Electroacoustic music

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The terms Electroacoustics and its sub-discipline Electroacoustic music have been used to describe several different sonic and musical genres or musical techniques.

While generally seen as the superset of electronic music, the definition and characteristics of electroacoustic music have been subject to much debate.

Electroacoustic music is a diverse field. Important centers of research and composition can be found around the world, and there are numerous conferences and festivals which present electroacoustic music, notably the International Computer Music Conference, the International Conference on New interfaces for musical expression, the Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Festival (Bourges, France), and the Ars Electronica Festival (Linz, Austria).

A number of national associations promote the art form, notably the Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC) in Canada, SEAMUS in the US, ACMA in Australasia and the Sonic Arts Network in the UK. The Computer Music Journal and Organised Sound are the two most important journals dedicated to electroacoustic studies, while several national associations produce print and electronic publications.

Questions of definition

There is no consensus for the definition of “electroacoustic music”. Some contend that any sound played over a loudspeaker is “electroacoustic”, while for others, the term also entails some aesthetic specifications.

While all electroacoustic music is made with electronic technology, the most successful works in the field are usually concerned with those aspects of sonic design which remain inaccessible to traditional musical instruments played live. In particular, most electroacoustic compositions make use of sounds not available to, say, the traditional orchestra; these sounds might include prerecorded sounds from nature or from the studio, synthesized sounds, processed sounds, and so forth.

Electroacoustic compositions also often explore spatial characteristics of sound, as sounds can be given trajectories, and can be placed in distant or near fields of listening. Electroacoustic music is typically less preoccupied with the “traditional” concerns of score-based music — (metric) rhythm, harmony and melody — and more concerned with the interplay of gesture and texture, and what Denis Smalley has termed spectromorphology — the sculpting of the sound spectrum in time.


Many date the formal birth of electroacoustic music to the late 1940s and early 1950s, and in particular to the work of two groups of composers whose aesthetic orientations were radically opposed. The Musique concrète group was centered in Paris and was pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer; their music was based on the juxtaposition and transformation of natural sounds (meaning real, recorded sounds, not necessarily those made by natural forces) recorded to tape or disc. In Cologne, elektronische Musik, pioneered in 1949–51 by the composer Herbert Eimert and the physicist Werner Meyer-Eppler, was based solely on electronically generated (synthetic) sounds, particularly sine waves. The precise control afforded by the studio allowed for what Eimert considered to be an electronic extension and perfection of serialism; in the studio, serial operations could be applied to elements such as timbre and dynamics. The common link between the two schools is that the music is recorded and performed through loudspeakers, without a human performer. While serialism has been largely abandoned in electroacoustic circles, the majority of electroacoustic pieces use a combination of recorded sound and synthesized or processed sounds, and the schism between Schaeffer's and Eimert's approaches has been overcome, the first major example being Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge of 1955–56.

Isolated examples of the use of electroacoustic and prerecorded music exist that predate Schaeffer’s first experiments in 1948. Ottorino Respighi used an (acoustical) phonograph recording of a nightingale’s song in his orchestral work The Pines of Rome in 1924, before the introduction of electrical record players; experimental filmmaker Walter Ruttmann created Weekend, a sound collage on an optical soundtrack in 1930; and John Cage used phonograph recordings of test tones mixed with live instruments in Imaginary Landscape no. 1 (1939), among other examples. In the first half of the Twentieth Century, a number of writers also advocated the use of electronic sound sources for composition, notably Ferruccio Busoni, Luigi Russolo, and Edgard Varèse, and electronic performing instruments were invented, such as the Theremin in 1919, and the Ondes Martenot in 1928.


Many self-described electroacoustic pieces include live performers (called “mixed”), either as a performer playing along with a tape/CD/computer, or, more recently, with live electronic processing of the performer’s sound. Saxophonist Evan Parker has won acclaim for his recordings using live electronic processing. The term acousmatic music is often used to refer to pieces which consist solely of prerecorded sound — a form of matured musique concréte. There are dozens of other terms which are either synonymous with “electroacoustic music,” or that describe super- or subsets, offshoots or parallel disciplines from the genre. These include: sonic art; computer music; electronic music; microsound; lowercase; soundscape; audio art; radiophonics; live electronics; musique concrète; field recording; experimental electronica; electroacoustic sound art (esa), eai or EAI, and others.

Electroacoustic music is closely related to Electronica by technique; recently many popular electronica artists have been influenced by electroacoustic composers, for instance Amon Tobin, Autechre, Aphex Twin, Gescom, and Squarepusher.

Notable electroacoustic-music composers

See also


  • Chadabe, J. 1997. Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Eimert, H. 1957. “What is Electronic Music?” Die Reihe 1 [English edition] (“Electronic Music”): 1–10.
  • Emmerson, S. (ed.) 1986. The Language of Electroacoustic Music, London: Macmillan.
  • Emmerson, S. (ed.) 2000. Music, Electronic Media and Culture. Aldershot (UK) and Burlington, Vermont (USA): Ashgate Publishing.
  • Griffiths, P. 1995. Modern Music and After: Directions Since 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Heifetz, R.J. 1989. On the Wires of Our Nerves:The Art of Electroacoustic Music. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses Inc.
  • Kahn, D. 1999. Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Licata, T. (ed.). 2002. Electroacoustic Music: Analytical Perspectives. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
  • Manning, P. 2004. Electronic and Computer Music. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Morawska-Büngeler, M. 1988. Schwingende Elektronen: Eine Dokumentation über das Studio für Elektronische Musik des Westdeutschen Rundfunk in Köln 1951–1986. Cologne-Rodenkirchen: P. J. Tonger Musikverlag.
  • Roads, C. 1996. The Computer Music Tutorial. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Stockhausen, K. 1996. "Electroacoustic Performance Practice." Perspectives of New Music 34, no 1 (Fall): 74-105.
  • Ungeheuer, E. 1992. Wie die elektronische Musik “erfunden” wurde…: Quellenstudie zu Werner Meyer-Epplers musikalische Entwurf zwischen 1949 und 1953. Kölner Schriften zur Neuen Musik 2, edited by Johannes Fritsch and Dieter Kämper. Mainz: B. Schott’s Söhne.
  • Wishart, T. 1996. On Sonic Art. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.

External links

National Associations

(Also see listings on the CEC’s Wikipedia page)

Other Institutions

  • IRCAMInstitut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique / Acoustic/Music Research and Coordination Institute (Paris)
  • CECH — Electroacoustic Community of Chile
  • empreintes DIGITALes — Montréal-based label for recordings of musique concrète, acousmatic music, electroacoustic music
  • EMS — Electroacoustic Music in Sweden
  • Musiques & Recherches — Belgian association dedicated to the development of electroacoustic music
  • CCRMA — Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (Stanford CA USA)