How music was electrified

Tracing the unlikely origins of electronic music


The Progress of the Century – The Lightning Steam Press. The Electric Telegraph. The Locomotive. The Steamboat. (1876) by Currier & IvesThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

An explosion of technological progress

For centuries, all musical instruments created and amplified sound mechanically: a resonating object is excited by some physical action, like the vibration of a bowed string or a blown reed. But, during a relatively brief period of unprecedented innovation – just 65 years or so – all of that changed. Suddenly, new instruments of all shapes and sizes were creating entirely new sounds in entirely new ways. These early inventions are the direct ancestors of the synthesizers, drum machines, and even software instruments that have become commonplace today.

Elisha Gray - The Musical TelegraphOriginal Source: Smithsonian Institution/National Museum of American History

Transmitting frequencies

The telegraph, developed early in the 19th century, made it possible for the first time to communicate instantly across long distances. In order to send multiple signals through a single wire, inventor Elisha Gray devised a system that used a range of different frequencies – or notes. In fact, he originally demonstrated the technology by playing simple melodies.Unknowingly, Gray had laid the groundwork for over half a century of electronic musical instrument innovation.

Lorentz–Oscillator Patent DrawingMusikinstrumenten-Museum

The first ever oscillator

It could be argued that the first electric instruments had already arrived by the last few decades of the nineteenth century – organs, for example, used electrified methods to control their wind system and the triggering of valves. But for an instrument to truly be called electronic, the sound must be produced by non-mechanical means. Perhaps the first truly electronic instrument, then, was attempted by Ernst Lorenz, who filed a patent in 1885 for an electromagnetically induced oscillation of a metal membrane. Whether or not he ever constructed a physical instrument based on this patent is unfortunately lost to history. 

Sound of an Electric ArcOriginal Source: YouTube

The singing arc
Carbon arc lamps, although soon to be rendered obsolete by the development of the light bulb, were still commonly in use by the end of the 1800s. One of the key drawbacks of the technology – as far as its use as a light source was concerned – was the high-pitched humming noise it emitted. British Engineer William Duddel, who had originally been hired to eliminate this noise, found that he could alter its frequency by varying the voltage supplied to the lamp. By controlling this voltage with a keyboard, he was able to play the arc and perform with it like a synthesizer – all without any external amplification!

Thaddeus Cahill – Telharmonium (1906)Original Source: Ray Stannard Baker

The Telharmonium

American inventor Thaddeus Cahill had already filed a patent for this monstrous electromechanical instrument by 1895, but it would take nearly a decade for him to fund and fully realise his creation. The Telharmonium used tonewheels – later employed in electric organs – to generate sound, and is considered one of the first electromechanical musical instruments. Since the technology necessary for electrical amplification of a signal hadn't been invented yet, the Telharmonium relied on acoustic methods – modified gramophone horns were attached to make its music more audible. And in order for it to be audible enough, the Telharmonium itself had to be enormous – it weighed around 200 tons and had to be transported by railway in a custom-built . 

Vacuum Tubes / Stefan Riepl (2008-06-29) by Stefan RieplNational Women’s History Museum

Amplification at last

The development of the radio valve, or vacuum tube, at the beginning of the 20th century paved the way for nearly 50 years of progress in communication, computation, and music-making. The tube made it possible to both amplify (increase) a given current or rectify it (convert AC to DC) – both vital functions for powering an amplifier.

Theremin Circuit DiagramOriginal Source: Wikimedia

The Theremin

In St. Petersburg, a young physicist named Lev Termen was given the task of constructing an early form of burglar alarm. His so-called “radio watchman”, developed in 1920, used the electrical properties of the human body to trigger an audible tone when there was somebody in its proximity. While tweaking the device, he realised that he could alter the pitch of the tone by moving his hand around. Termen, an accomplished cellist as well as physicist, saw the value in this phenomenon and began to perform publicly with his new instrument. It’s said that he presented the first Терменвокс, later known as the Theremin in the USA, to Vladimir Lenin. Lenin then instructed Termen to continue production of his device and travel far and wide with it as a demonstration of the young Soviet Union’s technological prowess.

Ondes MartenotOriginal Source: Wikimedia

The Ondes Martenot

The theremin was not the only instrument to emerge from DIY tinkering in the early 20th century. Young Parisian radio operator Maurice Martenot – a cellist himself – began work on his Ondes Musicales, later known as Ondes Martenot, around 1923. Coincidentally, the heterodyne principle – that is, the combination of two frequencies to produce a new one – was the means of sound-synthesis chosen by both Martenot and Termen. The Ondes Martenot featured a standard keyboard, but also a ring that could be moved along a wire for microtonal pitch control – allowing the ondist a degree of expression somewhat reminiscent of a cello.

Jörg Mager with the SphärophonOriginal Source: Atelier Stone, Berlin

The Sphärophon

German musician and inventor Jörg Mager's first instrument, called the Sphärophon, received great respect within the community of avantgarde-composers. But playing the Sphärophon was quite impractical. The left hand operates a crank for altering pitch while the right hand operates a lever for activating sound. Playing a simple melody was therefore very difficult. A very important yet almost forgotten person in the early history of electronic instruments, Mager never worked at an institution and never documented his research, which makes it all the more difficult to explore his work today.

Hellertion (Helberger/Lertes)Musikinstrumenten-Museum

The Hellertion

Peter Lertes and Bruno Helberger collaborated for their Hellertion (1929) which used a continuous fingerboard consisting of four ribbons. This enabled four-voice playing, and also was pressure-sensitive for volume control. This type of interface was copied some years later in the industrial production of the Trautonium. Pictured is the Heliophon, a later instrument based on similar principles to the Hellertion, and typically used as an attachment to a traditional piano. A player might, for example, play a melody on the Hellertion while accompanying themselves on the piano.

Oskar Sala – Mixtur TrautoniumOriginal Source: Musikinstrumenten-Museum

The Trautonium

While Termen and Martneot were developing their own instruments, German radio engineer Friedrich Trautwein was granted two patents for electrical means of producing tones and different timbres. But only after being appointed head of Berlin’s newly founded Radio Research Section, that he too was able to name an instrument after himself. The Trautonium had no keyboard, but rather a resistor wire strung over a metal plate. Pressing on the string and moving along it allowed the player to vary the volume and pitch of a filtered sawtooth wave. This represents an early example of subtractive synthesis – still a popular method of sound production in the synthesizers of today.

Hammond OrganMusikinstrumenten-Museum

The Hammond Organ

In contrast to the Trautonium’s subtractive approach, Laurens Hammond’s equally eponymous Hammond Organ worked via additive principals. By combining turning tone wheels of different frequencies in different combinations, the organ was able to produce a wide range of different timbres – aided of course by vacuum-tube amplification. The organist controlled the Hammond’s various timbres by means of a system of drawbars, which functioned similarly to the stops on a pipe organ – albeit with a far greater degree of control.

Clara RockmoreOriginal Source: courtesy of the Nadia Reisenberg/Clara Rockmore Foundation

The end of an era

The instruments and technologies described here take us as far as the onset of the second world war. From this point onwards, resources were diverted, major economies faltered, and priorities changed for much of the world’s population. However, the technological breakthroughs presented here, would continue to shape the music tech landscape for the remainder of the century.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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