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Electronic Music...the New Classical?


Over the past several decades, electronic music has exploded in popularity, moving from a relatively fringe pursuit to being the dominant sound in popular music. An incredibly eclectic field — home to both underground avant-garde artists as well as headline festival acts — the influences of this unique art form can be felt extensively across the modern musical spectrum, especially in terms of the production techniques it has pioneered. James Cummings examines the wider artistic implications of the movement and ask, when viewed in a comparative historical context, whether it is time to consider electronic music as the modern world’s answer to classical music

Let us begin by giving a (very brief) overview of the history of electronic music, and its development both internally and externally in terms of the other genres it has influenced. Suffice to say, that to give a comprehensive history of electronic music would require considerably more explanation than this article affords, so I hope readers will excuse the brevity in detailing the development of this rich and diverse music.  

The roots of electronic music can be traced back to the early 20th century, when developments in technology led to the creation of the first electronic musical instruments, most notably including the Theremin — an instrument controlled not by direct physical touch, but instead through the manipulation of an electromagnetic field using one’s hands — and Telharmonium, an early electrical organ. These novel instruments first introduced the unique timbre of electronic musical sounds to the public, with further explorations in sound technology leading to the evolution of electroacoustic tape music in 1940s France and Egypt. The French discipline of Musique concrète — a style of music utilising recorded sounds as compositional building blocks and techniques for manipulating tape — would emerge in Paris in 1948, with further experimentation at the WDR (West German Broadcasting) Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne, by researchers including the controversial 20th century composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, leading to Germany’s pioneering Elektronische Musik 

Karlheinz Stockhausen at the WDR Electronic Music Studio, 1991 (credit: Kathinka Pasveer)

It was in the 1960s, however, with advances in digital computer music and synthesised instruments — especially in Japan’s burgeoning electronics industry — that electronic music found new impetus and, crucially, an increasingly receptive consumer market. This trend continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, supporting new genres including synth pop, disco and other forms of EDM (Electronic Dance Music), and further democratising access to electronic music creation through the advent of mass-produced digital synthesisers such as the Minimoog and Yamaha DX7.  

The use of electronic elements such as drum machines and continually developing production techniques would influence pop music through the 1990s and 2000s, with this trend continuing to the present day. The legacy of this evolutionary process can be heard in modern chart-topping hits, with features such as auto-tuning, digital effects (FX), frequency equalization (EQ) and the use of synthesised and sampled instruments commonplace in today’s music industry. In particular, recent years have seen the emergence of globally-recognised electronic producers and DJs, whose prominence on platforms such as SoundCloud and YouTube have expanded the popularity of EDM — encompassing House, Techno and many others — and fuelled an exponential growth in electronically composed music.  

From left: the famous Minimoog synthesizer and a Moog Etherwave (assembled from a theremin kit)

Interestingly, whilst modern club music may seem a far cry from the artistic endeavours of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, upon examining the musical components of these comparative genres it becomes increasingly clear that the relationship between them is perhaps not as distant as one might have first imagined. Let’s take a look. 


The truth is, that not much has changed in musical harmony (or, chords) over the past few hundred years. While genres such as jazz and contemporary classical music have arguably pushed harmony to its conceptual and technical limits, the main harmonic language — that is, the established norm in terms of commonly-found chords and their support of melody — has remained consistent throughout the history of widely popular music. Major and minor chords, as well as the notion of a set of repeated chords at the core of a piece, have remained a staple feature of music since the time of Bach. That a piece of music should be written in a given key is, well, a given — both Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (“da–da–da–daaaah”) and Daft Punk’s Da Funk are written in the key of C minor. 


A good melody has always been at the heart of any great piece of music, and this seems unlikely to change. The melody or ‘hook’ is arguably one of the most defining aspects of the vast majority of music, and, crucially, is an element that in many ways defies categorisation by genre. Indeed, some melodies have found homes in very different types of music: check out this part of the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, and compare this to Eric Carmen’s 1975 hit All by Myself, made famous by Celine Dion in 1996 (spoiler: they’re basically the same). In short, one can find good melodies everywhere and electronic music is no exception. Some of the biggest EDM hooks of recent decades include Eric Prydz’s Call On Me, Robert Miles’ Children, Daft Punk’s One More Time and Strobe by deadmau5, to name but a few, and that isn’t counting the sheer number of incredible remixes and mash-ups of well-known pop songs adopted by electronic artists.  

Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) such as Ableton Live have fuelled a boom in home music production


This is perhaps one of the most prominent features common to both classical music and EDM — in particular when one considers forms such as the symphony, overture and symphonic poem. While the (fairly geeky) specifics of each might vary, the spirit, or experiential element of each shares striking similarities. To watch a set by artists such as Lane 8, Ben Böhmer or Christian Löffler — and Deep and Progressive House artists in particular — is not that dissimilar to listening to a symphony in a concert hall. Both of these musical environments involve exposure to large-scale musical structures that express a narrative and that take listeners on a complex musical and conceptual journey. Concepts of tension and release, as well as strategic use of energy and complexity when viewed as a part of the ‘musical super-structure’, are undeniably shared by both genres, with the referencing of previously presented musical material and its subsequent development a prominent feature common to both modern and historical forms. From a conceptual standpoint, check out David August’s fantastic Boiler Room performance, and compare this with Ravel’s stunning Daphnis et Chloé Suite No.2. 


Both classical and electronic music pay considerable attention to texture — that is, the inherent quality of the sound, derived from the instruments involved. Textural adjectives can get pretty grandiloquent(!), but whether a piece of music sounds ‘dark’, ‘metallic’, ‘glassy’ or ‘ethereal’ all comes down to the choice of instrumentation. Throughout the history of classical music, books detailing compositional theory (and as such, texture) were written in earnest, most notably including the indispensable Principles of Orchestration by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908). Interestingly, far from simply remaining part of modern-day composition, considerations of texture have, in fact, increased in scope and detail in today’s world. Electronic instruments take this to a whole new level, enabling composers to essentially create new instruments (and as such, instrumental combinations) on-the-fly via direct and practically limitless manipulation of frequencies through technologies such as wavetable synthesis. Add FX and sampling into the mix and you’ve basically got infinite possibilities — which is one of the main factors that gives each EDM producer their own unique sound. Additionally, that a significant portion of EDM is purely instrumental (like much of classical music) is quite remarkable in the context of an otherwise vocal-drenched music industry. 

Similar location choices. From left: Christian Löffler at St. Kamillus Kolumbarium (credit: YouTube) and a chamber concert taking place in a church

To conclude, the point of all this is not to try and afford electronic music more intellectual consideration — after all, it already has this in spades. Essentially, this article is about recognising the deep similarities between two otherwise distantly regarded genres — not only for interest’s sake, but to perhaps allow us to view each in a different light and with a view to possibly reassessing both EDM’s place in musical history and the relevance of classical music today. After all, it’s not what one listens to, but how. Yes, electronic music is wildly popular, primarily for dancing and certainly inhabits a very different performance environment to classical music, but none of these things should take away from the incredibly rich and deeply considered artistic value of this highly complex and composed art form. Maybe in a few hundred years’ time we might see tuxedos abound at ‘A Concert of Works by Skrillex’ (though, then again, perhaps not…) 

before you go

Malta has an incredible wealth of fantastic electronic events that deserve your support. This year sees major festivals such as Glitch, Lost and Found, Summer Daze, ADOBE On The Rock and Earth Garden take place in Malta, featuring a huge range of Maltese and international artists. Also, for those interested in learning more about electronic music and supporting the local scene, check out Electronic Music Malta and their annual Circuits festival and conference.