Origins: late 19th century to early 20th century
At the turn of the 20th century, experimentation with emerging electronics led to the first electronic musical instruments. These initial inventions were not sold, but were instead used in demonstrations and public performances. The audiences were presented with reproductions of existing music instead of new compositions for the instruments. While some were considered novelties and produced simple tones, the Telharmonium accurately synthesized the sound of orchestral instruments. It achieved viable public interest and made commercial progress into streaming music through telephone networks.
Critics of musical conventions at the time saw promise in these developments. Ferruccio Busoni encouraged the composition of microtonal music allowed for by electronic instruments. He predicted the use of machines in future music, writing the influential Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music. Futurists such as Francesco Balilla Pratella and Luigi Russolo began composing music with acoustic noise to evoke the sound of machinery. They predicted expansions in timbre allowed for by electronics in the influential manifesto The Art of Noises.
Developments of the vacuum tube led to electronic instruments that were smaller, amplified, and more practical for performance. In particular, the theremin, ondes Martenot and trautonium were commercially produced by the early 1930s.
From the late 1920s, the increased practicality of electronic instruments influenced composers such as Joseph Schillinger to adopt them. They were typically used within orchestras, and most composers wrote parts for the theremin that could otherwise be performed with string instruments.
Avant-garde composers criticized the predominant use of electronic instruments for conventional purposes. The instruments offered expansions in pitch resources that were exploited by advocates of microtonal music such as Charles Ives, Dimitrios Levidis, Olivier Messiaen and Edgard Varèse. Further, Percy Grainger used the theremin to abandon fixed tonation entirely, while Russian composers such as Gavriil Popov treated it as a source of noise in otherwise-acoustic noise music.
Developments in early recording technology paralleled that of electronic instruments. The first means of recording and reproducing audio was invented in the late 19th century with the mechanical phonograph. Record players became a common household item, and by the 1920s composers were using them to play short recordings in performances.
The introduction of electrical recording in 1925 was followed by increased experimentation with record players. Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch composed several pieces in 1930 by layering recordings of instruments and vocals at adjusted speeds. Influenced by these techniques, John Cage composed Imaginary Landscape No. 1 in 1939 by adjusting the speeds of recorded tones.
Concurrently, composers began to experiment with newly developed sound-on-film technology. Recordings could be spliced together to create sound collages, such as those by Tristan Tzara, Kurt Schwitters, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Walter Ruttmann and Dziga Vertov. Further, the technology allowed sound to be graphically created and modified. These techniques were used to compose soundtracks for several films in Germany and Russia, in addition to the popular Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the United States. Experiments with graphical sound were continued by Norman McLaren from the late 1930s.