of being fairly light as well as having good audio fidelity, ultimately replaced the bulkier wire recorders.

According to Dictionary.com Unabridged, the term "electronic music" (which, as defined in 2006 includes the tape recorder as an essential element: "electronically produced sounds recorded on tape and arranged by the composer to form a musical composition") first came into use during the 1930s ["Electronic music": [http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/electronic%20music Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc.] (accessed: August 19, 2007)]


in 1956 an important technological development was the invention of the Clavivox synthesizer by Raymond Scott with subassembly by Robert Moog.


In 1970, Charles Wuorinen composed "Time's Encomium", the first Pulitzer Prize winner for an entirely electronic composition. Also in the 1970s, the Mini-Moog was created.

This was a small, integrated synthesizer that made analog synthesis easily available and affordable and became the most widely used synthesizer in both popular and electronic art music.cite web
url = http://www.lib.utexas.edu/etd/d/2004/montanarolk042/montanarolk042.pdf
title = A Singer’s Guide to Performing Works for Voice and Electronics, PhD thesis Doctor of Musical Arts
last = Montanaro
first = Larisa Katherine
publisher = The University of Texas at Austin
date = May, 2004
quote = In 1969, a portable version of the studio Moog, called the Minimoog, became the most widely used synthesizer in both popular music and electronic art music


Jon Appleton (with Jones and Alonso) invented the Dartmouth Digital Synthesizer, later to become the New England Digital Copt's Synclavier. Barry Vercoe wrote Music 11, a next-generation music synthesis program (later evolving into csound, which is still widely used).

In 1983, Yamaha introduced the first stand-alone digital synthesizer, the DX-7. It used frequency modulation synthesis (FM synthesis), first experimented with by John Chowning at Stanford during the late sixties. [Chowning, 1973.]

Sound sequencer

These short few months were some of the most exciting in music history and technology, and the profundity of it was recognized at the time. It seems doubtful that electroacoustic music ever received such a wide audience again, unless one includes televised concerts by latter day rock and jazz fusion groups. Others were certainly active exploring new technology also. In that same year, 1951, former jazz composer Raymond Scott invented the first sequencer, which consisted of hundreds of switches controlling stepping relays, timing solenoids, tone circuits and 16 individual oscillators.

Computer music

An important new development was the advent of computers for the purpose of composing music, as opposed to manipulating or creating sounds. Iannis Xenakis began what is called "musique stochastique," or "stochastic music," which is a method of composing that employs mathematical probability systems. Different probability algorithms were used to create a piece under a set of parameters. Xenakis used graph paper and a ruler to aid in calculating the velocity trajectories of glissandi for his orchestral composition "Metastasis" (1953–54), but later turned to the use of computers to compose pieces like "ST/4" for string quartet and "ST/48" for orchestra (both 1962).

The impact of computers continued in 1956. Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson composed "Iliac Suite" for string quartet, the first complete work of computer-assisted composition using algorithmic composition. [Schwartz 1975, 347.]

Hardware hacking

It was within this period (1966-67) that Reed Ghazala discovered and began to teach "circuit bending"—the application of the creative short circuit, a process of chance short-circuiting, creating experimental electronic instruments, exploring sonic elements mainly of timbre and with less regard to pitch or rhythm, and influenced by John Cage’s aleatoric music concept.cite web
url = http://www.gamemusic4all.com/backto8bit%204.html
title = Back to the 8 bit: A Study of Electronic Music Counter-culture
last = Yabsley
first = Alex
authorlink =
coauthors =
date = 2007-02-03
publisher = Dot.AY
quote = This element of embracing errors is at the centre of Circuit Bending, it is about creating sounds that are not supposed to happen and not supposed to be heard (Gard, 2004). In terms of musicality, as with electronic art music, it is primarily concerned with timbre and takes little regard of pitch and rhythm in a classical sense. ... . In a similar vein to Cage’s aleatoric music, the art of Bending is dependent on chance, when a person prepares to bend they have no idea of the final outcome.

MIDI technology

In 1980, a group of musicians and music merchants met to standardize an interface by which new instruments could communicate control instructions with other instruments and the prevalent microcomputer. This standard was dubbed MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). A paper was authored by Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits and proposed to the Audio Engineering Society in 1981. Then, in August 1983, the MIDI Specification 1.0 was finalized.

The advent of MIDI technology allows a single keystroke, control wheel motion, pedal movement, or command from a microcomputer to activate every device in the studio remotely and in synchrony, with each device responding according to conditions predetermined by the composer.

MIDI instruments and software made powerful control of sophisticated instruments easily affordable by many studios and individuals. Acoustic sounds became reintegrated into studios via sampling and sampled-ROM-based instruments.

Miller Puckette developed graphic signal-processing software for 4X called Max (after Max Mathews) and later ported it to Macintosh (with Dave Zicarelli extending it for Opcode [ [http://www.atpm.com/6.05/barline.shtml Max at Opcode] ] ) for real-time MIDI control, bringing algorithmic composition availability to most composers with modest computer programming background.

Modern electronic musical instruments

The increasing power and decreasing cost of sound-generating electronics (and especially of the personal computer), combined with the standardization of the MIDI and OSC musical performance description languages, has facilitated the separation of musical instruments into music controllers and music synthesizers.

By far the most common musical controller is the musical keyboard. Other controllers include the radiodrum, Akai's EWI, the guitar-like SynthAxe, the [http://www.synthzone.com/bsynth.html BodySynth] , the Buchla Thunder, the Continuum Fingerboard, the Roland Octapad, and various isomorphic keyboards including the Thummer.

See also

* Electronic music
* Drum machine


External links

* [http://www.obsolete.com/120_years/ 120 Years of Electronic Music]
* [http://sonhors.free.fr/ History of Electronic Music]
* [http://tons-of-tone.tripod.com/index.html Tons of Tones !! : Site with technical data on Electronic Modelling of Musical Tones ]

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