The beginnings of electronic music

At the start of the 20th century, it was already being hotly discussed how music could be designed for modern times.

Luigi Russolo Risveglio di una città für Intonarumori (Source:

At the start of the 20th century, it was already being hotly discussed how music could be designed for modern times. Traditional, functional harmony and the late romantic orchestral sound were felt to be too restrictive a corset. Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, representatives of the Second Viennese School, exploded tonal structures and composed along the lines of the new system of dodecaphony, according to which all twelve tones were arranged equally in series. In the same period, the avant garde became fascinated by new technologies such as the telephone, photography, the gramophone and the microphone, which made the recording of sounds possible for the first time. The Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo waxed enthusiastic about big city clangour produced by street cars and automobiles. In his 1913 manifesto L’arte dei rumori (The Art of Noise), he propagated the “noise tone” and the renunciation of pure sounds.

The first electronic instruments

Theremin-Interpretation by Clara Rockmore Valse Sentimentale (Tschaikowsky; Source:

In 1919, the Russian engineer Leon Theremin developed the first electronic instrument. The eponymous “theremin” is played with the hands whose movements, registered by antennae, can change the pitch and volume of the sounds without touching the instrument. The sound tinkerer Edgar Varèse, who was acquainted with Theremin, used the instrument in his composition Educatorial.

In 1930, the composer Paul Hindemith and his student Oskar Sala played the trautonium, publicly for the first time, an instrument that had been constructed shortly before by Friedrich Trautwein in his capacity as a lecturer at the Berlin Academy of Music. One of Hindemith’s first compositions for the instrument bears the title Des kleinen Elektromusikers Lieblinge (i.e., The Little Electronic Musician’s Darlings).

John Cage Imaginary Landscape No. 1, 1939 (Source:

In 1939, for his composition Imaginary Landscape No 1, John Cage used, along with acoustic instruments, three record players playing test tones of different frequencies whose voice parts were noted in the score.

In 1932, Fritz Pleumer developed the magnetic tape, which made it possible to cut and splice recordings. Using the magnetic tape, the sound engineer Pierre Schaeffer and the composer Pierre Henry produced in 1948 the Études des bruits in a studio of the French Radio Network.

Pierre Schaeffer Études aux chemins de fer, 1948 (Source:

This tape collage of everyday noises marked the beginning of „musique concrète“, which provided a decisive stimulus for electronic music. Here for the first time the composer brings together, analogous to contemporary electronic music production, "samplings” of sounds and becomes an interpreter. Along with other exponents of the "New Music” like Varèse and Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen also began using the studio after 1952, where (among other works) he put recorded sounds together in an Étude für tausend Tonbandschnipsel (i.e., Étude for a Thousand Scraps of Tape-Recordings).

Stockhausen and the consequences

At the end of 1951, the composer and musicologist Herbert Eimert initiated a studio for electronic music at the WDR in Cologne, which under his direction and the growing reputation of Karlheinz Stockhausen became a meeting place for international composers. In works like Studie 1 (i.e., Study 1; 1953), Stockhausen used sinus tones (pure tones without overtones) and tape recorders. "Every existing sound, every noise, is a mixture of such sinus tones – a spectrum. The number, intervals and volume relations of such sinus tones constitute the distinctiveness of each spectrum. They determine the timbre”, wrote Stockhausen in Textheft Elektronische Musik 3 (i.e., Textbook of Electronic Music 3). Through the addition of such characteristics, the timbre of a tone spectrum can be exactly composed.

Karlheinz Stockhausen Gesang der Jünglinge (Source:

In the various steps of addition, Stockhausen followed a rigorous analytical plan and translated it into reality in several pieces in scrupulously precise, time-consuming splicing sessions. He realised that this "pure” and technically constructed music could not be intelligible to interpreting listeners. He therefore modified his concept and integrated voices (Gesang der Jünglinge [i.e., Song of the Youths], 1956) and instruments (Contact, 1959) into his electronic music, with which he had already been working in aleatory ("accidental”) compositions parallel to his electronic pieces. In the 1960s, he used again identifiable music; for example, recordings of various national anthems in his Hymns and pregnant elements of Japanese and Balinese music in his Telemusik.