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This lesson will define the concept of electronic music and provide examples of different instruments, genres, and artists that make up this category. The role of technology in the creation of music in the 20th and 21st century will be considered and you can take a quiz!

What is Electronic Music?

Electronic music is everywhere in 21st century America. It can be found in massive, multi-day festivals like the Electric Daisy Carnival, on top-40 radio, and in a myriad of commercials.

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Electronic music has a complex history that spans everything from obscure avant-garde art music to glittering disco ballrooms.Electronic music is exactly what the name suggests: music made with electronic instruments. The category of electronic music can best be understood in contrast to the categories of acoustic or traditional music, like classical, jazz, or folk. However, because musical traditions like classical, jazz, and folk are frequently recorded using digital technology, amplified using microphones, and distributed over the internet, it may be difficult to distinguish the distinction between electronic and non-electronic music in the 21st century. With this in mind, we can understand the concept of electronic music as emerging out of the 20th century’s remarkable revolutions in computing, electronics, and digital technology. Throughout the 20th century, pioneering engineers, inventors, and musicians built machines that could produce music in ways that had previously been unimaginable.

Musician playing a Theremin

Early Electronic Music

The Russian musician and inventor Leon Theremin invented the theremin in 1920. The theremin is an instrument that creates electromagnetic fields that create sounds at different pitches when the musician moves her hands around the theremin. Theremins create a high, warbling sound most famous for its use in 1950s horror and science fiction movies.Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, numerous inventors developed different versions of what would come to be the synthesizer.

These electronic instruments were originally intended to mimic the sounds of organs or other traditional instruments, but would soon come to be seen as unique music making tools in their own right. The avant-garde musical movement known as musique concr;te used electronic instruments during 1940s in a way that would be very influential to later styles of electronic music. In the 1950s and 1960s, the highly creative Canadian musician Bruce Haack started making electronic music that was originally intended for children, appearing several times on the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood TV program with his various gadgets. In the 1960s Robert Moog began producing his famous line of synthesizers that would revolutionize the field of electronic music.

Moog synthesizers are still widely used today.

Robert Moog with an early Moog synthesizer

Musical Machines and the Birth of Disco

Beginning in the late 1960s, electronic music enjoyed an explosion of creativity, technological advancement, and popularity.

This period of advancement would in many ways mirror the technological advancements in other branches of technology like personal computers and video games. After relocating to Germany, the Italian born musician Giorgio Moroder became a deeply influential proponent of what would become electronic dance music, in particular the subgenre known as Italo disco. Germany was a hot bed of musical experimentalism during the late 1960s and early 1970s, particularly in the field of electronic music. Groups like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and Can used synthesizers and other electronic instruments to transform rock music into new forms, inspiring many people across the world to experiment with electronic music.

As the ethnographer and cultural theorist Sarah Thornton has observed, the space in which electronic music was experienced by fans in the 1970s was just as important as the music itself. The discotheque, later shortened to disco, was a place where new electronic dance records were played by a DJ and fans could dance to the music. This was a space freed from the constraints and expenses of having a live band where technology reigned supreme.

These dance-centered environments were the forerunner of what would become rave culture and club culture.By the mid 1970s, disco music was enjoying a peak period of popularity. Electronic synthesizers were combined with drum machines to create a dance-friendly style of music that gained popularity throughout the world. The European version, spearheaded by Giorgio Moroder, was very futuristic sounding and synthesizer-based.

The American version of disco was much more rooted in funk, soul, and other African-American genres. In the United States disco experienced a sudden drop in popularity in the early 1980s fueled, as some have argued, by homophobia and racism.

House, Techno, and the 1980s

Kevin Saunderson, techno pioneer
Kevin Saunderson

Not everyone lost interest in disco in the early 1980s. In Chicago, many DJs continued to experiment with new ways of mixing old disco records. Using two turntables and a mixer, Chicago DJs would manipulate disco records in order to play the parts that audiences liked and to create an open-ended, remix friendly style of music.

This genre came to be called house music, after the warehouses in which the dance clubs were often located.In Detroit, three friends, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, stated making electronic music that was inspired by Chicago house, but that was colder, starker, and more futuristic. This Detroit style came to be known as techno. Repetitive, minimalistic, and inspired by synthesizer-driven European music, techno would often be played in the abandoned factories that could be found throughout the post-industrial landscape of Detroit in the 1980s.Although both house and techno music were products of urban African-American culture, these styles would enjoy much of their popularity by the late 1980s in the U.K.

and Germany. In the U.K., parties would be held in large open fields out in the countryside. The new drug ecstasy became a popular element to the house and techno parties of this era, along with other psychedelic drugs like LSD. These parties acquired the name raves and quickly became famous throughout the world for their wild, Dionysian, utopian vibes.

In Europe, the U.S., and eventually throughout the world, house and techno music would spawn uncountable numbers of subgenres. Today, electronic dance music is one of the most celebrated and widely distributed forms of music on earth. Electronic music, in various forms, continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible musically, challenging traditional notions of musicality.

Lesson Summary

Electronic music should be understood as any music made principally with electronic instruments. Although first pioneered in classical and avant-garde circles, electronic music became most famous for its use in electronic dance music.

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