Early Experiments and Developments
The first electronic musical instrument was the Telharmonium, invented
by Thaddeus Cahill, circa 1900. It was a synthesizer controlled by a
keyboard. This instrument used mechanical oscillators to induce an
electrical current, rather than electronic oscillators, as almost all
future electronic instruments have. Much has been written online and in
hard copy about the instrument and how it worked.
Over the next forty years, new electronic instruments were developed, using electronic oscillators, and many featuring unusual interfaces, or methods
of playing. Perhaps the best known instruments of this time are the
Theremin, invented by Lev Termen in 1920, and the Ondes Martenot,
invented by Maurice Martenot, in 1928. Although the Theremin used an
interesting gestural control, it was at first only used to play music that
had already been written for traditional acoustic instruments. It was with the advent of the Ondes Martenot that serious composers, such as Olivier Messiaen and Edgard Varèse began writing for electronic instruments.
This, in conjunction with the pioneering music of the Italian futurist
Luigi Russolo, set the stage for the upcoming electronic music
Modernism to Experimentalism to Minimalism
After World War II, many of the technological advances made in war-time communication and espionage were used for musical purposes, particularly
in the realm of modulatable oscillators and portable tape
recording. Musical experiments began popping out of radio studios.
Musique concrète, or the composition of music using recorded sounds, was
developed by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, in France in the 40s
and 50s. At the same time, music composed of tones from electronic
oscillators was being developed by composers such as Karlheinz
Stockhausen in Germany. For an excellent WU on this subject, see
Groupe de Recherches Musicales.
In the United States, John Cage began exploring tape music as well as
experimental pieces which utilized the tuning of multiple radios. In
1952, Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening presented the first
concert of tape music in the United States. In 1959, the San Francisco
Tape Music Center was founded by a small group
of west coast composers, including Morton Subotnick and Pauline
Oliveros. In New York in 1964, working with Don Buchla's modular
synthesizer, Morton Subotnick made his classic piece Silver Apples of the Moon. Meanwhile, researchers at Bell Labs were working on computer music as an offshoot of psychoacoustics. Max Mathews, James Tenney, and many other notable electronic musicians conducted research and made music at that time.
In the late 60s, the beginings of minimalism were taking root, with
Steve Reich's tape loop pieces such as It's Gonna Rain and
Come Out. Terry Riley made his groundbreaking A Rainbow in
Curved Air with a simple analog synthesizer and a multitrack tape
recorder. In 1978, Brian Eno made his classic Music for
Airports, using some basic synthesizers and tape loops to bridge the
gap from minimalism to the mainstream with ambient music.
In the meantime, popular culture was beginning to catch on. The
theremin and Ondes Martenot made their way into movie soundtracks and pop music. See Forbidden Planet, and Good Vibrations. Tape
recorders became affordable for regular people, allowing for the formation of an individual relationship with recorded sound. Later, in the 70s,
prog-rock outfit Emerson, Lake and Palmer had been turned on by Wendy Carlos to the usage of synthesizers to make complex music, and brought
their enthusiasm to mainstream culture. Of course, bands such as The
Beatles and Pink Floyd were also working with electronics and studio
equipment in new and innovative ways.
From 1980 to the 21st century
In 1982, the MIDI standard was introduced, enabling electronic
musicians to easily use their instruments in conjunction with one another
and to facilitate easy communication between computers and synthesizers.
1983 brought the world the Yamaha DX7, the first consumer level FM
synthesis synthesizer, truly bringing electronic music to the masses. The generation that grew up with these commercial synthesizers would be the
generation to bring the electronica boom to the world in the late 90s.
Computers also began to become more and more cheaply available to
consumers, and software which enabled people to make music with their
computers proliferated. Sequencers such as Cakewalk, Studio Vision, and
Digital Performer enable people to work with MIDI synthesizers and samplers compositionally as well as performatively. Software packages such as M
and MAX bring generative music to home computers.
In the 90s, as a true display of postmodernity, sample based music made a strong showing in electronic music and hip-hop. With the aid of a
computer or a sampler, musicians can create new works of music entirely out of bits of prerecorded music made by other musicians. People have
approached this academically, such as John Oswald and DJ Spooky, and
commercially, most notably Puff Daddy. This has brought up many issues of originality, copyright, and ownership, which are still being hacked out.
There are too many recent and current electronic musicians to list, but for a good start, see the Electronic Music Artists Metanode.