Electronic Music Past and Present

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If you’re wondering, “What exactly is electronic music?”, we’ve got your answers right here.  Today we’re going to delve into the history of the genre and explore what exactly it involves.

Electronic music has a general over-arching meaning that covers sounds and tones made by electric instruments, like the electric guitar, bass, keys, and so forth, but, generally, when we think of electronic music, we don’t think about music simply made with your standard electric instruments that have come to be associated with rock.  That said, electronic music can certainly be composed with the help of these instruments, but it depends how they are used and how it’s all arranged.

If we go back to one of the pioneering Krautrock bands, Neu!, who use somewhat of a psychedelic rock band template, but what I believe they did for electronic music is come up with song structures that ignore standard rock and blues templates, and treat their instruments in a way that was never heard before.  

When you dive into the term “electronic music” these days, it has come to be more closely associated with genres and sub-genres that manipulate music with electronic devices.  No one thinks of rock musicians when they think of electronic music.  Instead, they picture DJ’s playing mega-sized EDM festivals, or maybe they imagine classic electronic bands like Kraftwerk manipulating synths and whatnot.  Some people just think electronic music equates to rap.  How about that?

Electronic music, in these sense that it’s thought of today, basically distinguishes between electric and electronic a little differently.  To be fair, they are somewhat different terms, with electric guitars producing tones from amps that come through the open air (usually), while electronic music using synths and loops is often a signal that is captured and then manipulated in a different manner.  You might be able to argue that these two terms are the same, and you’d be right as well, but we’re talking about the differences between the two terms, however slight.

Let’s look now at the history of electronic music, to learn more.  But first, let’s check out Human League playing one of their oldies, “Empire State Human”, from 1979.  This was around the time that synth bands were emerging, and they were a different breed of entertainment from your typical rock groups, moving almost entirely into synthetic sounds.

History of Electronic Music

Electronic devices were developed around the end of the 19th century when people began to use magnetic audio tape recorders to record sounds.  This is when things started to get interesting in our modern world in terms of music starting to be documented, rather than just remain something that lives only in the moment it’s happening.


Once sounds could be recorded, they could be manipulated, and enterprising tech nerds (before the term existed) got down to work figuring out how these devices functioned.

As musicians across the world began to experiment with recordings and electronics, electronic music began to take hold. In 1948, Musique Concrete was created in Paris. Japan, Germany, and the U.S. began to experiment with music that was created directly from synthesizers that used electricity instead of instruments. That was in the 1950’s.  But dig this – “music with a strictly electronic beat”.

One of the earliest recorders was purchased in the United States for Columbia University. It was an Ampex machine for the music department to record concerts. Almost immediately, one of the faculty, Vladimir Ussachevsky, was experimenting with it. He was fascinated by the idea that he could transform sound by layering sounds on top of each other and manipulating them.

He was invited to work with another composer, Otto Luening, and the two of them spent months improvising before being invited to a produce some compositions for a concert at the American Composers Alliance and Broadcast Music Inc. It was the first concert, but not the last. Finally after a few concerts in NYC, they were invited to demonstrate their compositions on NBC’s Today Show. That was the first televised electronic performance.

Some of Vlad’s pieces even made it to record.  Here is one of those pieces, with Otto Luening, called “Tape Recorder Music”.

Very Early Days

Around the same time, live electronics spread throughout Europe, Asia, and the U.S.  Japan especially was big into electronic music with instruments they developed for the music industry specifically. Of course, we all know that Japan is the largest electronics industry in the world, so it’s no surprise that they were all over this whole electronic music thing. 

Across the world, different electronic music genres started to emerge. Some are still in existence today in their same origination while others morphed into new types of music completely.

Different Genres of Electronic Music

These are some of the original genres of electronic music. There’s experimental music and avant-garde as well as pure computer music that doesn’t necessarily fit into one particular box of music. This is a type of music that is moving fluidly based on the technology brought to the industry from computers.

  • Ambient
  • Krautrock
  • Hip hop
  • New age
  • New wave
  • Neo soul
  • Post-disco
  • Psychedelic

Between the 60’s and 80’s was when electronic music really emerged in the eyes of the public. It was used by popular musicians of the time in their music, too. The Beach Boys and the Beatles were just two, but with big names being influenced by the sounds, it started to creep into all types of music. 

Many of us don’t think of the Beach Boys or Beatles as electronic bands, but there were many pop bands from this era that started to use various synthesizers for songs and you might not even know it.  Strawberry Fields Forever, anyone?  John got right in there straight away with the Mellotron.

There was electronic creeping into the disco sounds of the 70s as well as rap and other music in the 80s. House and techno emerged in the 80s, too. Each genre used manipulation as a stepping stone to the next style of music.

Equipment for Electronic Music

Some might argue that it all started with keyboard synthesizers that were used for popular music. One of the first to use a keyboard synthesizer in a concert was Herbie Hancock. As you can see by the clothes, this was back in the 80’s.

The keyboard made way for digital synthesis with algorithms for frequency modulation as well as rhythm machines, or drum machines, bass machines, and chiptunes. From there came MIDI technology with software and computer programming. Each advance in technology brought about a new way to manipulate sound to create music. When we talk about music today, it’s hard to find any genre that doesn’t include some aspect of sound manipulation, but it’s not all considered electronic music.

Electronic Music Today

It’s difficult to pin down music into one genre when the basics of the music is constantly changing. Is it experimental when the musician is trying new things, and being creatively challenged to provide electronic music that hasn’t been heard before while mixing it with melodies?

Every musician wants to push the boundaries and come up with original music that people will love. Even DJ’s are using electronics and sound to produce music nobody has heard before.

We invite you to listen to some indie artists who are pushing the boundaries of what’s considered electronic music. Whether it’s melodic trance, classic house, classic deep house, or acid house.

They often can’t be pigeon holed, and that’s a good thing. Artists who don’t experiment and grow aren’t coming up with anything new or revolutionary. If that happened a hundred years ago, we wouldn’t have the vast array of genres we have today.

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