Electronic music

Making music possible: a short history of electronic sound production.

The history of electronic music is a history of human inventiveness and visionary creativity, from the first experiments, with electric current through patient fiddling with tape recorders and legendary analogue synthesizers to the literally endless possibilities afforded by digital sound production.

Everything started with the discovery that electricity can be used to produce sound. This triggered a genuine creative boom amongst instrument designers – long before Bob Moog built his first synthesizer. Before that, computers had already learnt how to sing, electric organs produced a booming sound, and the Russians had constructed the first instrument that worked without being touched at all…


Tyondai Braxton
Tyondai Braxton © Claudia Höhne

Clubbing beats and wild tinkering with all manner of electronica: the Elbphilharmonie regularly hosts concerts with leading electronic artists from all over the world.

Once upon a time... :... in the 18th century: the beginnings of electronic music

Mozart had just turned three when a Jesuit priest in Paris created the first electronic glockenspiel. While the composers of Viennese Classicism were preparing for the culmination of pianoforte music, the French inventor had found a way to produce electric current using friction; the current caused little hammers to strike bells. Even though the sound was still produced in a conventional way, the inventive priest's clavessin électrique was the first instrument with an electric interface.

Die Skizze zum ersten Telefon des Physikers Philipp Reis 1861.
Die Skizze zum ersten Telefon des Physikers Philipp Reis 1861. © Wikimedia Commons

The telephone as a game-changer :Important inventions in the 19th century

It was to take another 100 years until electric current could be transformed into sound,  namely with the birth of the telephone. The invention of the telephone went hand-in-hand with other new technology – the microphone, the loudspeaker and the amplifier, which were the basic requirements for recording and reproducing sounds. Together with the telephone, the gramophone record also came on to the market in the 1870s and established itself for the next 100 years as the no. 1 medium for the reproduction of music.

Weight 200 tons: a first precursor of the synthesizer

Even before the 19th century was over, another visionary joined the ranks of creative instrument makers: Thaddeus Cahill's aim was nothing less than to imitate an entire orchestra. The American inventor's telharmonium was the first precursor of the synthesizer. The instrument was colossal in size: it was roughly 18 metres long and weighed in at 200 tons, so that it stretched over two floors of New York's Telharmonic Hall. The player sat at the console on the upper floor, while one storey beneath him stood a huge power plant with 145 generators to supply the electric current needed. In the absence of loudspeakers, the telharmonium could only be heard using a telephone. Cahill offered the very first streaming service in the shape of subscriptions that he sold to the public.

Das Telharmonium von Thaddeus Cahill
Das Telharmonium von Thaddeus Cahill © Gunter’s Magazine 1907

Sound without touch :The 1920s bring new types of instruments

While Europeans pursued research into dissecting sounds in the early years of the 20th century, with the German universal scholar Hermann von Helmholtz developing frequency-based sound synthesis, Russian-American inventor Leon Theremin created a stir with an idea of his own in 1920: he had developed an instrument that could produce sound without being touched. The mysterious sound of his theremin remains a favourite in film music to this day. The instrument is fitted with two antennae between which there is an electro-magnetic field. The player moves his hands inside this field to change the basic note produced by the oscillators: he controls the pitch with his right hand and the volume with his left.

Leon Theremin plays his instrument

Sounds produced by a wire

The theremin in turn inspired others, not least the founding father of the synthesizer, Robert Moog. The French cellist, inventor and radio telegrapher Maurice Martenot was fascinated by this remarkable instrument, and it served as inspiration for his own ondes Martenot (»Martenot's waves«) in 1928. Here, the pitch of the basic note is altered using a wire along which a ring is moved to and fro. To provide the player with some orientation, Martenot placed a silent piano keyboard in front of the instrument itself; only later did he hit upon the idea of controlling the sound directly from the keyboard. The ondes Martenot has maintained a place in the world of instruments to this day, finding use by artists as different as Olivier Messiaen and Jacques Brel or in the soundtrack to »Ghostbusters«.

Maurice Martenot presents his new instrument

Another inventor who immortalised his name with an instrument around the year 1930 was the American Laurens Hammond. Originally intended as replacement for an organ with pipes, the Hammond organ was soon the sound star of jazz and gospel music. The instrument's characteristic rumbling sound is produced by metal wheels with serrated edges, rotating in front of electro-magnetic pickups such as are also used in electric guitars. The Hammond organ was first heard in public in New York in 1935 – playing, of all things, an arrangement of Brahms's First Symphony.


»The invention of the computer was the most important event in music history since the discovery of gut strings for stringed instruments – and that is already quite a long time ago.«

Robert Moog

A singing computer :First attempts at digital sound production in the 1950s

Even before the analogue synthesizers from America conquered the world, Australian scientists were experimenting with digital sound production in the 1950s.The computer they used was called Council of Scientific and Industrial Research Automatic Computer, abbreviated to CSIRAC. It was hooked up to a loudspeaker through which it announced the end of a calculation process with an acoustic signal. Its trainers were delighted: to prove that a machine like this really could do everything, one of the technicians programmed little tunes in his spare time that the computer then played.

The singing computer created quite a stir, but at the end of the day it failed to catch on: the computers of that time were simply too big, too expensive and above all too slow. The next programmable sound machine was built in American in 1957: the RCA Mark I Sound Synthesizer. It was designed by the electronics and entertainment company RCA as a hit machine that would analyse successful songs and generate new ones. But the project was a failure, and the follow-up model Mark II was likewise too slow and not particularly successful: like its elder brother, the computer was the size of a room and worked with punched paper tape using algorithms and valve oscillators.

RCA Mark II © Freeform Portland

Two American synthesizers :Analogue American synthesizers write music history in the 1960s

While digital sound production devices had to wait a few more decades for their breakthrough, two instrument makers came on the plan in early-60s America who actually revolutionised the world of music with analogue synthesizers: Bob Moog on the East Coast and Don Buchla on the West Coast. Robert (Bob) Moog, the son of an electrical engineer, was still a teeenager when he soldered his own theremin together and created a sensation at school concerts with his electronic organ. It wasn't long before he presented the first experiments with electronic sound production organised along modular lines, and with success: artists like John Cage immediately took the bait.

1964 saw the appearance  of his Moog Prototype: a synthesizer that looked like a big cupboard with a keyboard attached. Also attached were modules for producing and changing notes that could be combined freely. In 1968, Wendy Carlos stormed the charts with the album »Switched-On Bach«, on which she played music by Bach on a Moog synthesizer, introducing the synthie sound to the world.

Walter (Wendy) Carlos presents the Moog Synthesizer

People's enthusiasm for the new electronic sound soon spilled over into pop music, but the huge boxes were expensive, and almost impossible to transport. The solution came in 1970 in the shape of the Minimoog: a compact instrument with clearly-arranged buttons and switches: just what groups like Kraftwerk needed. 

Even more tones – a synthesizer without a keyboard

Unlike the Bob Moog instruments, Donald (Don) Buchla's synthesizer didn't have a keyboard. The Californian wanted more: he wanted more than twelve semitones, and he very much wanted to create an instrument that was completely new and independent. He developed his first prototypes together with the avant-garde musician Morton Subotnick, who encouraged him to approach music from a new angle. Buchla responded by replacing the keyboard with a controller and touchpads that the player could use to operate several parameters at the same time. This way of operating the machine was nothing short of revolutionary, as was the sound it produced: it's fair to say that what came out of the oscillators, filters and modulators patched together with cables was literally unheard-of. One of the most important pioneers of these new sounds was and still is Suzanne Ciani. She was close friends with Don Buchla until he died, and is fond of referring to herself today as »the Leonardo da Vinci of instrument designers«.

Listen: Suzanne Ciani live in San Francisco (2017)

Suzanne Ciani live

Suzanne Ciani
Suzanne Ciani © Karel Chladek / Red Bull Music Academy

On 16 May 2022 Suzanne Ciani and her Buchla synthesizer can be heard in the Recital Hall  – a highlight of the Elbphilharmonie's electronic season!

Parallel to Buchla's work, the two inventors Dave Smith and John Bowen developed the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, which took the world of electronic music by storm in 1978; a big name for a synthesizer, but an apt one for what became a legendary classic: the Prophet-5 formed the sound of the late 70s and early 80s. This was the very first polyphonic synthesizer, fully programmable with up to five parts. It also offered the opportunity to store data on an external cartridge drive.


»The technology liberates us from blind virtuosity and enables us to establish an intense relationship with the instrument.«

Don Buchla

The digital breakthrough :Digital sound generation in the 1980s

There was a total of at least three innovations that ushered in the 1980s and a new era in music production. Firstly, the first affordable personal computers came on the market; secondly, electronic music data were standardised with the introduction of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), and thirdly, the necessary software was written.

Thus digital sound production finally had its breakthrough: in 1983 the Yamaha DX7 was advertised as the latest milestone in human history after the invention of the wheel and electric light. And it's true that the first digital synthesizer was nothing short of a sensation: with 16 parts (voices), touch dynamics and a memory, it was more powerful than any other such machine of its time. The bass, piano and bell effects that it produced using FM synthesis (FM = frequency modulation) became the trademark sound of countless 80s pop and rock sounds, such as Whitney Houston's »The Greatest Love of All«.

So what's the next step?

Numerous inventors have been researching into digital sound production since the 1980s – among them, some of the greatest to emerge so far: Ray Kurzweil for example, who not only created Apple's »Siri«, is Head of Development at Google and has no fewer than 21 honorary doctorates, but whose keyboard, developed for none other than Stevie Wonder, stood for the best synthetic piano sound for years.

The omnipresence of the computer has also left its mark on the world of music. Every modern smartphone possesses more processing power than computers made in the 1990s. Equipped with the necessary software, every laptop can be turned into a recording studio or a composing machine. Yet the current boom of analogue retro synthesizers and not least of superb musicians like Suzanne Ciani show that technology alone doesn't make people happy. Only human creativity makes machines into music.

»I was never worried that synthesizers would replace musicians. You need to be a musician first in order to make music with a synthesizer.«

Don Buchla

Text: Julika von Werder; last updated: 2. Februar 2022
Translation: Clive Williams

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