Fans of electronic music will let you know there are many electronic music genres, each more distinct and yet somehow fluidly intertwined than the last. Preferences spread far and wide, much like any major genre, and it’s no surprise how popular electronic music has become.
While the beginnings and history of electronic music may seem to be more recent than the history of rap and hip-hop, they actually began right around the same period, just within different cultures and countries.
It’s important to note that for the purposes of this summary, electronic music is defined as music that is produced using electronics only, not electromechanical means, which would include electric guitars, instruments enhanced by electric accents, amplifiers, etc.
The History of Electronic Music
The pre-Moog synthesizer era
Electronic music, as we know, love, and define it, has a history that is often dated back to the invention of the Moog synthesizer. However, before the Moog, there were two big building blocks for the history of electronic music.
Back in 1920, Russian musician Leon Theremin created the theremin, which could generate “electromagnetic fields that create sounds at different pitches when the musician moves her hands around the theremin.”
In the 1940s and ’50s, a movement called “musique concrète” exploded. It involved the recording and editing of pre-recorded music on shellac, and later magnetic strips, to splice and edit music together using turntables and mixers. In 1951, Pierre Schaeffer had some of the most famous performances of this style in Paris, creating the basis for a world wide trend of electronic music.
The history of electronic music is cluttered here in the late ’50s and early ’60s. There is a hotbed of innovation in some of the major cities of Europe, but most of the era’s advancement is credited to West Germany.
Karlheinz Stockhausen, regarded as one of the best composers of the 20th century, moved to Cologne and “conceived the idea to synthesize music entirely from electronically produced signals,” which differed from musique concrète, which recorded acoustic music.
The invention of the Moog synthesizer
In 1964, Robert Moog was the recipient of a grant and worked long and hard at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center to develop the Moog synthesizer, which set a standard for future commercial electronic musical instruments moving forward.
The Moog synthesizer was unique to its time as it adapted a modular system, using the keyboard to make the synthesizer easier to use in comparison to its previous counterparts. Artists and innovators loved the Moog synthesizer. Purchasers included The Beatles, Mick Jagger, and Tangerine Dream.
Robert Moog went on to develop a plethora of electronic music instruments, including the vocoder, which synthesizes the human voice.
Early adapters thrive in the ’60s and ’70s with disco
Dusseldorf’s Kraftwerk introduced electronic music to the general population. The band made a name for themselves in the early ’70s in the West German underground scene, but exploded in popularity when they used vocoders and synthesizers to create futuristic, pulsating music. Some of their most commercially successful albums from the mid to late ’70s utilized these mostly previously unheard sounds.
Another pioneer, Italian artist Giorgio Moroder, moved to Germany around this era. He became a deeply influential proponent of what would become electronic dance music, specifically Italo-disco. He began to produce music for huge names like Donna Summer and David Bowie, weaving electronic techniques into the music of pop’s biggest stars and establishing electronic music as a genre here to stay. Today, he is also is known for his influential work with Daft Punk.
Synthpop finds fame in the commercial world
In the mid 1980s, low-cost digital samplers finally hit the markets, making the technology more accessible to all artists, allowing synthesizers to infiltrate club music as we know it.
New technology like MIDIs were invented in this time. A MIDI is an important tool that connects and allows separate electronic instruments to interface. This allowed for new styles like new wave, post-disco, and synthpop to be born.
Technology in the ’80s gives birth to more genres
The 1980s also had the creation of bass synthesizers, drum kits, and more. New technology led to an underground insurgence of new genres within the U.S., as the U.K. saw the huge success with club music.
As genres boomed, Detroit saw the development of techno music and Chicago saw the creation and advancement of house music as we know it. Meanwhile, the U.K. had the concurrent development of acid house.
The ’90s: More tech, more genres
The 1990s saw techno hit the mainstream in Germany, and trance evolved from the bones of U.K.’s acid house, adding more melody from underground European club. It eventually hit its peak in Ibiza with artists Paul Oakenfold and John Digweed, who pioneered the trance sound of today.
The late 1990s saw the evolution of drum & bass, which focuses more on the melody and basslines, with a set rhytmic beat. This came from the wild sounds of warehouse hardcore, which was heavy in the underground scene.
Stepping aside from the club and mainstream scene, electronic music continued to become more accessible to general public a step further than computers with the development of music software Fruity Loops, aimed at allowing artists to make complete tracks on desktops.
The volatile future
Moving forward, the invention of computer software such as Fruity Loops and proliferate nature of household computers allowed for electronic music to become music of the people, as accessible as guitars or drums.
The 2000s saw the evolution of music, with dubstep, heavy trap, and also the invasion of electronic music to the top 40. The genre will continue to evolve quickly with every technological advancement, developing niche sounds and overwhelmingly popular festival culture.