Music 773/223: Electronic Music Literature
Syllabus - Fall 2006

1. Dates: Classes will meet from 4:30 PM to 7:20 PM on Thursdays on the following dates:

The final exam is tentatively scheduled for Thursday December 21.

2. Topics covered in classes: the class will cover, but will not be limited to, the following topics:

It is advised that you take advantage of any opportunities to listen to and study any electronic music that you find is being played this semester.

3. Assignments: Students will have to write a paper analyzing a piece of electronic music using the procedure described on a separate sheet (Method of Analyzing Electronic Music by Listening). The paper will need to include a complete time chart of events in the piece, descriptions of important events in the music, a summary of the form, and conclusions based on generalizations you can derive from the piece. The paper is due before the last class (December 7).

4. Major ideas and issues: Electronic music, by its nature, raises vital questions about the nature of music. These include some of the following:

(1) The role of the performer. Can people accept music when there is no live performer, or even live performance, involved? How different is this from listening to recordings?

(2) The nature of the sounds. Electronic music has always been motivated by composers’ desire to expand the sound vocabulary available for use in music, including sounds that might be thought to be ugly, non-musical, or descriptive of events happening in the natural world. How do we describe the sounds in a piece of electronic music? Can we accept them as musical?

Even when we can recognize the sounds as including various noises or natural sounds, we also need to accept the fact that the composer is inviting us to listen to them as music.

(3) Understanding music for which no score exists. For most electronic music, except when electronic sounds are combined with performed instruments, there is no score. Even when there is a score for a performer, there is often no detailed notation of the electronic sounds. Furthermore, in many cases, it would be impossible for the composer to produce a score even if he wanted to. One reason for this is that, when there is no performer, there is no need for a score. Another reason is that the type of score that could be produced would include indications of what the composer did to produce the composition, but this would not be a description of the music.

When you analyze traditional music, you can always verify your listening experience by following the score. When listening to electronic music, you can only verify your listening by doing it again. This poses a unique problem for electronic that does not exist for other forms of music.

(4) For most electronic music, no score would be possible. Almost all music written for performers, and virtually all art music until the twentieth century, consisted of combinations of discrete pitches that were combined to form harmonies and melodies. Much electronic music uses more complex sounds which cannot be indicated by a “note”, or it uses sounds that don’t have adequate expressions in musical notation. Some composers have attempted to develop a new notation to indicate these elements, and they have also attempted to develop notation for other aspects such as indeterminate elements, randomness, or items that can be selected by the performer. Sometimes the sounds are perfectly understandable from other perspectives, such as speech or natural sounds, but often they are not.

To compound this problem, very little effort has been made (beyond the proponents of spectro-morphology) to develop a terminology for electronic sounds. This means that each listener has to develop his or her own ways of describing the music.

(5) Electronic music is not a “style” or “idiom”, but a means of producing music. All types of music has been produced by electronic means, ranging from early music to modern popular music to art music. There are many composers who have written both electronic music and instrumental music, and some composers who have written only electronic music.

(6) Listening for instrumentation. When listening to much instrumental music, some of the listening experience involves identifying the instrument or voice playing a particular note in the score. By analogy, in electronic music, you may spend some time trying to identify the sound, which may be comparable to an instrument but may also be something like a car or duck. However, there are many sounds which will leave you completely baffled. They will remind you of nothing. The meaning or interpretation of these sounds has to be acquired through describing their acoustic properties, such as frequencies, amplitudes, envelopes (attack and decay characteristics), or other aspects.

(7) Is it music? There is no question that listening to electronic music forces one to reevaluate the nature of what music is and whether or not the individual can accept it. Composers have been posing this dilemma for listeners throughout the ages, but electronic music may challenge listeners more than any other medium.