Did the creation of the synthesizer destroy the heart and soul of music in the past and music today? By observing its history, I attempt to find out.

(If you don't like reading monumental feature pieces over 1,000 words, look away now).

Genesis, Stevie Wonder, Timbaland and Wamdue Project all embrace different musical genres, but despite their contrasts in sound and image, they all adopt one key instrument of choice.

 

From progressive rock to R&B, R n B and dance, to pure pop, the synthesizer is a fundamental weapon of armoury. Since 1876, when Elisha Gray created the first electric synthesizer, no one expected such a widespread use of this technology thereafter. 

 

Nowadays, the Roland Juno-Stage and Fantom and the Oberheim OB12 models are the benchmark for success.With a dab hand producer to organise arrangements, a well marketed promotion for an album and an attractive frontman/woman image (hail Madonna, Ne-Yo and The Saturdays et al) it seems digital synthesis and its allure to mainstream music cannot go wrong.

 

Explosion of the drum machine, sequencer, keyboard/synthesizer at the heart of electronic music which encompasses a plethora of genres has propelled many an artist to stardom.

However in its youth, the “synth” was frowned upon for what it may offer and what purists thought would eradicate the soul of music. By destroying the core elements of instrumentation and replacing it with a machine to graft the chords for you, some felt it defeated the object of musical experimentation and sanitised the sounds of drum rhythms, guitar riffs and piano melodies. 

 

But experimentation helped develop the synthesizer and electronic music’s status. Moving from usage in film and TV productions, to sparse experiments by Russian techno-wizards like Leon Theremin (creator of the Theremin in 1919, which is notably used as the haunting theme for ITV’s Midsomer Murders) and for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop scores in the 1950s, gradually the synthesizer catapulted towards the mainstream. 

 

Delia Derbyshire’s BBC Doctor Who theme was welcomed by science-fiction and musical geniuses alike. Pink Floyd and Yoko Ono (later married to Beatles’ musician John Lennon) were amongst the listeners and wanted to utilise and understand the synthesizer in its full capacity. But with little accessibility to what was then a rare machine, the synthesizer needed promotion.

 

Although a far cry from euphoric string instrumentals and rasping “four to the floor” rhythms found in clubs belting out R n B and dance “classics” and offering cheap sambuca shots today, electronics grew in popularity by the 1960s. Luckily, its franchise and mass-market appeal was enhanced through a skilful professor. 

 

Robert Moog, a modest American from New York City who gained numerous electrical engineering degrees, would expose the world to the power of electronics. Creator of the Moog synthesizer, he would become the pioneer of the Moog and Minimoog modular synth. Taking the design of a standard piano, Moog Music company manufactured thousands of copies of the evolutionary technology. 

 

Selling synths in his New York shop opened in 1964, Moog offered a gigantic piece of equipment which through oscillation offered a variety of unique sound waves and frequencies.

 

The Moog synth’s ability to perform pitch shifts and an array of spooky melodies through extraordinary burping and bleeping chords was noticed by progressive rock groups including Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Yes. 

 In early albums by these British groups with flowing locks and flower-power fashions, a mixture of psychedelic drugs and youthful naivety helped create classical pieces with bassoons, cellos, flutes, oboes and the standard drums, guitars, bass, pianos and the essential vocalist. Importantly though these groups needed the synthesizer to help complement their music. 

 

Synthesis would arrive in all forms of music. From the trans-gender Wendy Carlos’ Clockwork Orange theme (1971) to Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind (1972) and Talking Book (1973), to even The Rolling Stones, they would all perfect the art of button-twiddling. 

 

Other synthesizer producing competitors which added themselves to the market by the 1970s were Oberheim created through manufacturer Tom Oberheim and the Japanese manufacturer, Roland. Reaching customers including those from Queen’s Freddie Mercury, ELO’s Jeff Lynne and Depeche Mode’s Alan Wilder, it became common to witness a synthesizer inside US clubs playing hip-hop music, and the early dancing tunes of Chicago house music and Detroit techno. 

  

 

The widespread appeal of synthesis was welcomed across the globe and two contributory factors for the explosion were through German efficiency and Italian style. Deutschland’s birth of electronic group Kraftwerk and Girogio Moroder’s swift production, opened up to a world only just coming to terms with the impact of electronics. 

  

Kraftwerk’s minimalist approach in image and composition, which gave way to the album The Man Machine (1978) and Moroder’s production of tracks including Donna Summer (I Feel Love), David Bowie (Cat People, Putting Out The Fire) and with the Human League’s Phil Oakey (Together In Electric Dreams) allowed synthesizers prominence in multi-genres.

 

After punk’s brief flirtation with musical audiences between 1976 and 1979, the former punks of Joy Division, The Psychedelic Furs and The Stranglers would evolve in to electronic rock, branded as “New Wave”. 

 

Essentially synthesis had captured punk’s core elements of angst, danger and delivering violent on-stage messages and began moulding it with elegant and lush melodies, which manufactured synth’s greatest media created platform, “Synthpop.”

 

So not only would pre-pubescent looking adults in pop groups including Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Erasure, New Order (formerly Joy Division) and the Pet Shop Boys etc, begin harnessing hooks and upbeat synth-licks with tales of love, woe and harsh realities of English life, but harder, more extreme forms of rock would too. 

 

Fleetwood Mac (Tango In The Night, 1987), Foreigner (Agent Provocateur, 1984), Starship (Knee Deep In The Hoopla, 1985) and Van Halen (1984) would surface from the 1980s with synth laden compositions, appealing to a mass audience with hit packed tunes in their albums in the shape of ballads or catchy pop tunes, masquerading as rock. 

 

Whilst back at the yanks’ abode disco was in transition and growing in to hip hop music through Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, with break-dancing and baseball cap followers beginning to notice the synthesizer’s infectious appeal. Reggae’s Aswad and UB40 would also pen their songs to machines and rack-up UK and US Top 40 hits. 

 However what producers, promoters, agents and record companies had by now realised, is that quick mega-bucks could be made from the synth franchise. So by the late 1980s to early 1990s, Acid House and dance music provided the perfect antidote to encompass swirling synth passages and keyboard instrumentals, whilst simultaneously capturing the hearts of those wanting a perfect upbeat tune and creating a commercial aspect of music. 808 State, The Happy Mondays and Orbital encouraged hedonism and many positively followed suit. 

 

But the development of the synthesizer was criticised for its greatest mass-market coup in the 1980s. Not only did Michael Jackson and Madonna become two of the most famous figurehead performers to use electronic power and develop multi-million record sales worldwide, but Pete Waterman’s Stock, Aitken and Waterman emergence as a dynamic trio, which created “The Hit Factory” gave birth to the critically-acclaimed cheesy 1980s pop which many would criticise. 

 

Rick Astley (Never Gonna Give You Up), Bananarama (Venus), Jason Donovan (Sealed With A Kiss) Kylie Minogue (I Should Be So Lucky) and Mel & Kim (Respectable) would forge fun and frolics in MTV pop videos with Linn drum machine and bass synthesizer powered engineering by Phil Harding and be responsible for formulating the catchy, but sometimes nauseating tunes of mainstream pop. 

 

This aspect of the synthesizer would accommodate and alienate music purists. Despite its appeal, the heart and soul of music had been ripped from music by technology, with less reliance on the staple band instrumentation and instead replaced by minimalist electro-arrangements. 

  

 

But whether positive or negative, the synthesizer flourished during the 1990s. A media-hyped craze of techno (electronic dance music) was being devoured by teens on Top of The Pops and ecstasy popping louts with a penchant for a tune. Snap’s Rhythm Is A Dancer, Corona’s The Rhythm of The Night and Grace's Not Over Yet fused loveable pop lyrics with hardcore clap, hi-hat and kick-drum rhythms created by Roland TR-808 drum machines and Yamaha bass synthesizers. 

 

Hits galore through #1 singles and albums followed, which gave soulful R n B stars a chance to exploit the latest market franchise. As techno grew through Basement Jaxx, The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy, gangster rappers including P Diddy, 50 Cent and Mark Morrison noticed their appeal. 

 

Merging hard-hitting rap solos about sex and violence, R n B and Hip Hop found its way in to contemporary UK music through the synthesizer and drum machine’s accessible beats and melodies. Bling, gold Timberland boots and tattoos helped, but the necessary electronic ingredients evoked mass sales. 

 Today, synthesizers are widespread amongst rock, pop and R n B acts and continue to shape music in the 2000s. Taio Cruz’s Departure album uses synth string sections, whilst Basshunter’s Now You’re Gone album reminds music maniacs of how much dance music has shaped the industry recently. 

 

Chris Brown, Jennifer Hudson and Rihanna are at the forefront of elegant melodies and steady drum beats with heartfelt romantic lyrics, while Coldplay, The Killers and Snow Patrol use their pianos and synthesizers profusely in their “intelligent” lyrical rock music. Meanwhile, Britney Spears and Kylie also continue to prevail with their manufactured synthesized pop models today.

But is the cult of the synthesizer set to end? After its fruitful history and its transition between genres and bands, its consistent development through management of image, style and machinery appears to continue to surprise. From rock to dance throughout its life, the “daddy” of keyboards is full of positives in its rhythms and partying, as it is in its crafted compositions which take forever to construct. Although the synthesizer has attracted a critical acclaim, most modern music would be severely hindered if it did not exist. 

 

But whether another instrument instead of the synthesizer would have monopolised music post 1960s is impossible to answer. However plenty of groups in the indie contingent and metal genres have survived without using mass electronics, including the Arctic Monkeys and The Darkness in the current decade.                                                                                                                                         

The synthesizer’s importance is not redundant at all and has allowed many artists to demonstrate their capabilities through machinery and gain worldwide sales and chart hits, but whether another musical avenue will open remains to be seen. 

 Whether it destroys the heart of music is purely down to the opinion of those which stand-off from its image and those who find it indispensable. It may have made other staple instruments lose their musical prowess and caused catchy three minute pop songs to gain momentum, but it has equally created a thankful nation who loves its beats and melodies.

 

What is for sure is that the synthesizer and electronic music will always remain controversial.

Comments

It is my fault that I have written this article in word in the first place, but I did just in case I accidentally lost my work if I wrote it on my blog and forgot to save it etc.

But, can someone PLEASE tell me how I separate the sentences and paragraphs and spaces if you copy and paste from word.

I have tried after pasting it in to my blog but it simply reverts in to a mess...and I don't just mean what I've written :). Cheers.

As you may have already gathered, I have an unhealthy obsession with both sport and music particularly and to a lesser extent film (I should write more articles on film, but no lists of 137 best films :) ) by reading the majority of blog posts I have made on the Centre for Journalism website.

 

However, this article continues on a musical vein.

 

After Margaret mentioned the word ‘Synthesise’ in her shorthand lesson this week and advised it would be good to learn if becoming a music journalist, I started to think about synthesizers and how they have contributed to contemporary music and what future they have.

 

I will attempt here to analyse their effect on different musical genres, without sounding too biased (hopefully) whilst talking about my favourite musical instrument, the synthesizer.

Don't worry, help is now not necessary as I have solved my incompetent copying and pasting.

Unbelievably it seems to have returned to the mess it was originally. Unbelievable, please can someone help...

I give up.

Don't stress about it, love! I'm not sure if this will work on here but try <br> for a break and <p> for a new paragraph. I'm like 90% sure it will not work though! :D

p.s. I will write you a list of 138 songs to listen to when you're feeling angry!

I'll try it thanks love :D. Hope you didn't become comatose after reading that article. Oh and feel free to write your list, it'd be interesting to see what you include. I think I've sparked something off with that haha :D.

Becci, it hasn't worked, but thanks for the suggestion.

Is his name, not Girogio like I called him in my article.

 

Your musical knowledge never ceases to amaze me Stuey! Nice write up.

So who could you see yourself working for in the future? NME or something similar?

 

Cheers Fisky, just a shame about the sodding spaces between words (I won't copy and paste from Word ever again). Likewise, your petrolhead knowledge is astounding haha. Anyway Al, not NME, because I don't like Indie. But definitely Q Magazine, I often read that and it's a good style of writing. Except for the numerous genres which music journalists create, which I think can be a bit over the top, i.e. dark/death/industrial metal etc. GOD!

I suggest Car Magazine for you Alex!

Synthesis and its history - a powerful weapon?