December 14, 2014

Lost Electronic Music Education: Then and Now

In an article for Electronic Music Review No. 6 called Electronic Music and Music Education Wayne Barlow says: 

"The difficulties of attempting to place electronic music in a context of traditional music education are self-evident. The art is simply too new and still too experimental to have established any kind of tradition in it methods…"

That was true in 1968 when it was written, but I'd say by about 1972 electronic music did have established methods. There was a standard musical patch or starting point: a voltage controlled oscillator being routed through a filter then an amplifier and all of these things being controlled by envelope generators, keyboard controllers and other voltage controlled oscillators (usually low frequency oscillators). In it's most basic state this patch would give you an organ type sound. So, one could consider this patch the starting point and then one could conceivably learn by breaking these rules and what effects that would have. I say all this simply to illustrate that electronic music was moving away from the freeform and vague techniques of a Radiophonic type studio and beginning to take on a standardized form around this time, it's evident in the architecture of the MiniMoog and Arp 2600.

So why was electronic music education never really "a thing"? It seems simple enough that anyone could learn these basic concepts. Why couldn't a kid take synthesizer lessons the same way he or she could take guitar, drums or piano lessons? It's because electronic music kept evolving, it was moving too much for anyone to realize when it had finally arrived. I suppose it was it's nature to keep moving forward - the music of the future. But it all went wrong. At some point it became progress for the sake of progress, what C.S. Lewis would call "chronological snobbery" - that is, the belief that the most current idea is always the best idea. A more accurate description might be progress for the sake of consumerism.

And so electronic music spun out of control and no one really knew what it was because when you're living in a certain time it's hard to look at these things objectively. Here we are in 2014 and what most people consider electronic music is still becoming more and more convoluted. But look here, there is a light on the horizon! People are realizing the importance of analog sound, the importance of a tangible interface, the importance of voltage control. There are more modular systems being made these days than ever before! So now we have two distinctly different groups of electronic music, one that takes the best the medium has to offer and the other that takes the newest. 

What would the benefits of this sort of education be? Do people really need lessons to make their "bleep bloop" sounds? Well, to someone who is seriously interested in the art form it would make a world of difference. It would be the difference between learning through trial and error over years and years or gaining a firm understanding of the basics in one course. And perhaps this sort of music would be a little less bleepy & bloopy if people had a more concrete understanding of sound creation and could get down to the business of using those sounds to actually write music!

I heard a tape recently of Ronnie Martin talking about the early days of his band Joy Electric and how he wished he'd just known some one who could teach him how to use all this stuff. And in my own experience I learned a lot from my dear friend Jon Sonnenberg, who would teach me what he could each time we were together. It was invaluable information but sometimes it was years between and time was always limited. 

Electronic music education still hasn't happened. It's learned like an occult practice - from whispers and ancient books. But it's not hard to imagine a day when Sally can go off to her guitar lessons and Stacy can go to her synthesizer lesson.


  1. Very, very interesting! I always thought that electronic music wasn't good at all, but then i listened to your songs and your work, and it's amazing! It's amazing what you can do with a synth, it's a shame i can't learn to play one :C it's my dream haha
    P.S i'm still waiting for a new post of you Jake! (and i'm re-reading all of them again because this is truly interesting! haha)
    P.S2 sorry for my english! I'm a fifteen year old mexican girl who doesn't practice too much this language cx cheers Jake!

  2. How can I reach you for an interview? Thanks!

  3. Hey Benjamin, email me at