Historical Overview of Electronic Music Essay

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Electronic Music

The creation and enjoyment of music has been a part of our collective human culture since long before the beginnings of recorded history. It is believed that once upon a time even cavemen and Neanderthals were able to create music using their prehistoric instruments and technologies. Archaeologists and historians have discovered remnants of musical instruments in dig sites from all across the globe. The various instruments or what may or may not have at one time been instruments, that have been found at each of these locations have been a reflection of the culture in which it was used. As modern culture is reflected in current musical interests, so too the cultures of past civilizations have been reflected in the instruments and music that those cultures had left behind. Part of the culture invariably involves the tools and available materials that the population would utilize in order to create music. As with all advancements that are made in technology that man has made, music has changed to incorporate the new devices and techniques. Perhaps the most important invention of the modern age was the concept of harnessing electricity so that it could be used for personal and professional enterprises. It wasn't long before scientists began experimenting with utilizing electricity to create music. Since the advent of electricity as a common utility, the world of music and musical instruments has been forever altered.

There are two classifications of electrical instrumentation: electronic musical instruments which use the production of electromechanical sounds (e.g. The electrical organ or the electric guitar) and instruments which produce electrical sounds (e.g. The Theremin, sound synthesizer, or computers which are capable of producing either musical or vocal sounds). Some of the most common examples of electronic musical instruments that are still in use today are the electric guitar, the electric keyboard, and the electric piano. However, these are nowhere near the only electric instruments that are in existence. Currently, there are electronic variations of almost all available musical instruments. The difference between electric musical instruments and instruments which produce electrical sounds is that the former type is an instrument that could function without the utilization of electronics, but is changed or improved by the incorporation of electrical or computer technology, whereas the second type requires electrical mechanics in order to create sound. Both types of electrical instrumentation are important to the history of music as a whole.

Perhaps the most popular electrical instrument still in use today is the electric guitar which was patented in 1931 (see figure 1). There are, however, patent applications in existence from as early as the 1910's and 1920's which show that musicians and inventors were using telephone transmission parts and using them in violins, banjos, and other stringed instruments. This was done in order to attempt to amplify the sound of the instruments from their natural state. The credited inventor of the modern electric guitar is George Beauchamp, who received a patent in 1931. In 1948, the first solid body guitar was invented by Les Paul (Hunter 2007). The difference between the former types of guitars and the solid body guitars is that the latter allows for sound to be amplified and produce stronger string vibrations. This type of body design stops the instrument from producing what is referred to as "wolf sounds." These things that are called wolf sounds are actually the hollow sounds that make echoes in the wooden bodies of the instrument. A solid body guitar prevents these echoes from affecting either the recordings or the performance of the instrument. In order to function, the electric guitar uses the principle of direct electromagnetic induction. This process means that the induction changes the vibrations of the metal strings into electrical signals. The signals vary depending on which metal string is hit by the person playing the guitar. However, unlike a traditional guitar, the instrument does not make music just from the plucking of strings. Instead, the signal that is made from the electric signal has to be directed elsewhere. The signal that is produced is very weak upon initial strumming. It requires the use of an amplifier which is attached to the guitar through a chord. The amplifier allows other people to hear the sound generated from the playing of the guitar. Since it is an electrical signal and because it is caused by vibrations, the music can be easily modified using different reverberations or distortions of the vibration. These are done through the amplifier or through the using of other electric or computerized systems, such as sound boards.

Now utilized in almost every musical genre, the electric guitar has only recently gained attention as a viable musical instrument. First seen by most musicians as nothing more than a novelty or a plaything, the electric guitar shortly became a respected instrument used both by amateur and professional musicians. The electric guitar gained popularity during the later 1930s and early 1940s with the popularization of both jazz and big band music. Both genres featured fast, up-temp music with relatively loud instrumentation. The electrical instruments, particularly the electric guitar, were capable of creating the right sounds, keep the tempo, and feature the decibel levels appropriate for the genre. With the continued success of those genres of music, more people learned how to play the new instruments in order to be successful both financially and artistically.

The electric piano, electric keyboard and electric organ are all similar instruments in terms of body, construction, and sound. All three are keyed instruments which create varying sounds which depend upon the key that is hit by the player of the instrument. Also, all three have a similar musical scale wherein notes on the left are much lower notes and ascend in tone as the keys proceed right. Both the electric piano and the electric organ traditionally use wires and tension in order to produce sounds. The player presses a key which corresponds to a set of wires in the body of the instrument. Inside the bodies of the instruments are feet which hit the wires and this creates the music. Their electronic versions, on the other hand, use the electrical technology to mimic the sounds of their more traditional counterparts. The Wurlitzer Company became the premiere manufacturer of electronic organs throughout the 1950s, '60s, and '70s until the instrument became less popular and ultimately less profitable (see figure 2). The Wurlitzer Company would also manufacture other electronic instruments, such as the drum machine which is discussed further on. The older models of electrical instruments have a decidedly hollow sound to them where it is evident that the technology has not yet mastered the ability to copy the "real thing." It is more difficult to tune the older models of the instruments than their traditional counterparts, which could be why the present sound of older models has this hollow, antiquated sound to them. However, more modern examples of the electric pianos and keyboards have become so advanced that it is virtually impossible to tell the variances apart. There have been other additions and innovations that have been applied to keyboards and pianos as technology has progressed. Some modern electrical pianos and keyboards have highly advanced computer technologies, including the ability to instantly record the musical performances in real-time.

Figure 2 Figure 3

One electronic instrument that has been making a recent comeback is the drum machine, mentioned earlier. One version that has had a lot of publicity lately is the Roland brand TR-808 (Anderson 2008). This model has been around for decades and is still being used by modern performers in new music. The drum machine is a specialized computer which is specifically designed to emulate the various rhythms and sounds of percussion instruments (see figure 3). The first of these drum machines is reported to have been created by one Leon Theremin who will be discussed in more detail later on with the instrument that is named after him. This early version of the drum machine which was developed in 1932 was capable of playing up to sixteen different rhythms. What was so remarkable about the drum machine was that even this early model was able to duplicate both human sounds and to provide rhythmic backgrounds for other artists without the need to carry around such cumbersome materials as heavy percussion instruments. The Theremin drum machine was capable of creating sounds that otherwise would have required the need for multiple musicians and the playing of multiple instruments as well. For about a decade, from between 1998 and 2008, the drum machine fell out of usage. In recent time, the use of the drum machine had a revitalization, in part because of famous performer and musical composer Kanye West who used the Roland TR-808 in his release, 808s and Heartbreak (West 2008). Kanye West claimed that he chose to use this particular drum machine because it had a more "tribal" sound. This can be understood to mean a more intense percussive sound than other versions…[continue]

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