Post Image

The History of Electronic Music: 20s to 30s

By Dave Bulera

Electronic music has roots dating back to the 19th century, but it really started to take shape in the decade of the 1920s to 1930s.

During the 1920s there was a burst of interest in building an extraordinary variety of instruments, ranging from practical to absurd.
It brought the development of audio-frequency technology.

By the early 1920s basic circuits for sine-, square-, and sawtooth-wave generators had been invented, as had amplifiers, filter circuits, and, most importantly, loudspeakers. (Sine waves are signals consisting of “pure tones” i.e., without overtones; sawtooth waves comprise fundamental tones and all related overtones; square waves consist only of the odd-numbered partials, or component tones, of the natural harmonic series.) Also, mechanical acoustical recording was replaced by electrical recording in the late 1920s.

It also brought the development of electromechanical and electronic musical instruments designed to replace existing musical instruments, specifically, the invention of electronic organs. This was a remarkable achievement and one that absorbed the attention of many ingenious inventors and circuit designers.

This decade brought a wealth of early electronic instruments and the first compositions for electronic instruments.

Electronic instruments invented during this period include the:

Theremin (1919-20)
Ondes-Martenot (1928)


images (13)
Trautonium (1928)


Hammond Organ (1929)

One of the first instruments, was the Etherophone. It was later renamed the Theremin. The Theremin was invented in 1920 by Lev Sergeevi, Theremin better known by his westernized name L. Theremin. He was a Russian inventor and scientist who developed it within a Russian government sponsored project on proximity sensors. He later patented in 1928 in the USA where Lev on moved after showing his invention across Europe.

The instrument is known for it’s eerie and ethereal sound often used in old thriller movies; it’s main characteristic is that it’s played by moving one’s hands in mid air between two antennas. This led to the first compositions for electronic instruments, as opposed to noisemakers and re-purposed machines. In 1929, Joseph Schillinger composed First Airphonic Suite for Theremin and Orchestra. It premiered with the Cleveland Orchestra with Leon Theremin as soloist.

How many of you know what this instrument is?
Even if you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ve heard it many times.

The instrument was used not only in movies but also for all sorts of music, initially symphonic but surprisingly it’s present throughout rock history from the sixties through the present.

You can find it’s use in the following songs, listen carefully for that unique sound.
Beach Boys – “Good Vibrations”
The Pixies – “Velouria”
Garbage – “Cup of Coffee”
Cake – “Guitar”
L.A. Guns – “Malaria”
Chris Cornell – “Follow my Way”
Shinedown – “Better Version”
Soul Coughing – “4 Out Of 5”
Led Zeppelin – “Whole Lotta Love – with Theremin solo”
Guster – “All The Way Up To Heaven”
Tenacious D – “Wonderboy”
And many more….

You can also find its use in video games.
Composer Gary Schyman used a Theremin for the musical score of the 2005 videogame “Destroy All Humans”.
Lydia Kavina’s solo theremin is featured on the soundtrack for the 2006 MMORPG computer game “Soul of the Ultimate Nation”, composed by Howard Shore.

Today Theremins are produced by several companies, one being Moog. The late Bob Moog was fascinated by this instrument which is the basis of his modern synthesizers.

Here are some examples of the Theremin in use:

The first one is Lev on Theremin demonstrating his invention.

The second, “Cup of Coffee” by Garbage.

The third, Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” with their Theremin and violin bow solo.

The last, see what this street musician does with a looper, a Bassoon, and a Theremin

Music creativity has no limits.

The method of photo-optic sound recording used in cinematography made it possible to obtain a visible image of a sound wave, as well as to realize the opposite goal, synthesizing a sound from an artificially drawn sound wave.

Recording of sounds made a leap in 1927, when American inventor J. A. O’Neill developed a recording device that used magnetically coated ribbon. However, this was a commercial failure. The invention is attributed to both American inventor J. A. O’Neill and German engineer Fritz Pfleumer. Pfleumer filed the first audiotape patent in 1929. In 1935, the German electronics firm AEG produced a prototype (first version) of a record/playback machine, called a magnetophon. It was based on Pfleumer’s idea, but used a plastic tape. Another firm, BASF, went on to refine the tape AEG used, presenting the first usable magnetic tape in 1935.

The Ondes Martenot was invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot, who debuted it in Paris.
Jonny Greenwood is often credited with bringing the Ondes to a larger audience through Radiohead’s Kid A (2000), Amnesiac (2001), Hail to the Thief (2003), In Rainbows (2007), and The King of Limbs (2011) albums. Greenwood uses the Ondes Martenot often in his solo efforts, and has written a piece for the instrument, entitled Smear.
In live concerts, Radiohead have used six Ondes for “How to Disappear Completely”.

The Ondes Martenot was also utilized by Bryan Ferry, in 1999, on the album As Time Goes By. It was also used by Joe Jackson on his 1988 soundtrack album for Tucker: The Man and His Dream, and his 1994 album Night Music. Recently, Ondist Thomas Bloch has toured in Tom Waits and Robert Wilson’s show “The Black Rider” with Marianne Faithfull (2004-06) and in Gorillaz leader Damon Albarn’s show “Monkey: Journey to the West” (2007 onward).
In 2009, bruit direct disques released a 12′ , 45rpm vinyl record of original Ondes Martenot compositions by Accident du travail.

In their 2013 album Random Access Memories, Daft Punk used the Ondes Martenot on Track #7 – “Touch” featuring Paul Williams. It was played by Thomas Bloch.

In 1929, Laurens Hammond established his company for the manufacture of electronic instruments. He went on to produce the Hammond organ, which was based on the principles of the Telharmonium, along with other developments including early reverberation units. Hammond (along with John Hanert and C. N. Williams) would also go on to invent another electronic instrument, the Novachord, which Hammond’s company manufactured from 1939-1942.
The first opera to be written with electronic instruments was Antheil’s Mr. Bloom. This was composed in 1929, but was never finished.

In this same period, experiments began with sound art, early practitioners of which include Tristan Tzara, Kurt Schwitters, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and others.

A continuation to this story, The History of Electronic Music: 30s to the 40s, will be coming soon.

Wikipedia Electronic Music
Wikipedia Theremin
Wikipedia Ondes Martenot
Encyclopaedia Britannica Electronic music
blogcritics Music Playlist: Songs of Theremin
Science Clarified Magnetic recording/audiocassette
Read More