The earliest attempts to combine electricity and musical instruments date to the mid-18th century. In both Europe and the United States, several pioneering inventors created hybrid electronic instruments in which electricity was used to modify the sound created by an acoustic instrument. Many hybrid instruments, such as electric string instruments like the guitar and bass, remain in use today.
The first pure electronic instruments, those in which sound is generated only with the use of electricity, were invented in the late 19th century. Among the first of these instruments was Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium, a massive set of keyboard-controlled tone generators that weighed several tons. Though the Telharmonium, which could be moved only by train car, never became a common instrument, Cahill’s tone generator technology was a blueprint for many instruments to come. The much smaller Theremin, patented in 1928 by an inventor of the same name, is often considered the first pure electronic instrument to gain some notoriety. The eerie whine created by the Theremin found a home as a sound effect in early film music, but, like many early pure electronic instruments, the Theremin was largely considered a novelty.
Whether because of their design, size, or the amount of scientific knowledge required to use them, throughout the first half of the 20th century, pure electronic instruments were used primarily in the realm of the experimental. By the 1960s, however, engineer Robert Moog compressed the basic functionality of his previously massive synthesizer into a portable, suitcase-sized unit controlled by a piano-style keyboard. The guitar had gone electric years earlier and piano players responded to that development by putting microphones at their instruments. Now they too could turn up the volume.
More than offering an increase in volume however, the Moog and other early synthesizers gave a single performer access to a sonic spectrum that ranged from notes below those on an electric bass to tones that soared in a register above the upper frets of an electric guitar. The instrument’s tone generators create pure sound waves and with the twist of a knob the performer routes those waves through filters that alter them, creating sounds that were, at the time of the Moog’s introduction, entirely new. As producer Bob Margouleff says in episode four of Soundbreaking, “The synthesizer is every instrument, it depends on how you want to use it.”
The Moog was successful partly because it introduced a consumer synthesizer. The new sounds the instrument could create, and the fully electronic way in which they were created, struck many as futuristic, giving the Moog and other early synthesizers a place among technologies that were part of an emerging American vision of the computerized future.
This lesson introduces students to the Telharmonium, the Theremin, the Moog and the component on which all of their sound syntheses are formed: the sound wave. Students learn what a sound wave is, how it travels and how our bodies convert it into intelligible sound. Using the Soundbreaking Sound Wave TechTool, students learn to recognize four basic waveform shapes by sound and sight. This lesson also explores the role the synthesizer played in relation to people’s perceptions of technology and culture in the 1970s, 80s and beyond.
How did synthesizers allow musicians to create new sounds and how did those sounds reflect American culture throughout the 20th century?
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
- Know (knowledge):
- What a sound wave is
- How sound travels
- The difference between hybrid and “pure” electronic instruments
- About Robert Moog and his advancements in analog synthesis technology
- About cultural conceptions of technology in the 1980s and 1990s
- How music can reflect broader cultural issues
- Be able to (skills):
- Analyze statements from historical materials to arrive at a better understanding of the past
- Understand connections between popular culture and the time, place and social circumstances in which it was created
- Evaluate the effects of technology on history and culture
- Make connections between popular music and historical events
- Integrate and evaluate information presented visually, quantitatively, and orally in diverse media and formats
Robert Moog and the Modular Synthesizer - Video
Leon Theremin Playing the Theremin - Video
Devo and the Synthesized Future - Video
For additional lesson plan materials, please visit the Lesson Resources at TeachRock.
- Ask your students:
- Do you ever use a laptop or even your phone to make music? How do you think the sounds you hear are made?
- How would you describe the music that accompanies this clip? How do you think the music was made? (Students may say that the music is “spacey,” it is comprised mostly of textural sounds generated by the synthesizers like those seen in the clip.)
- What did Bob Margouleff say he liked about being at the instrument? Why do you think the image of a spaceship might have appealed to him in the 1970s?
- Do you think you could make music like you heard in this clip on a guitar or a violin? Why or why not?
- How do you think someone might make music that sounds like this today? (Students will likely suggest laptops.)
- Why do you think Margouleff suggests that synthesizers “create a new sound from nothing?” In what ways do you think the synthesizer is different from an instrument like the guitar? (Encourage your students to recognize that unlike instruments such as electric guitar in which the sound is made by strings and then amplified using electricity, the synthesizer generates all of its sound using electricity. Unplugged, a synthesizer can make no sound at all.)
- Tell your students that the Moog is a pure electronic instrument, meaning that it generates all of its sound from electricity, and that one of the earliest “pure” electronic instruments was Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium. Show your students Slides 1-3, pictures of the more than seven ton instrument taken in 1907. Slide 1 is the keyboard at which the musician performed, Slide 2 is a small section of the vast machinery of the instrument and Slide 3 is a cover of a Scientific American magazine from 1907 featuring the instrument. Ask your students:
- Do you think the Telharmonium became a household musical instrument? Why or why not?
- The Telharmonium Hall was built to house the instrument, and performances there drew large crowds. Why do you think audiences might have been attracted to the Telharmonium?
- Why do you think the Telharmonium would have been placed on the cover of a magazine about science?
- Try to imagine yourself as a person in 1928 who had heard no electronic instruments. How would you describe the sound of the Theremin?
- Does Theremin’s body language suggest that he is thinking of his instrument as similar to any other instruments? (Students may suggest he looks as if he is conducting or playing the violin.)
- The Theremin was much smaller than the Telharmonium and was used in soundtracks and some performances soon after its invention, however it never became a common instrument. Why do you think this might be? (Encourage students to consider the Theremin’s lack of connection to any other instruments. It may sound like a violin, but it has no strings or fingerboard, nor does it have a keyboard or any connection to piano instruments.)
- Play the sine wave and then play the sawtooth wave. Ask your students:
- How would you describe the sound of the sine wave?
- How would you describe the sound of the sawtooth wave?
- Thinking back to what you just read, how does the way these waves look reflect the way it sounds?
- Why do you think that none of the wave forms found on this widget are naturally occurring sounds in nature? (Help your students recognize that their perfect shapes are the process of the machinery that made them. Natural sounds will all have variations such as the one seen in the guitar sound wave.)
- In what ways do you think people might interpret these synthesized sounds that had never been heard previously? What things do you think they might suggest or cause people to imagine? (Encourage your students to imagine a similar situation now. They might imagine being in space, or a fantasy world because they are hearing something that sounds totally alien and perhaps futuristic.)
- What does the title “The Computer Moves In” suggest is happening in America at this time?
- How might you interpret the sculptures of people in this image? What does their coloring, their postures and positioning suggest to you?
- What do you think looks most alive in this image?
- Do you see in similarities between the movie poster and the other advertisements? Is so, what? What do these similarities suggest?
- What do these three images suggest about the possibilities of people and machines co-existing? (Encourage your students to recognize that in these images people and machines are becoming inseparable or even physically connected.)
- How might you connect these advertisements with the 1907 Scientific American cover you viewed earlier? (Encourage students to discuss the ongoing sense that technology is changing our culture and people can all be connected to it.)
- Do you know what happened at Kent State College in Ohio while Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh was a student there? (Inform student that on May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed Vietnam War protestors at Kent State College.)
- In what ways does Mothersbaugh suggest that being a student at Kent State and witnessing footage of the Vietnam War affected his ideas of sound? How do you think the synthesizer helped him realize these ideas? (Students should recall how he hoped to emulate the sound of industrial war machinery in music; the synth allowed him to create something like them.)
- In what ways do you think Devo’s music, clothing and style of movement might reflect a connection to the advertising images you just viewed? What do you think Devo might have been suggesting about the connections between humans and machines?
Ask your students:
- Overall, how do you think the technology of synthesizers connected with 20th century American ideas about the future?
- Are there any current technologies that make you feel like you are experiencing something futuristic? Is there any music that currently sounds futuristic to you? Why?
- Do you think that the idea of people and technology growing closer together has come true in any ways? Can you think of any current technologies that have further blurred the lines between people and machines? (Students will likely suggest iPhones and Siri and other such intuitive technology.)
Choose another instrument and research how it has been advertised. Can you find connections between the way the instrument is marketed and broader currents in American culture? Look for other cultural products, such as TV shows, movies and consumer goods that might somehow suggest a broader connection between how the item is marketed and larger cultural trends.
Photo Credits: Jon Sievert, ©1977 William K. Matthias