The Sound of Science: How Electricity Transformed Music

Humans have used instruments to make music for thousands of years. Over time, simple flutes made from bone and primitive drums made from skin got replaced by superior designs using better materials. However, the basic concept remained virtually unchanged: blow, pluck, or tap an object to generate soundwaves, which, when done a certain way, creates noise that’s pleasing to the ear.

Music was a direct experience, one in which the performer made sounds that immediately traveled from the instrument, through the air, and into the listener’s ears. Generally speaking, that aspect of musical performance remains unchanged.

However, beginning in the 18th century, a pioneering branch of science and technology started to take shape, one which would forever change the way we listen to music. We’re talking, of course, about electric power.

Most folks today take electrically generated music for granted. Yet, it permeates through nearly every layer of musical experience. From strumming a bass guitar to wearing headphones to opening greeting ecards that play hit songs, we rarely if ever experience music without electricity playing a role. Even live performances – for the most part – are reliant on electrical systems in some form or another.

While the scientific understanding of electric power first gained momentum in the 1700s, it would be another two centuries before electricity was harnessed to create and generate music. With the invention of radio, people could use electricity to listen to music played thousands of miles away. Then, in 1928, the first electronic instrument was invented. Called the theremin, its eerie sound became synonymous with scary movies. The theremin was followed two years later by the electric guitar.

Developments in audio engineering and the implementation of stereo sound were additional innovations involving electricity to generate music. Meanwhile, record players – powered by electricity – brought unlimited amounts of music right into your home.

There’s no doubt that electrically generated sound was a paradigm shift in terms of the way people experienced music. Previously, one would go days, weeks, or even years before listening to a musical performance. More times than not, music was something you either made at home or rarely got to enjoy at all. With the implementation of electric power, access to musical performances went from a rarity to instant pleasure.

By the mid-20th century, artists were increasingly exploring new ways to use electricity to make music. The first electric keyboards, drum machines, and synthesizers were invented soon after, enabling musicians to create unique sounds they could never generate through traditional instruments. While various musical disciplines started using electricity in their own ways and remaining distinctively different, the desire to collaborate started to take over. Today, it’s not unusual to hear a song featuring multiple forms of electrically generated music.

However, it’s worth noting that all great music continues to originate from the mind and abilities of a musician, not a machine. Electricity doesn’t simplify music. It enhances it. The sound emitting from a speaker connected to an electric guitar is only as good as the guitarist. No energy transfer or alteration can improve one’s musical talents or turn bad sounds into good ones.

Making music has remained fundamentally the same for 5,000 years; use your hands or mouth to manipulate an object to make sounds. What electricity did is create a way to take the physical performance and manipulate it somehow before it reached the listener. Whether it’s transmitting the sound elsewhere, recording it onto a replayable medium, or altering it via electric power, the ability to do something more than play and listen to live acoustic instruments was a significant turning point in the history of music. And there’s no going back!