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Discover the exciting world of electroacoustic music and learn to make music with sounds.

Electronic Music

Speakerpile

Electronic Music is made from electronic signals which are converted into sound by loudspeakers.

Where Did It Begin?

In the 1950s, composers in the radio studios at Cologne (Germany) began to experiment in creating music with electronic equipment.

Many other studios soon built up collections of electronic equipment, originally invented to test the radio equipment, and composers began to use these as new instruments with which they could create new works.

Solitaire by Arne Nordheim

Listen to this piece of Electronic Music composed by the Norwegian Arne Nordheim in 1968. Individual electronic tones are looped, layered and combined to create a rich and dramatic sound world with a great sense of depth. (See below for a more detailed investigation of this clip.)

What Does This Music Involve?

By working with electronic OscillatorA piece of electrical equipment that produces a back and forth motion in electricity, thus inducing an AC current which can be sonified by a loudspeaker.More infooscillators, composers were able to control every detail of the sounds that they created. This allowed them to be very precise and create exactly the type of sound that they planned.

They were able to manipulate the main parameters of sound (PitchThe relative height of a sound, ranging from low to high.More infopitch, LoudnessThe relative volume of a sound, ranging from loud to quiet.More infoloudness, and DurationLength in time. In our case for a sound, or a group of sounds.More infoduration) with the controls on their electronic devices, and to alter the TimbreThe colour or quality of a sound. A combination of all other properties that makes each sound unique. More infotimbre and character of the sounds that they created, by changing the basic soundwave type and the shape of the sounds over time.

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Absolute Control

Starting with the basic building blocks of sound, gives the composer absolute control from the beginning. However, this does mean that the composer must specify every detail about the sound in order to get the sound that they want.

But, working with pure, electronic tones as building blocks, composers of Electronic Music have a much cleaner working process than the messy and experimental world of Musique Concrète. They begin with pure, simple sounds and build them into more complex structures.

Fact

Because they were able to easily create a lot of sounds, many composers used simple rules to help them narrow down the sounds that they wanted to use in their piece.

These rules might involve:

a) Only using a select few sounds.
b) Never using the same sounds next to one another.
c) Leaving it completely up to chance and letting the roll of the dice decide which sound to use next.

Composition Tools

Electronic Music sounds are mostly generated and designed in the way that the composer wants them.

Sometimes manipulations are needed and those commonly used in Electronic Music are:

  • LoopTo loop a sound is to continuously repeat it. More infoLoop
  • TranspositionA manipulation which changes the pitch of a sound. More infoTransposition
  • FilterA filter changes the frequency makeup of a sound by making parts of it weaker. Filters allow you to focus on parts of a sound that are of interest to you, or to take away parts that you don't like.More infoFilter
  • ReverbThe multiple short reflections of sound that give humans an immediate impression of space. Reverb effects can be used to impart a sense of space onto recorded or generated sounds.More infoReverb
  • EchoThe delayed reflection of sounds in a stereo space.More infoEcho

How Was That Piece Made?

The example which we listened to earlier, ‘Solitaire’ [by Arne Nordheim], is made from three main layers of electronic sound.

Click below to play the clip while viewing the spectrogram visualisation of the sound.
SolitaireClip_Overview_Annot

Learn more about each of the three sections below.


1. Low Electronic Drone

This is the main element of this excerpt. A low droning electronic sound that is made from a small clip of electronic tones looped.

SolitaireElementOne

A Single Loop of the Low Drone.

When this sound is looped, it forms the longer base drone of this section of the piece. This is the foundation of the whole section.


2. High Frequency Ping

This is a short sound which comes in towards the beginning of the clip. The ping sound is repeated three more times (there are four pings in total). But, when the ping is repeated, it is transposed and changed in pitch.

Initial Ping Sound

This is the first ping sound, which was later transformed.

Changes in Pitch

SolitaireElementTwov2_annot

Changes in Space

Each ping is also panned a different amount, giving a sense of space from left to right. Each ping has a different amount of reverb applied to it, giving a greater sense of depth, from close to distant.


3. Falling Grains

A cloud of very small pitched sounds, which slowly falls in pitch. This granular cloud was created from a few, high pitched, small electronic tones, looped to create an extended granular cloud, and then transposed downwards over time.
SolitaireElementThree_Annot

Falling Grains

Small grains of sound which trickle gradually downwards.


Extra

Karlheinz Stockhausen was an important composer of Electronic Music, who worked in the Cologne studios.

Before travelling to Cologne, he worked with Schaeffer, Pierrea radio engineer and composer who founded the group that became the GRM (Musical Research Group). He studied sounds and developed the idea of Musique Concrète.More infoPierre Schaeffer in Paris. Because of this, he combined both the ideas and methods of Musique Concrète with those of Elektronische Musik. Creating works such as ‘Gesang Der Jünglinge’, in which he combined recorded sounds of a boy’s voice (manipulated using transposition, splicing and montage) with electronic tones.

Extra

Further works by Arne Nordheim are available from Rune Grammofon RCD 2002 c&p 1998:

Click here to link to the other music available.

Abstract Sounds

Sounds which we are unable to link with a specific source (Sound Source). When we hear Abstract Sounds we usually think about them as sounds in their own right; we do not hear the source that caused them (see also Musical Listening).

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ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release)

an acronym used to describe the shape of sounds over time (see also envelope).

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Analogue

A continuious signal in time, which in music, allows for the continuious capture of audio signals.

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Electronic Music

Music in which the sound material is not pre-recorded, but instead uniquely generated electronically, through oscillators and noise generators.

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Elektronische Musik

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Oscillator

A piece of electrical equipment that produces a back and forth motion in electricity, thus inducing an AC current which can be sonified by a loudspeaker.

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Pitch Shifting

This refers to the changing of the pitch in either direction. Traditionally pitch shifting went hand in hand with the change of speed of a tape recorder.

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Sine Wave

The purest of sounds, looking like a sequence of hills and troughs, the sine wave (or sinusoid) creates the sound of a single frequency with no harmonics or interference.

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