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20th Century Theory




Electronic music uses technological advances for new music

  • recording tape, synthesizers, computers
  • Allows composers to skip the middle step of performers to convey their ideas to an audience
  • Provides unlimited palette of sounds/tone colors

nTelharmonium (Dynamaphone)

nPatented by Thaddeaus Cahill
n200-ton array of 145 Edison dynamos
nProduced pitched
hums according to
speed of dynamos
nElectrical output
"broadcast" over



  • Lee DeForest invents the Triode Vacuum Tube
  • Led to amplification of electrical signals


  • Ferruccio Busoni publishes Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music
  • Discusses use of electrical and other new sound sources in future music
  • Had profound effect on his pupil, Edgard Varese


Edgard VareseAmerican (1883 - 1965)


Poeme electronique (1958)

nConcrète elements include
¡Female voice
¡Male chorus



Poème Électronique “Score”




nTheremin (1919-20)
Invented by a Russian physicist named Leon Theremin

Played by moving hands around the metal loop for volume and around the antenna for pitch.

Sound produced by heterodyning combination of two oscillators, frequency of one determined by proximity of hand to pitch antenna.

It is played without being touched


Theremin Lesson One

Theramin Ensemble


A Theremin:  The right antenna controls pitch and the left antenna controls volume.

A Theremin:  The right antenna controls pitch and the left antenna controls volume.


Charlie Clouser of Nine Inch Nails

Supposedly Charlie uses this theremin on several songs when touring with Nine Inch Nails.


Joe Bonamassa: "John Henry"

Theramin @ 3:20

nOndes-Martenot (1928)

(pronounced 'owned Martin-O')


At the end of W.W.I, Maurice Martenot (1898-1980), a sergeant in charge of a wireless station, noticed the purity of vibrations produced by radio tubes (a recent invention).

This led to a series of investigations in sound and electronics. He presented his new musical instrument to the public in may of 1928 at the Paris Opera. The first concert with an electronic instrument.

He called his invention the Ondes Martenot (Martenot's waves).

Hundreds of symphonic works, operas, ballets, film scores, and other works were composed for the Martenot by composers such as Olivier Messian, Milhaud, Varese, Boulez, Honneger and more.  

Video Demonstration by Jean Laurendeau

Radiohead Pyramid Song with Ondes Martenot


¡Messiaen Fete des belles eaux (1937) for six ondes-martenot
¡Messiaen, Trois petites liturgies de la Presence Divine (1944) (Variations)
¡Turangalila-symphonie (1946-8) (Var2 Opus)


Feuillet Inedit by Thomas Bloch

nHammond Organ (1935)
Based on technical principles of the Telharmonium

Procol Harum, “A Whiter Shade of Pale"

Hammond Organ Seventieth tribute

nImprovement of amplifiers and invention of the tape recorder
nJohn Cage composes Imaginary Landscape no.1 (1939) using test-tones from recordings, played in disc format on variable-speed turntables



(Electronic music using natural sounds as a source)



nRadiodiffusion-television Francaise broadcasts Pierre Schaeffer, Etude aux Chemin de Fer



¡Marks the beginning of studio realizations and musique concrète



nPierre Schaeffer Symphonie pour un homme seul, first major work of musique concrète




nstudio formally established as the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète


¡Includes Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen


change of tape speed:  "Low Speed" by Otto Luening

change of tape direction: "Incantations" by Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky

tape loops: "Come Out" by Steve Reich

cutting/splicing:  "Williams Mix" by John Cage

tape delay:  "I of IV" by Pauline Oliveros


nNWDR (Nordwest Deutsche Rundfunk) Studio established in Cologne

¡Karlheinz Stockhausen most influential

nRTF primarily concerned with manipulation of acoustic sound sources (musique concrète)

nNWDR studio equipped with electronic sound generators and modifiers (Electronische Musik)



nFour compositions for tape recorder, composed by Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening, presented at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (10/28)

nRaymond Scott designs first sequencer

¡hundreds of switches

¡stepping relays

¡timing solenoids

¡tone circuits

¡16 individual oscillators

nScott invents Clavivox synthesizer with subassembly by Robert Moog (1956)


Wave Table


There is no standard notation for electronic music and most electronic music does not exist in notated form at all.

Lucky for you . . .

"The lack of scores and written documentation has proven to be a significant hurdle for the analysis and theoretical discussion of electronic music." (Kostka)





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