A Brief History of Electronic Dance Music

By DJ @mosphere(www.djforums.com)

When I mention electronic dance music, the first thing that comes to many people’s minds is the constant “boom boom boom” of your average house track, or maybe the “bleeps and boops” of a techno track. What they don’t realize is that electronic music has been a rather large part of musical history. From Disco, to 80s pop rock, to modern rock, and even classical, electronic music has had a large influence on modern music culture. It may be creeping into the limelight due to the recent popularity of trance in clubs and dance hits such as Darude’s Sandstorm, but few people actually know electronic music’s true history.

It may come as a surprise, but electronic music first appeared just a few years after Edison and Bell discovered the many uses of electronic current. In 1874, Elisha Gray, a friend of Graham Bell, discovered that his nephew had found a way of using electromagnetic fields to make a switch vibrate. This principle Gray turned into a musical instrument, the harmonic telegraph. Although Gray's invention was a novelty, the true electronic instruments weren’t built until after the turn of the century. The two most important of these being Thaddeus Cahill's huge Tellharmonium, and Leo Theremin’s Theremin. The Tellharmonium was later made into a small version now known as a Hammond Organ, who’s compact size made is easier to transport, helping lead to its popularity with many rock bands. The Theremin is best described as a small box with two antennas sticking out, controlled by waving the hands near the antennas. This resulted in an eerie violin sound that is so distinctive, movie producers began used the Theremin as a sound effect in many Horror movies. Right after the creation of the instrument, some composers did write music for it, but it’s use in The Beach Boys hit, Good Vibrations, gave it it’s greatest success.

There is the possibility Robert Moog, another important instrument maker, created the Theremin used in Good Vibrations. He first started producing Theremin kits as a means to pay for his education; however, after encountering musician Herbert Deutsch, he seriously thought about making a career out of it. In 1964, they began creating a modular synthesizer, built using many basic elements such as oscillators, filters, and amplifiers. At the time, they were the only ones doing this in the world, but it didn’t take much time for many universities and experimental musicians to become interested, one of these musicians being Wendy Carlos. Together with Robert, she designed a synthesizer that enabled her to recreate the works of Bach using analogue electronic sounds. She entitled her work “Switched on Bach.” In 1968 this record made a large impact on the music world, as for most people, this was the first time they heard anything that unique.

Wendy Carlos wasn't the only one to attempt such an endeavor, as many modern day classical composers were busy experimenting with electronic instruments. In San Francisco, a composer named Terry Riley experimented with delays, and his self built, Time Lag Accumulator. Using them in conjunction with conventional instruments, Terry created strange sounding compositions, such as Poppy No Good and the Phantom Band. However, his most famous work was, A Rainbow in Curved Air, a piece many consider the blueprint of ambient music, a musical genre which became popular in the early 90s. On the other side of the United States, in New York, composer Steve Reich also experimented with delays and repetitive structures in works like, Violin Phase and Drumming. Like many of his contemporaries, he also incorporated a lot of Indian and African influences into his music.

Composers in the United States weren’t the only ones experimenting however. Since the early fifties, Paris had been a focal point of a musical trend called, Musique Concrète, driven by people such as Pierre Henry, Pierre Shaeffer, and Luc Ferrari, who all created music with just everyday noises. Across Europe, in the studios of German radio, Karlheinz Stockhausen made his music by using the studio to its fullest, mixing every sort of sound into a musical collage. Stockhausen was also a teacher at the Düsseldorf Conservatory, where he taught composition. Among his students were two people, whom when they met in 1968, didn't realize their eventual collaboration was to have an enormous impact on popular music. They both had great interest in classical music, but they were much more impressed by the possibilities of electronic instruments, and especially, the recording studio. While they were still studying, they joined many small German bands like, Amon Düül and Organisation, first playing the flute, and later playing a kind of free-form music based on a relative simple repeating rhythm and Eastern influences, breaking away from standard European chord progression. After two years the duo formed a band named Kraftwerk (which is German for 'Power station'). At the start of the seventies there were many bands in Germany that were part of a movement the outside world called, 'Krautrock'. Krautrock was seen as a reaction of many young German musicians to the influence of American guitar rock imported by military personnel throughout the country. It was also a way for many young musicians to react, in their own way, to the memory of the war, and what role their parents or grandparents had played in it.

It only took Kraftwerk two live performances to be broadcasted on German television. During that time, they also consisted of Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother who, right after the show, split and started their own band, NEU! While NEU! went on to make highly repetitive rock, Kraftwerk created their own studio and experimented with sounds and simple melodies. On their first three records, they still used what were considered normal instruments, such as the flute, guitar and organ. In 1974 they changed all that and began using all electronic instruments. They eventually released ‘Autobahn,’ an almost endless track about one of Germany's prides, the Hitler built highways that ran throughout the country, now of essential use to the economic rebuilding of Germany and the rest of Europe. Although the complete version was at least thirty minutes long, it was to became a big hit throughout the world. Kraftwerk had found their style and every two years or so, they shocked the music world with yet another record made using electronic instruments in the studio they rebuilt before every album. The sounds, songs, themes and whole concept of Kraftwerk turned out to be of big influence to electronic music, and popular music in general.

Kraftwerk weren't the only ones who saw the studio as an instrument in itself. On the other side of the world there were also many masters of the studio. In the West Indies and Jamaica, music has always played an integral role in the community. At the end of the sixties, while everyone in the world was listening to psychedelic rock music, the people of Jamaica were dancing to rocksteady, ska and a slow variant called reggae. The music-culture that was spawned in Jamaica was of great importance, and you still see and hear its influences in dance music today.

Jamaicans were the first to take the concept of the remix to extremes. To keep people dancing in the dancehalls, producers made special 'versions' of popular songs by fading in and out instruments, they also made multi-track copies of certain tracks called 'dubs'. People who became masters in this process are still seen as Gods in the studio, people like King Tubby, Lee Perry and Augustus Pablo. Jamaicans were also the first to start a 'rave', then called the sound system. Parties were organized illegally at certain sites, or inside unused buildings by setting up big rigs of speakers and amplifiers. The DJ also began to play an important role in this culture. They were the first to 'rap,' or 'toast' as they call it in Jamaica. To excite the crowd, the DJ would toast about the track playing, or even nothing of importance. Producers and studios helped DJs to become more popular by releasing very limited copies of remixes called 'dub plates'. These practices have become normal in today’s dance-culture, but they had already pioneered these techniques halfway through the seventies on the island of Jamaica.

In the seventies, as electronic instruments became cheaper and more commonplace, they began to show up in many studios around the world. Under the influence of Kraftwerk, Funk and R'n'B, a form of dance music, began appearing. A fast paced four to the floor beat made for partying and partying only, it eventually became commonly known as Disco, and traveled around the globe, becoming most popular in America and Italy. Party-people of the world went crazy over it, while many less hedonistically interested listeners cringed and fought back, playing and listening to punk rock.

After Disco, electronic dance music flourished. It became commonplace to hear songs produced with synthesizers during the 80s and early 90s. Over the years Disco became replaced by another form of electronic dance music, House. House was also characterized by a pounding four to the floor beat, and quickly swept the world as the popular dance music of choice. Other forms of electronic music quickly surfaced, from Trance and Techno, to Breakbeats and Drum and Bass. Today, electronic music has found it’s way into many aspects of our life, from common Pop, Hip-Hop, and Rock music, to radio and TV adds, movie scores, and television soundtracks, to classical scores reproduced using electronic instruments. So, next time you hear someone say there’s nothing to electronic music other than some bleeps and boops, be sure to tell them that the majority of the music they here today is electronic, and they have a person by the name of Elisha Gray to thank for creating the first electronic musical instrument.

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