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Some introductory concepts

Some things to think about as we being the course

On creativity

Andrew Hugill writes that “The origins of electronic music lie in the creative imagination.”

This might seem like a grandiose statement. After all, the origin of electronic music surely lies with the Second Industrial Revolution and the great engineering feat that was the foundation of the electrical grid. Surely in asking “what is electronic music” that we must begin with electricity itself? From a purely literal perspective, that’s very true – without electricity, electronic music could not exist anymore than a jet ski could exist without water.

As such, we can begin a definition of electronic music as that which harnesses electricity in its production in some way. But such a definition limits our focus to the instruments themselves. What matters more is how the introduction of such technologies shaped and changed human expression. The development of electricity not only enabled us to surround ourselves with light and warmth, but it presented a new opportunity to conceive of radically new ways of interacting with our world. As such, the technologies used to make electronic music are ultimately the final realisation of a creative desire to create, record, and manipulate sound.

On the experimental times of the 20th century

The arrival of these technologies posed a creative challenge to musicians and composers throughout the 20th century. Today it can be easy to forget that there was once a time where electronic music did not exist, and as such there was no established practice for composers to refer to as they created their own music. Throughout the 20th century we can see the results of experimentation with these technologies as composers attempt to determine the unique modes of meaning and expression they offered.

This idea of ‘experimentation’ is a crucial one to keep in mind. As we look at different examples of electronic music throughout this course it will become apparent that experimentation means a lot of things to a lot of different people. For some, it will be the use of technology in a manner akin to a science experiment, using composition to test some kind of creative hypothesis. For others it will be more open, using the technologies of electronic music to create new and original sounds and finding places for them in their own musical thinking.

On some of the weird music we’re going to listen to

Ultimately, the electronic music of the mid-twentieth century, the period in which this course predominantly focuses, is perhaps a bit strange if you have not encountered it before. The sounds might be unfamiliar, or sound a bit abrasive compared to the smooth electronic textures that constitute most electronic music today. The structure of the music might not be immediately discernible to you, or the music might eschew clear repetition and other more conventional popular music conventions.

Being thrown a bit by this music because of these features is common when first encountering this period of electronic music, but if you engage with this music on its own merits there is much to discover and enjoy. If you can keep in mind this key idea of ‘experimentation’ then studying this music allows us to listen, not only to the music of an earlier time, but to a fascinating document of human thought – we can hear the documentation of the formation of a new creative imagination.

Over to you:

Was anything in this article surprising or familiar to you? Comment below and feel free to share what you already know about electronic music.


Hugill, A. (2017) “The Origins of Electronic Music” in The Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music, 2nd Edition. Edited by Nick Collins and Julio d’Escriván. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 7-25.

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