Composing with frequencies
The advent of electronic musical instruments, of course, changed the sound of music forever. But it also changed the music itself by enabling composers to both think and create outside the confines of classical notation. Here, we present a journey through the history of composition beyond pitch, melody and harmonic theory – from orchestral percussion to the first post-war electronic musical experiments.
Stilleven met boeken, bladmuziek, viool, hemelglobe en een uil (1645 - 1650) by Campen, Jacob vanRijksmuseum
Until the early twentieth century, music theory had largely dealt with notated music, as the notes themselves were considered to encapsulate all the main ideas of a musical piece, that is, melody, rhythm, instrumentation and dynamics. The way the music actually sounds was traditionally a secondary consideration – more an aspect of performance than composition. A written note doesn't tell us much at all about the timbre or 'quality' of a sound. Compare the pure tone of a flute to the noisy crash of a cymbal, for an extreme example.
Percussion and the orchestra
Percussion is the class of instruments that are represented least accurately with traditional notation, given the complex, noise-like sounds they produce. Music for drums and cymbals is usually notated using single lines per instrument, indicating only the rhythm of each note, rather than their uncertain pitch. In the second half of the 19th century, many composers began to more consciously experiment with new sounds and timbres, incorporating more and more percussion into the orchestra and dramatically widening the sonic spectrum.
Mahler 6 Hammer Strike!Original Source: YouTube
For his 6th Symphony (composed in 1904), Gustav Mahler famously invented an enormous hammer-and-box instrument, which delivers a thunderous blow to finish off the dramatic fourth movement of this piece.
The end of functional harmony
By the end of the 19th century, the rules and limitations of classical harmonic theory had effectively been dismantled. The opening of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for example, contains a group of notes that have become known simply as the Tristan chord. The chord – built from a series of fourth intervals, as opposed to the traditional thirds – was unusual enough. But what makes it so significant is the inability of classical functional music theory to explain it. The Tristan chord is one of the first clear examples of a composer choosing notes not for their function in a traditional sense, but simply because of the way they sound when played: the chord's ambiguous dissonance suggests a degree of tension or unease.
Arnold Schoenberg, 5 Orchesterstücke op.16, III.Original Source: YouTube
Austrian-born composer Arnold Schönberg may be best known for his 12-tone technique, which assigns equal importance to every chromatic pitch and thus dispenses with any notion of a tonal centre. But he was also responsible for shifting the world of composition towards a focus on timbre and sound itself. He posited in 1911 that pitch was but one dimension of what he called tone-color – and not necessarily the most important. Listen to his Orchesterstücke, op.16, 3 for an example of how he concurrently manipulates pitch, note duration, amplitude, timbre, and articulation to great effect.
While Schönberg and other theorists were rewriting the rules of composition, the first half of the 20th century bore witness to an explosion of technological progress that inspired other composers to seek out new instruments and sound sources. In the 1910s, Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo emancipated himself from classical orchestration by inventing a mechanical noise orchestra of his own, the Intonarumori. Without any electronics, the Intonarumori created a wide range of sounds through various mechanical means – a spinning wheel, for example, scraped against a string attached to a resonating drumhead.
Edgard Varese - IonisationOriginal Source: YouTube
Edgar Varèse was one of the first to treat music as a composition of sound itself, rather than arranging notes. His "Ionisation" relies almost entirely on drums and more unusual percussion instruments like the güiro, the lion’s roar, and even a repurposed siren – not for special effects, but as rich sound sources in their own right. Writing for such instruments, his focus was not on pitch so much as the precise mixing and layering of different timbres and rhythms.
By the mid-twentieth century, the availability of sound-recording and editing technology allowed composers to precisely construct music in the studio, on their own, and without any need for notation. A group of French experimentalists, led by Pièrre Schaeffer, developed the techniques of Musique Concrète, which revolved around the manipulation and arrangement of sounds on magnetic tape. This gave composers immediate control over the sonic results, but it was tedious work, involving the meticulous cutting and glueing together of countless snippets of plastic film.
Herbert Eimert & Robert Beyer - Klangstudie II (1952)Original Source: YouTube
Alongside the early sampling techniques of musique concrète, sine wave generators afforded the composers of the 1950s the radical possibility of creating entirely new sounds from scratch. The earliest pieces of electronic music, in fact, were often 'sound studies' – compositions that primarily sought to explore these new technologies in a lab-like environment. Here, Herbert Eimert and Robert Bayer create musical interest from the nature of the sounds themselves, rather than their pitch or harmonic relations to one another.
Karlheinz Stockhausen – Elektronische Studie IIOriginal Source: YouTube
For serialists like Stockhausen, who worked more within Schoenberg’s system of tone-colors than with notes, the advent of synthesis enabled entirely new ways of creating. The German composer’s Studie II is a perfect example. Constructed entirely from simple sine waves produced by a frequency generator, it is notated here by two sets of shapes. The upper section defines the range of sine wave frequencies that play in each cluster, while the lower section defines their volume over time.
Stockhausen in OsakaOriginal Source: Archiv Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kürten
Stockhausen’s electronic experiments effectively opened the floodgates for composers and popular musicians alike to begin their own explorations in sound – and their influence can still be felt today. He himself became an iconic figure within pop culture (you’ll see him hiding at the back of the Sgt. Pepper’s artwork), and swiftly moved on to new and equally radical musical concepts – from spatial sound installations in the 70s all the way to his famous helicopter string quartet in 1996.