Electronic Composition
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How do electronic composers classify sounds?

When we say electronic composers we could be talking about anyone who writes music with electronics, or we could limit the scope of our discussion to “classical” composers. For the sake of argument let’s start with how some classically trained electronic composers think about sounds, then expand to include more varieties of music.

The Art of Noise

Luigi Russolo, a futurist artist and composer, wrote a futurist manifesto called “The Art of Noise” in 1913. Russolo explores the idea of categorizing sounds into the following families:

  • Roars, Thunderings, Explosions, Hissing roars, Bangs, Booms
  • Whistling, Hissing, Puffing
  • Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering, Gurgling
  • Screeching, Creaking, Rustling, Buzzing, Crackling, Scraping
  • Noises obtained by beating on metals, woods, skins, stones, pottery, etc.
  • Voices of animals and people, Shouts, Screams, Shrieks, Wails, Hoots, Howls, Death rattles, Sobs

Some of these seem like strange things to include in music, so it may help to understand that Russolo was living in the industrial revolution where the sounds of the serene countryside were being decimated by the, never before heard, sounds of industry. Anyone who has lived next to a highway can attest to how noisy roads and cars can be.

A modernized take on Russolo’s sound families

The idea of sound families is extremely helpful to any electronic composer. We can take the same six families that Russolo created and rename them to be applicable to all electronic music.

  • Big sounds like lead synths, explosion sounds, and bass drops
  • “Pure” synths, that is synth sounds with simple overtones,
  • Gentle synth pads, strings, and keys
  • “Buzzy” synths, that is synth sounds with lots of inharmonic overtones
  • Percussion and impact sounds
  • Vocals, vodcoders, and vocal synths

Luigi would probably be unhappy with us at this point. His manifesto was meant to free us from the musical standards of tradition so that we could explore the joys of noise. Many electronic composers still feel this way, but many embrace possibilities of combining both tradition and noise (which has since become part of our musical tradition in the past century).