Introduction to Computer Music: Volume One

1. Overview and Early History

"We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation.  We have harmonies, which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds.  Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet.  We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire.  We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds.  We have certain helps which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly.  We also have divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it, and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive.  We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances." Sir Frances Bacon, New Atlantis (1627)

On the never-completed Analytical Engine of British inventor Charles Babbage, often considered the first mechanical machine design capable of both numeric and symbolic computation i.e. oft sited as the forerunner of the modern computer and CPU:
" might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine . . . Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent." Lady Ada (Countess of) Lovelace, Scientific Memoirs (1843)

Discussions of the origins of electronic music depend on what your definition of "electronic music" is. If it includes all efforts to produce or influence sound via electrical means, we could begin our discussion in the mid-1700's, where electromagnetism was applied to vibrate strings (forerunners of the E-bow), bells, and more. However, were we to begin our discussion there, this brief history would not be brief at all. If you are interested in reading about these fascinating instruments, a detailed description of many, from mid-18th Century to modern day can be found on the excellent website 120 Years of Electronic Music.  In addition, a more detailed discussion of early instruments can be found in this etext at 1. A Brief History of Sound Synthesis.  Our discussion will begin, after a timeline overview on the following page, with the Telharmonium, invented by Thaddeus Cahill around 1895, as much for the aesthetic influence it had on subsequent generations of electronic music thought and electronic musicians as for the technology itself.

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