Electronic Music

by Barry Drogin

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To the Editor:

As an electrical engineer who is also a professional classical composer, I must inform you that you opened a can of worms by questioning the use of "electronically synthesized music" as opposed to "electronic music."

The root of the term "synthesizer," which goes back at least 25 years to the enormously influential RCA Mark II synthesizer, is "synthesis," not "synthetic." The sound is synthesized by combining devices that produce pitch (oscillators) with those that control pitch (modulators), timbre (filters), volume (envelope generators), and so on. A single bow rubbing against a violin string produces and controls all of these parameters, as does a single stick hitting a drum. There is no individual combining of many disparate elements, and thus no synthesis. It is also impossible to change an individual element later, as is done by tape manipulation.

"Electronic music" is only used to describe classical compositions, not pop, rock, or disco compositions. The term encompasses musique concrete (tape manipulation of recorded sounds that occurred originally without the presence of loudspeakers), along with classical music that used tape manipulation, or alteration by human or computer control, of "sounds" that can only be heard by using loudspeakers, as well as sophisticated electronic manipulations of recorded sounds by digital synthesizers not available in the heyday of musique concrete. A Spectrum reader who wrote a technical article about synthesizer design should say that the device can be used to produce "electronically synthesized music," not "electronic music," since the latter term carries stylistic implications. The article must be about a synthesizer or synthesizer component, remembering that music that is "electronically synthesized" is not "electronically manipulated" (the amplified piano, the electronic violin) or simply "electronically produced" (the electric guitar, the electric piano).

Electronic music is not "a new kind of music, an art form in its own right" --- it is an academically defined corner of classical music, like solo violin music. Most electronic musical instruments (as opposed to electronic-music instruments) are used with nonelectric musical instruments --- a fact many engineers, but not classical composers, tend to forget in their rush to electronically simulate existing instruments. A synthesizer is an additional instrument, not a replacement instrument, and its literature does not define a new "art form."

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007