In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Electronic and Computer Music Instruments

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical and Social Overviews
  • Biographies of Significant Individuals
  • Bibliographies
  • Synthesizers
  • Samplers and Sampling
  • Sequencer
  • Electronic Music Studios and Digital Audio Workstations
  • Electroacoustic Instruments
  • Electric Guitars
  • Electric Keyboards
  • Bowed and Other Miscellaneous Electroacoustic Instruments
  • Graphic (Drawn) Sound, Optics, Visual Arts, Multimedia
  • Signal Processing
  • Theory and Practice
  • Chip Tunes and Hardware Hacking
  • MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface)
  • Controllers
  • Laptop and Handheld Mobile Devices
  • Robotic Instruments
  • Networked Instruments
  • Performance Considerations: Gestures and Interfaces
  • Museum Collections and Listings
  • Preservation

Music Electronic and Computer Music Instruments
Anne Acker
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0204


The category of electronic musical instruments has a large and diverse membership. Evolving from their early experimental origins through the popular fame of the alien sounding Theremin to the present, these instruments have become a ubiquitous part of the avant-garde, rock and popular music worlds. While they are properly a subset of electrophones (instruments that produce vibrations that must pass through a loudspeaker to be heard), common usage includes electric or electroacoustic instruments. Technically, electronic instruments must utilize electronic circuitry as a necessary component for sound generation, and, in fact, the later evolution and sound production of most electrophones typically involves electronic circuitry. This article will employ the common inclusive usage of the term. The development of electronic instruments is now inseparable from that of electricity, electronics, and experimental and popular music as well as computers and computer music. Additionally, their similarities to and differences from acoustic instruments both influence and reflect society and the changing world. Always highly diverse in nature, in terms of both the instruments themselves and the music made, the field of electronic instruments further changed dramatically beginning in the 1980s and continuing today with the rapid evolution of smaller, much faster computers with greatly increased memory and retrieval times. This allows real-time sound generation facilitating the development of many different forms of controllers and the utilization of robots and hand-held and wearable wireless mobile devices. This merging of electronic musical instruments and computers has muddied or eliminated any prior lines between computers, computer music, composition, recording technology, and electronic instruments. The range of resources is similarly diverse with material found in the popular, scientific, engineering, and academic arenas. Given the recent rapid pace of developments and the increasing use of often evanescent websites for documentation, finding quality up-to-date sources can be challenging. Still, for the study of the history of vintage instruments and technologies, some older resources can be superior to newer sources and popular publications sometimes superior to scholarly ones. This article guides the reader through the available literature on subject areas related to electronic musical instruments.

General Overviews

These sources provide a general overview, definitions and a survey of the development and evolution of electronic instruments, each with a distinctive approach and focus. Holmes 2012 and Manning 2013 provide the most general overviews suitable for introductory courses as well as general study or reference. Holmes 2012 additionally includes unique and important coverage of international aspects and women’s contributions. Davies and Quanten 2014 contains the most up-to-date formal definitions and categorization systems, important for musicologists and other researchers, as well as for a detailed understanding of how the instruments evolved and components interrelate. Davies 2014, an extensive, updated, well-researched version of the same article from the 1st edition, is comprehensive and detailed, making it an essential resource for general information, history, and social, commercial, and economic aspects as well as for further references. Chadabe 1997 uniquely provides an overview that includes interviews with practicing developers and musicians from the important period of the middle to the end of the 20th century. Collins 2010 is a fast-moving, high-level practical textbook for developers and designers for today’s computer-based electronic instruments, but it also includes an excellent overview, history, and superb references. Collins, et al. 2013 is unique in its coverage of dynamic electronic performance, sound art, and multimedia using a distinctive social query approach to presenting the general overview and history. It serves as an important supplement to the other references cited here. Dean 2009 provides yet another approach to history and overview, including excellent coverage of electroacoustic development as well as unique coverage of sensor-based instruments and laptops as performing instruments.

  • Chadabe, Joel. Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997.

    Unique overview especially of the period from the middle to the late 20th century using many interviews with developers and performers to present the history of electronic musical instruments. Useful at every level.

  • Collins, Nick. Introduction to Computer Music. Chichester, UK: John Wiley, 2010.

    Up-to-date work, characterized by extreme breadth; introductory but fast moving. Despite the title, very much about the resulting electronic instruments. Useful for students or professionals, not recommended for novices; features algorithms and use of pseudo-code to keep programming examples from being language specific. Superb references for deeper study.

  • Collins, Nick, Margaret Schedel, and Scott Wilson. Electronic Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511820540

    Excellent if selective summary of the history and development of both popular and academic arenas. Well-written, introductory-level volume suited to non-specialists requiring no mathematical, scientific, or technical knowledge yet discusses topics and questions rarely found elsewhere, so useful at every level. Addresses live electronic music, sound art, and multimedia; great photos and diagrams.

  • Davies, Hugh. “Electronic Instruments.” In The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. 2d ed. Vol. 2. Edited by Laurence Libin, 151–193. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    Comprehensive, up-to-date overview yet with copious details regarding terminology, methods, history, and development by region, types of instruments, and social and commercial aspects. Large and varied bibliography for deeper study. Important reference for context and for pointers to deeper, more focused research.

  • Davies, Hugh, and Maarten Quanten. “Electrophone.” In The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. 2d ed. Vol. 2. Edited by Laurence Libin, 197–200. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    This article clarifies the formal definition and distinctions of electrophones and their subcategories as well as their historical and practical evolution. It also provides an excellent summary of the instrument category though at a level most useful for graduate students and other scholarly researchers.

  • Dean, Roger T., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    A collection of essays by experts in electronic and computer music-making that surveys the history and development of the field to the present time. Includes a broad introduction to the electroacoustic field and its history. Unique coverage of sensor-based musical instruments and laptop computer music performance. Academic approach, useful for college courses or independent study.

  • Holmes, Thom. Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture. London: Routledge, 2012.

    Comprehensive history of electronic music and analog and digital synthesis techniques. This edition includes unique coverage of electronic music development worldwide, its use in jazz and folk rock, and of important women in the field. Designed for classroom use. Companion website includes listening guides, audio, and video links.

  • Manning, Peter. Electronic and Computer Music. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199746392.001.0001

    Comprehensive coverage of the evolution of electronic and computer music in both commercial and experimental research realms. Addresses use of digital audio workstations, laptops, the Internet, new controllers, and interfaces. Well written, accessible; useful for introductory levels.

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