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The history and evolution of electronic music

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After experiencing a financial fallout in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the global electronic music industry is enjoying a revival after the return of live performances. At the end of 2023, the industry’s value topped $11.8 billion, with EDM musicians being among the most in-demand creators. This guide is dedicated to the history of electronic music, its defining characteristics, and some of the most significant artists of one of the broadest and most diverse genres of music.

Characteristics of electronic music

Electronic music can be characterized as a genre of music that is created and produced by using electronic and electromechanical instruments, various digital instruments, or so-called circuitry-based music technology. Electronic music instruments include an electronic oscillator, theremin, or a synthesizer while electromechanical gear encompasses the Hammond organ, electronic piano, or electronic guitar.

Generally speaking, electronic music can be made from an extensive variety of sound resources, from basic electronic oscillators to diverse complex computer installations and software, to microprocessors. These sounds are recorded and edited on tape and then transformed into a permanent form that’s played back and reproduced using loudspeakers, either alone or in combination with ordinary musical instruments.

The history of electronic music

End of 19th / beginning of 20th century

Development of first electronic instruments


Invention of phonograph


Introduction of eletronic recording


Invention of audio tape and first practical audio tape recorder in Germany


Establishment of first audio tape recorder for commercial use in the USA & invention of 'Musique Concrète' in France


Development of 'Elektronische Musik' in Cologne, Germany


Formation of Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center


Widespread establishment of electronic music studios across whole Europe and the US & rise of popular electronic music

1970s - late 1980s

Growth of disco and establishment of other subgenres, e. g. synth-pop, house, techno, acid house, trance, etc.


Invention of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI)


Flourishing of the international 'rave' scene into what it is today


Establishment of Ableton Live, a digital audio workstation


Rise of large-scale commercial electronic festivals, e. g. Tomorrowland, Weekend Festival, Ultra Music Festival, etc.


A huge financial fallout of global electronic music industry due to Covid-19


Increase of the industry's value by 71% reaching $6 billions

Late 19th- and early 20th century

Although some claim that the first electrical music instrument, Golden Dionysus, was possibly developed in 1748, marking the birth of electronic music, the genre more probably originated, in the broader sense, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. At that time, emerging electronics allowed for experimentation with sounds and, subsequently, with electronic devices. As an outcome, a number of electronic instruments were developed, including Telharmonium (an electrical organ developed in 1896), and later, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Hammond organ (an electronic organ), Ondes Martenot (an early electronic device played with keyboards or a ring along a wire), Trautonium (an early electronic synthesizer) or the theremin (an electronic invention developed in 1930).

These early innovations were first used for demonstrations and public performances as they were in most cases too complex, impractical, and incapable of creating a sound of any magnitude and depth. Later, with the invention of vacuum tubes, smaller, amplified, and more practical instruments could be developed that were gradually featured in newly written compositions.

A turning point for the overall music industry was the invention of the phonograph (later known as the gramophone) by, independently, Thomas Alva Edison and Emile Berliner around the 1870s/1880s. Phonographs were the first means of recording and reproducing audio files (the sounds could be captured and saved for future use) and marked the beginning of the recording industry that we know today.


Phonograph, today known as a gramophone

Record players slowly became a typical household item, with electrical recordings, nowadays known as phonograph records, introduced in 1925.


Record player

More experiments with record players and innovations followed in the 1930s leading to the development of sound speed adjusting and sound-on-film technology and the creation of sound collages and graphical sound. Such technologies were then used in the composition of the first movie soundtracks, mostly in Germany and Russia. In 1935, the first practical audio tape was invented, making an essential point in the historical development of electronic music.


Audio tape

Tape recorders in 1940s and 1950s

Although invented in the mid-1930s, more development and improvements to tape recording technology had to be made. The first test recordings made in stereo were developed in 1942 in Germany but were brought to the USA right after World War II and the first tape recorder for commercial use was furbished in 1948. Composers used this new instrument for further musical experimentation throughout the 1950s. The main focus at the time was on the development of the technique and musical styles with a strong influence on avant-garde styles and music. After musicians and artists became more or less familiar with the tape recorder, many historically important compositions came to life, followed by the utilization of the medium in live performances.


Tape recorder

Development of electronic studios

Musique concrète

After tape recorders gained their recognition, as well as financial support, back in Europe, the first well-established electronic music studios were established, mostly in government-owned and supported broadcast facilities. It was not until 1958 that American innovators could catch up with their European confreres in terms of studio establishments and further music innovations, both technologically and artistically.

In 1948, musique concrète, a unique practice, and type of music composition was invented in Paris, France by two French composers, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, in the Studio d'Essai at Radiodiffusion Française (RDF). The Musique concrète technique was concerned with the creation of tape collages or montages of recorded sounds. All these sounds - e. g. sound effects, musical fragments, vocals, and other sounds or noises produced by an individual and their environment - were being looked at as ‘concrete’ raw materials taken from ‘concrete’ means and situations. Therefore, music concrète was opposed to the use of oscillators as they were considered ‘artificial’, ‘anti-humanistic’, and thus not ‘concrete’ sound sources

More than a style or a musical movement, musique concrète could be seen as a group of various ways of transforming sound and creating music, using techniques and tape manipulations such as speed alteration and variation (also called pitch shifting), tape splicing, playing tapes backward, or signal feedback loops. The first major musique concrète composition was Symphonie pour un homme seul (Symphony for One Man Only) written in 1950 by Schaffer and Henry. The other significant work of the movement was Henry’s ballet score, Orphée, from 1953.

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Elektronische Musik

Karlheinz Stockhausen, who shortly worked in Schaeffer's studio in 1952, had a different idea of the ways sounds and music could be transformed and altered and therefore joined the WDR Cologne's Studio for Electronic Music established by Herbert Einer. Rather than ‘concrete’ sounds, Stockhausen emphasized pure, electronically generated sounds and his focus was on electronic sound modifications rather than tape manipulation. What he wanted to achieve, through sound alterations, such as filtering and modulating, was authentic electric plus acoustic compositions, meaning acoustic instrumentations altered and accompanied by modified, electronically produced sounds.

This marked the birth of Elektronische Musik, a German branch of electronic music, which, as opposed to musique concrète, emphasized the greatness and ‘purity’ of electronic sounds and the necessity to combine electronic music with a serial composing that uses rhythms, ordered groups of pitches, and other musical elements.

Both Studio d'Essai and the Studio in Cologne set examples for electronic music studios of that time and were therefore widely imitated across Europe. Such a trend continued throughout the 1960s with many more studios being established in all major urban centers in Europe before reaching the culture of the USA.

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American electronic music scene

The birth of electronic music in the United States most likely started in 1939 when a musician, John Cage, published his composition, Imaginary Landscape, No. 1, utilizing various mediums and sound sources such as two variable-speed turntables, frequency recordings, muted piano, and cymbal. No electronic means of production were used for the composition. Generally, however, the production of electronic music in the USA was rather plain and sporadic and this lasted until around 1958.

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The only significant remaining work on electronic music in the country was two projects undertaken by Cage and two composers at Columbia University, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky. Between 1942-1958, Cage completed Williams Mix (1952) and Fontana Mix (1958) and composed 5 more Imagery Landscapes, written mostly for RCA test records and percussion ensembles. He also formed The Music for Magnetic Tape Project along with other composers and members of the New York School including Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, David Tudor, and Morton Feldman. The emphasis of the project was on experimenting with the recording of both electronic and natural sounds while combining them with instrumental music, dance, and visual arts.

The goal of the project led by Luening and Ussachevsky was to create a professional tape studio that would demonstrate the capabilities and musical possibilities of tape as a medium. Joined by Milton Babbitt, the two composers established the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (today known as Computer Music Center or CMC) in 1959 which has become the oldest center of electronic and computer music research in the USA. After 1958, more studios were set up across the region of North America, including the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois and the University of Toronto Studio in 1959. Such establishment of these facilities provided ways for both production and education in electronic music to evolve and move forward.

The equipment of electronic music studios was developing and changing too, including various sound sources (sin-wave, square-wave, microphones, etc.), monitors and quality-control equipment (spectrum analyzer, oscilloscope, power amplifiers), recording and playback systems, routing circuitry, and much more. With such studio gear, musicians and composers were able to record sounds, both electronic and microphoned, and perform operations such as modulation, reverberation, and filtering, to modify these sounds.

The influence of Japanese instruments

During the 1950s, Japanese electronic musical instruments started having a strong influence on the international music industry. Various Japanese manufacturers, such as AceTone, Korg, Matsushita, Roland, and Yamaha, were developing their own versions of electronic music devices. These included percussion instruments, the Mini Pops (early drum machines), electric organs (e. g. Yamaha Electone), or synthesizers.

Particularly synthesizers and drum machines developed by the Roland Corporation were highly influential for the next few decades and the company itself was one of the most prominent players in shaping and forming popular music and electronic music into what it is today. Another important role in the development of electronic music was played by the company Matsushita (now Panasonic) which invented and developed the first direct-drive turntables which then led to the establishment of turntablism - the art of manipulating and forming sounds and creating new music, sound effects, mixes, and other beats. The later version of Matsushita's turntables (Technics SL-1200) was widely developed by Hip Hop artists and was one of the most popular turntables in DJ culture. Moreover, the first all-digital synthesizers were released by the company Yamaha in 1983.

Late 1960s to early 1980s

The late 1960s saw the rise of popular electronic music and its merge with other musical genres, especially pop and rock, which led to the establishment of new genres. Renowned musicians of that time, such as the Beatles or the Beach Boys, started integrating electronic instruments, including the theremin or Mellotron, into their sound. Genres such as electronic rock and electronica were pioneered by the American duo Silver Apples and experimental rock bands, like White Noise and the United States of America, who were known for adding oscillators and synthesizers to their psychedelic sound. In the 1970s, electronic rock was also produced by a number of Japanese musicians, such as Isao Tomita or Osamu Kitajima.

Mood synthesizers became particularly popular among progressive rock bands, including Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. A whole new sub-genre of progressive rock, krautrock (also known as kosmische Musik) was born in West Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s, represented by prominent artists such as Tangerine Dream, Can, Faust, and, most importantly, Kraftwerk.

New-age music and ambient music, particularly ambient dub, were developed in the early- and mid-1970s by the impact of rising electronic art music. New-age music was strongly influenced by various, mostly European-born, artists, including French composer Jean Michel Jarre, German musician Klaus Schulze, or Greek songwriter Vangelis. Ambient dub was pioneered by several Jamaican sound musicians as King Tubby, and later adopted by other international artists like Dreadzone, The Orb, or Ott.

After disco became highly popular (for a fairly short period of time) in the 1970s, late 1970s and early 1980s saw the emergence and rising success of synth-pop, featuring the synthesizer as the dominant musical instrument. The sub-genre was debuted and greatly influenced by musicians, such as Ultravox with the songHiroshima Mon Amour (1977), and Depeche Mode with a track called Dreaming of Me(1980), and New Order with their song Ceremony (1981). Other key acts included Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Yazoo, and Spandau Ballet.

Later, synth-pop became widely renowned across the world presenting new promising artists, like Lime and Men Without Hats from Canada; Propaganda, Sandra and Modern Talking from Germany or Yello from Switzerland, and Telex from Belgium. The sound of synth-pop also became the defining feature of Italo-disco. The keyboard synthesizers became so widespread that even heavy metal rock bands were featuring them in their music. Bands including Van Halen with their track Jump(1983) and Europe with the well-known songThe Final Countdown (1986) achieved great global success.

Additionally significant in the 1980s was the invention of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), a technical standard that describes and standardizes a communication protocol, the digital interface, and electrical connectors between various electronic musical instruments, computer software, and other related audio gadgets for recording, editing and playing music. MIDI was finalized in 1983 and the technology made the development of purely electronic sound much easier.

Late 1980s to 1990s

The wide success of synth-pop continued through the whole 1980s decade moving closer and closer to dance music, with the most prominent acts including Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, and The Communards. However, the 1980s were defined mostly by the development and rising popularity of electronic dance music (EDM) and, gradually, its subgenres, like house, techno, acid house, trance, and many more.

In the late 1980s, EDM gained a reputation as ‘drug music’ and the genre, nowadays used as an umbrella term for other subgenres, was taken up in clubs as well as many underground places, fitness centers, fields, or warehouses, across Europe. In 1987, a British DJ Danny Ramplimg started organizing a weekly party, called Shoom in one of London's fitness clubs, and soon such parties, often taking place illegally, spread to other European countries, most notably Germany. There, in the city of Frankfurt, another important sub-genre, trance, was born.

By the end of the 1990s, the ‘rave’ scene was resembling the way it looks today and the gradual development of EDM and its subgenres, allowed the musical style to progress and eventually become an essential part of the mainstream music industry like never before. Also, electronica, an umbrella term for electronic genres intended for listening rather than strictly dancing, became popular on the British music scene. The most renowned artists of these subcultures were, for example, Astralwerks, The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, DJ Keoki and Sims.

Electronic music in 2000s, 2010s and today

The genre of electronic music in the 2000s and 2010s was strongly shaped by technological advances and the invention and higher accessibility of computer technology and musical software. Not only that many technological innovations were introduced in the new millennium, such as CDs or DVDs (replacing vinyl records), but also other relevant products emerged on the market, such as the digital audio workstation (DAW) Ableton Live (2001) or the studio emulation Reason (2000). These devices have provided less complex, more cost-effective, and viable alternatives to traditional hardware-based production studios and, therefore, it’s become possible to produce high-quality music simply using a bit more than a laptop computer. Particularly Ableton Live is considered one of the first music applications to automatically beat-match a song and has been widely used by DJs for shows and other live performances, as well as for composing, recording, and mastering a record.

The popularity of electronic music and its subgenres was ever-growing throughout the first decade of the 21st century. Musicians and producers such as David Guetta, Daft Punk, Tiësto or Skrillex were receiving international acclaim and by the end of the 2000s, all renowned DJs were regularly performing at the biggest stadiums in both US (mainly Los Angeles) and Europe. Moreover, the 2000s and 2010 also experienced the rise of large-scale commercial festivals and parties, such as Tomorrowland in Belgium, the Weekend Festival in Estonia, Ultra Music Festival in Florida, and Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas.

As of today, particularly in 2022, the electronic music industry seems to be buzzing once again, even after suffering from a huge financial loss in 2020. The value of the industry has grown in a total of 16 countries, led by market share gains mostly in the UK and Germany. Additionally, recorded electronic music grew by up to 18% with physical format sales growing for the first time in 20 years along with artists’ and DJ earnings going up by 111%.


Within a century, electronic music has developed into one of the most extensive music genres, covering more than 300 sub-genres. In this guide, we’ve focused on the historical development of electronic music and dived into its key characteristics and some of the most iconic artists.

If you’d like to learn more about one of the most successful electronic music sub-genres, electronic dance music, don’t hesitate to dive into our article on what EDM is and the artists that define the genre!

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