Electroacoustic music

Electroacoustic music is a genre of Western art music which originated around the middle of the 20th century, following the incorporation of electric sound production into compositional practice. The initial developments in electroacoustic music composition to fixed media during the 20th century are associated with the activities of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales at the ORTF in Paris, the home of musique concrète, the Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk (NWDR) studio in Cologne, where the focus was on the composition of elektronische Musik, and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City, where tape music, electronic music, and computer music were all explored. Practical electronic music instruments began to appear in the early 1900s.

Tape music

Tape music is an integral part of musique concrète, utilizing pre-recorded fragments, loops, and sampled sounds, altering and manipulating them through techniques such as speed manipulation (Anon. n.d.). The work of Halim El-Dabh is perhaps the earliest example of tape (or, in this case, wire-recorded) music. El-Dabh's The Expression of Zaar, first presented in Cairo, Egypt, in 1944, was an early work using musique concrète–like techniques similar to those developed in Paris during the same period. El-Dabh would later become more famous for his work at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, where in 1959 he composed the influential piece Leiyla and the Poet (Holmes 2008, 153–54 & 157).

US composer John Cage's assembly of the Williams Mix serves as an example of the rigors of tape music. First, Cage created a 192-page score. Over the course of a year, 600 sounds were assembled and recorded. Cut tape segments for each occurrence of each sound were accumulated on the score. Then the cut segments were spliced to one of eight tapes, work finished on January 16, 1953. The premiere performance (realization) of the 4'15" work was given on March 21, 1953 at the University of Illinois, Urbana (Chaudron n.d.).

Electronic music

In Cologne, elektronische Musik, pioneered in 1949–51 by the composer Herbert Eimert and the physicist Werner Meyer-Eppler, was based solely on electronically generated (synthetic) sounds, particularly sine waves (Eimert 1957, 2; Morawska-Büngeler 1988, 11–13; Ungeheuer 1992, 13). The beginning of the development of electronic music has been traced back to "the invention of the valve [vacuum tube] in 1906" (Eimert 1957, 2). The precise control afforded by the studio allowed for what Eimert considered to be the subjection of everything, "to the last element of the single note", to serial permutation, "resulting in a completely new way of composing sound" (Eimert 1957, 8); in the studio, serial operations could be applied to elements such as timbre and dynamics. The common link between the two schools is that the music is recorded and performed through loudspeakers, without a human performer. The majority of electroacoustic pieces use a combination of recorded sound and synthesized or processed sounds, and the schism between Schaeffer's and Eimert's approaches has been overcome, the first major example being Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge of 1955–56 (Morawska-Büngeler 1988, 17; Stockhausen 1996, 93–94).

Sound generation techniques

All electroacoustic music is made with electronic technology, specifically a device – usually a loudspeaker – that transduces electrical energy to acoustic energy.

Circuit bending

Circuit bending is the creative short-circuiting of low voltage, battery-powered electronic audio devices such as guitar effects, children's toys and small synthesizers to create new musical instruments and sound generators. Emphasizing spontaneity and randomness, the techniques of circuit bending have been commonly associated with noise music, though many more conventional contemporary musicians and musical groups have been known to experiment with "bent" instruments (Collins 2006, ).

Examples of notable electroacoustic works

Electronic and electroacoustic instruments

Important centers of research and composition can be found around the world, and there are numerous conferences and festivals which present electroacoustic music, notably the International Computer Music Conference, the International Conference on New interfaces for musical expression, the Electroacoustic Music Studies Conference, and the Ars Electronica Festival (Linz, Austria).

A number of national associations promote the art form, notably the Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC) in Canada, the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS) in the US, the Australasian Computer Music Association in Australia and New Zealand, and Sound and Music (previously the Sonic Arts Network) in the UK. The Computer Music Journal and Organised Sound are the two most important peer-reviewed journals dedicated to electroacoustic studies, while several national associations produce print and electronic publications.


There have been a number of festivals that feature electroacoustic music. Early festivals such as Donaueschingen Festival, founded in 1921, were some of the first to include electroacoustic instruments and pieces. This was followed by ONCE Festival of New Music in the 1950s, and since the 1960s there has been a growth of festivals that focus exclusively on electroacoustic music.

Festivals focused on electroacoustic music

Conferences and symposiums

Alongside paper presentations, workshops and seminars, many of these events also feature concert performances or sound installations created by those attending or which are related to the theme of the conference / symposium.

  • NIME – International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (since 2000)

See also


  • Anon. n.d. "Avant-Garde » Modern Composition » Tape Music". AllMusic.com (accessed 18 May 2017).
  • Boreal Electro Acoustic Music Society announcement. 2012
  • Chaudron, André. n.d. "Williams Mix" (Accessed 9 July 2011).
  • Collins, Nicolas. 2006. Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-97592-1 (pbk).
  • Eimert, Herbert. 1957. "What is Electronic Music?" Die Reihe 1 [English edition] ("Electronic Music"): 1–10.
  • Holmes, Thom. 2008. "Early Synthesizers and Experimenters". In his Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture, third edition. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-95781-6 (cloth); ISBN 978-0-415-95782-3 (pbk), (accessed 4 June 2011).
  • Midgette, Anne. 2004. "Noises Off! Making a Boombox Cacophony". The New York Times (20 December).
  • Morawska-Büngeler, Marietta. 1988. Schwingende Elektronen: Eine Dokumentation über das Studio für Elektronische Musik des Westdeutschen Rundfunk in Köln 1951–1986. Cologne-Rodenkirchen: P. J. Tonger Musikverlag.
  • Smalley, Denis. 1997. "Spectromorphology: Explaining Sound-Shapes." Organised Sound 2, no. 2:107–26.
  • Stockhausen, Karlheinz. 1996. "Electroacoustic Performance Practice", translated by Jerome Kohl. Perspectives of New Music 34, no. 1 (Fall): 74–105.
  • Ungeheuer, Elena. 1992. "Wie die elektronische Musik „erfunden" wurde…: Quellenstudie zu Werner Meyer-Epplers musikalische Entwurf zwischen 1949 und 1953." Kölner Schriften zur Neuen Musik 2, edited by Johannes Fritsch and Dieter Kämper. Mainz: B. Schott's Söhne. ISBN 3-7957-1891-0.

Further reading

  • Anon. 2007. Untitled. The Wire 275–80 (Accessed 5 June 2011).
  • Beecroft, Norma. 2009. "Electronic Music in Toronto and Canada in the Analogue Era." eContact! 11.2 – Figures canadiennes (2) / Canadian Figures (2) (July 2009). Montréal: CEC.
  • Chadabe, Joel. 1997. Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-303231-0.
  • Doornbusch, P. 2015. "A Chronology / History of Electronic and Computer Music and Related Events 1906 – 2015" http://www.doornbusch.net/chronology/
  • Emmerson, Simon (ed.). 1986. The Language of Electroacoustic Music. London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-39759-2 (cased); ISBN 0-333-39760-6 (pbk).
  • Emmerson, Simon (ed.). 2000. Music, Electronic Media and Culture. Aldershot (UK) and Burlington, Vermont (USA): Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 0-7546-0109-9.
  • Gann, Kyle. 2000a. "It’s Sound, It’s Art, and Some Call It Music." The New York Times (January 9).
  • Gann, Kyle. 2000. "MUSIC; Electronic Music, Always Current." The New York Times (July 9).
  • Griffiths, Paul. 1995. Modern Music and After: Directions Since 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816578-1 (cloth) ISBN 0-19-816511-0 (pbk).
  • Guérin, François. 1983. Les musiques électroacoustiques'. À l'écoute de la musique d'ici 2. Montréal: Centre de musique canadienne. [N.B.: Bibliographical list of Canadian electro-acoustic works.] Without ISBN.
  • Heifetz, Robin Julian. 1989. On the Wires of Our Nerves: The Art of Electroacoustic Music. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses Inc. ISBN 0-8387-5155-5.
  • Kahn, Douglas. 2001. Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-61172-4.
  • Licata, Thomas (ed.). 2002. Electroacoustic Music: Analytical Perspectives. Contributions to the Study of Music and Dance, 0193-9041; no. 63. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-31420-9.
  • Manning, Peter. 2004. Electronic and Computer Music. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514484-8 (hardback) ISBN 0-19-517085-7 (pbk).
  • Normandeau, Robert. n.d. "Robert Normandeau Interview". Interview with Robert Normandeau On Outsight Radio Hours about electroacoustic compositions and if they are "music".
  • Roads, Curtis. 1996. The Computer Music Tutorial. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-18158-4 (cloth) ISBN 0-262-68082-3 (pbk).
  • Wishart, Trevor. 1996. On Sonic Art. New and revised edition. Contemporary Music Studies 12. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers. ISBN 3-7186-5846-1 (cloth) ISBN 3-7186-5847-X (pbk) ISBN 3-7186-5848-8 (CD).
  • Wright, Edward. 2010. "Symbiosis: A Portfolio of Work Focusing on the Tensions Between Electroacoustic and Instrumental Music". PhD diss. Bangor: Bangor University.
  • "Electroacoustic Bibliography" published in eContact! 8.4 – Ressources éducatives / Educational Resources (Montréal: CEC) for an annotated "'essential reading list' for electroacoustics, including books, journals and other resources relating to electroacoustics".

Key journals for electroacoustics and sound art

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