electronic music or electro-acoustic music, term for compositions that utilize the capacities of electronic media for creating and altering sounds.
Initially, a distinction must be made between the technological development of electronic instruments and the music conceived to utilize the inherent advantages of these instruments. Experiments in electronic tone production began soon after the invention of the vacuum tube (see electron tube). The first important instrument, the theremin, invented by the Russian Leon Theremin in 1920, used interference beats of two oscillators to produce sine-wave tones. The Ondes Martinot, invented in 1928, and the Trautonium, invented in 1930, were of similar design.
The earliest pieces of electronic music used recorded sounds that were then electronically altered to create sonic collages. This style, called musique concrete, was developed in Paris in 1948 by Pierre Schaeffer. The invention of the tape recorder in the late 1940s gave composers new means for modifying recorded sounds, including splicing (cutting the tape to create new juxtapositions of sound), speed variation (which changes the pitch of the recorded sound), and mixing (which allowed two or more different recordings to be played back at the same time). In popular music, Les Paul was one of the pioneers of electronic music, inventing the first solid-body electric guitar in 1946 and recording music in the 1950s in an eight-track recording studio of his own design.
Controlling aspects of the musical sound by means of voltage regulation eventually led to the invention of synthesizers, devices that could produce and modify sound for musical applications. Among the earliest of these was the RCA synthesizer developed in the late 1950s and used extensively by composer Milton Babbitt in many of his electronic works. In the 1950s various studios that specialized in the production of electro-acoustic music were developed, including the West German Radio Studio in Cologne, associated with composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, the Italian Radio Studio in Milan, associated with Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna, and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, associated with Otto Luening, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Mario Davidovsky, and Babbitt.
During the 1960s synthesizers were made widely available by companies such as Moog (see Moog, Robert) and Buchla and found widespread usage in rock music. Popular groups such as the Beatles and the Beach Boys began experiments in multitrack recording, years after the innovations of Paul, that enabled several different recordings to be synchronized on the same tape. Eventually synthesizers switched from voltage control to digital control.
In 1983 the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) standard was agreed on by synthesizer manufacturers (see computer music). This digital code enables different electronic devices to communicate a variety of information to each other and allows computer control of synthesizer output. MIDI can also be used to control a wide range of equipment in addition to synthesizers; these include mixers, lights, and signal processors (devices that modify sounds by adding reverberation, by modifying pitch, and by other means).
Today MIDI is widely used in both academic and popular musical production. In MIDI production, computers are often used as sequencers (devices that control the output of musical instruments and signal processors). Throughout the last three decades of the 20th cent. electronic music increasingly became a part of pop music compositions, eventually allowing a solo artist to compose, produce, and perform music that employs a full complement of instrumental sounds. In the 1980s MIDI was also used in the creation of the radio baton, a new instrument that allows players to control the nuances of the music played.
See P. Manning, Electronic and Computer Music (1985); C. Anderton, The Electronic Musician's Dictionary (1988); H. Russcol, The Liberation of Sound: An Introduction to Electronic Music (1990); F. Rumsey, MIDI Systems and Controls (1990); N. Collins and J. d'Escrivan, The Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music (2007).