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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Revising a History of Electronic Music

Updated: Sep 20, 2019

“I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones.” John Cage[1]

Here comes the sixth edition of Electronic and Experimental Music, available from Routledge this spring, 2020. Why does the world need a new version of this book? I thought I would try to explain that here.

When I first wrote this book in the early 1980s I was trying to put together a lucid history of the art of electronic music that would inspire artists and engineers alike. It was a book I wished that I had had when I was growing up. Today, more than 40 years later, the history of electronic music continues to reveal itself. The added years have brought more interest and curiosity from new generations.

I rethought the past editions of this book and decided that it needed a more practical template for the future. Suggestions from readers were an important stimulus for this change. You will note that the book is shorter. It is also reorganized into a more logical plan that will allow the reader to more quickly locate information. Individual chapters are concise and made more accessible through a combination of descriptive titles and section heads combined with a tighter narrative. But the stories of composers and engineers remain and have been expanded in many places to tell a fuller history of electronic music.

New Organization

In reorganizing the content of the book I was able to unify many thematic elements that had strayed apart over the years. The first nine chapters cover the fundamentals, including an entirely new chapter about how to listen to electronic music plus the basics of audio physics, synthesis, and tape composition. The stories of analog and digital synthesis have now been integrated rather than being discussed separately. Individual chapters are devoted to the early history of electronic music by country and world region, by key synthesizer innovators (e.g., Moog, Buchla, EMS, ARP), and the emergence of computer music, live electronic music practices, turntablism, and Eurorack modular synthesis. A new Appendix provides an expansive guide to historically important electronic music studios around the globe.

In keeping with the advice of avid readers, I have reduced my discussions of pop and rock music in favor of further exploring the experimental roots of electronic music. I continue to focus on the early adopters and experimenters who pioneered the music and technology during each phase of the history of electronic music. Through interviews and readings, I bring their stories to life often using their own words. For those interested in my writing outside the scope of this book, you might look for my papers on The Roots of Electronic Jazz, 1950–1970 (Jazz Perspectives, 2017) and The Sound Of Moog: Using Vinyl Recordings a Reconstruct a History of the Moog Synthesizer (Notes, 2014), or see my blogs for the Bob Moog Foundation and follow this blog, Noise and Notations.


At its heart, this book remains an account of the history of technology, musical styles, and figures associated with electronic music, paying particular attention to:

• The invention of the key technologies of electronic music.

• The people who first explored new musical ideas using electronics.

• Key works of electronic music, their genesis, and influence.

• The cultural impact of electronic music over the years.

Also, this edition continues to expand the discussion of the underreported accomplishments of women in electronic music.

New chapter plan and organization. There are now 38 concise chapters focused on specific topics whereas the previous edition had 15 long chapters.

New Chapter 2: Listening to Electronic Music. Listening to electronic music can be challenging, especially for those who are new to experimental forms. The rules for listening to traditional music—from classical to pop—do not always translate effectively to finding enrichment in electronic music. This guide provides an objective approach to listening and analysing any kind of electronic music.

New Chapter 38: Eurorack. This overview of contemporary modular synthesis provides a modern history and will also be of interest to anyone getting started with electronic music.

New Chapters 28, 29, 30, 31 on Moog, Buchla, EMS and ARP. I’ve brought together, revised, and expanded material on four major, ground-breaking makers of modular synthesizers from the vintage years of analog synthesis.

New Chapter 21 on the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Although the SFTMC was always included in the book, bringing together and expanding the content was important for telling a complete story. As with each studio that has a separate chapter in the book, this one provides an overview of the history, equipment, and works of key composers associated with the studio.

New Chapter 22 on Electronic Music in Canada. Another focus that was needed was telling a more uniform story of electronic music originating in Canada.

New Appendix on Historic Studios of Electronic Music by World Region 1948–70.This guide unites and greatly expands the directories of classic electronic music studios that existed in the 1950s and 1960s. It is organized by region/country.

Listening Guides. Found in many chapters, these guides provide a moment-by-moment annotated exploration of key works. Listening Guides give the background on a work and the composer, the way in which a work was composed, and a set of notes explaining how the music was produced, keyed to timings throughout a piece.

Listen playlists. Many chapters include one or more Listen playlists, a collection of recommended musical tracks that are commercially available through music download sites. Four Listen playlists were added to this edition in the chapters on Buchla, EMS. ARP, and Eurorack.

Extensive photos and figures. The rich history of electronic music is made clearer with vivid images, schematics, and sample scores, all of which continue to be a hallmark feature of the book. About 70 new images have been added to this edition.

Glossary. Key terms are highlighted in bold within the chapters and collected with definitions in a complete glossary in the back of the book.

[1] John Cage in an interview with Arnold Jay Smith published as “Reaching for the Cosmos: A Composer’s Colloquium,” in DownBeat, Volume 44, Number 18, (October 27, 1977).

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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