Skip to content

The history of synthesizers

Already 150 years ago some people had started to experiment with electronically produced music and in 1928 Léon Theremin made the theremin. But it was not until the 1950s it began more seriously. For example there was a studio built in Köln/Cologne, Germany, only for this purpose. The first synthesizer was built at RCA, USA in 1955. The synthesizers made in this early time were however very expensive and also very hard to handle. In the 1960s the first really useful synthesizers were made, for example by Bob Moog and Don Buchla. Bob Moog is the most legendary of the synthesizer producers with synthesizers like the Minimoog which has been much used by many musicians. In the 1970s the production of synthesizers started in a larger scale. The first synthesizers were analogue, but in the early 1980s they made digital synthesizers, which can be connected to each other with MIDI, which in turn now is present also in personal computers. Sometimes the different techniques are combined.

The history of synthpop

In the mid 1960s some already famous musicians started to use synthesizers, for example The Beach Boys and The Beatles, but it still didn’t change their music very much.

In 1968 the first synthesizer only record was released. “Switched On Bach” by Wendy Carlos. It was music of Bach played on a Moog synthesizer.

In Germany the experimental band Organisation was formed in 1968. They changed their name to Kraftwerk in 1970. At this time they played a disharmonious, but innovative, music called krautrock. They released three albums in Germany in the first years of the 1970s. Their music was getting more rhythmical and easier to understand. In 1974 they released their international debut “Autobahn” which was kind of a breakthrough. It’s a twenty two minutes long car drive accompanied by synthesizers and sound effects. They continued to make this kind of music and they have released seven albums since then. They were style-forming for the synthpop.

In 1968 Jean-Michel Jarre from France also began to work with electronic music. For example he combined opera with synthesizers and this attracted some attention in 1972. His first real album “Oxygene” was released in 1976 and it became a success. He plays instrumental electronic music inspired by both classical music and experimental music. On most of his albums he has one tune that is a little more like usual synthpop. In 1981 he was the first western pop musician to have live performances in China. In 1984 he recorded the album “Zoolook”. On this album there were samples from about thirty different languages from all over the world. In 1986 he had planned to make the first recording of music played in space. The astronaut and saxophonist Ron McNair was going to play with him from the spaceship Challenger. However there was an accident. Challenger exploded right after the lift off and that recording couldn’t be done. Jarre has had very spectacular live performances with about one million people in the audience in France, USA and Russia.

Some other musicians that used synthesizers a lot quite early were Hans Edler, Brian Eno, Bruce Haack, Hot Butter, Ralph Lundsten, Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream and Vangelis.

In the end of the 1970s there appeared many artists, especially in England, who used synthesizer as their main instrument. For example Ultravox, The Human League, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Gary Numan, Japan and Simple Minds. Some of those were very inspired by Kraftwerk.

In the beginning of the 1980s Depeche Mode was formed. They played a happy and naive sort of synthpop, like their hit single “Just Can’t Get Enough” in 1981, until Vince Clarke left the band to form Yazoo and later Erasure. Depeche Mode’s music then gradually became more melancholic and dark.

Other English bands that started to release records around 1981 were Duran Duran, Eurythmics, Tears For Fears and Thompson Twins. These bands played some sort of synthpop, but they also used other instruments. From Canada came Rational Youth and from Sweden came Adolphson & Falk.

Around 1984 there came synthpop artists like Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw and the German band Alphaville. Other examples of synthpop bands from the 1980s are A-ha, Bronski Beat, Men Without Hats, New Order, Soft Cell, Visage and Yello.

Around 1984 there also came a new type of pop music called eurodisco with many Italian artists like Scotch and Ken Laszlo and German like Modern Talking and Fancy. Eurodisco is also based upon synthesizers and it can sometimes be hard to distinguish from synthpop.

The music of Pet Shop Boys was first inspired by eurodisco. In 1986 the status of synthpop was weakened and since then only music that is very much based upon synthesizers is called synthpop.

The synthesizer continued to be a very important instrument within the pop music. Eurodisco came to England and the producer team Stock/Aitken/Waterman. They produced records for very many artists, like Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley, Bananarama and Dead Or Alive.

Around 1987 the house music came to England. It originally came from Chicago (for example Frankie Knuckles) where it had started a few years earlier. House is synthesizer based, often monotone, dance music with sound effects.

Around 1991 the techno music came to Belgium and the Netherlands. It originally came from Detroit where it been played since the mid 1980s (for example Derrick May). Techno is also synthesizer based dance music, but often heavier and darker than house music. From Germany came U96.

Around 1992 the eurodisco came back from Germany. It had changed a bit in style though and was now called eurodance. The music was based upon synthesizer melodies, rap and simple choruses. Eurodance was often called “dance” only.

Page, S.P.O.C.K, Sista Mannen På Jorden and This Fish Needs A Bike are four great Swedish synthpop bands from Skåne/Scania.

Elegant Machinery, Bodies Without Organs, Daybehavior and Daily Planet are a few more examples of Swedish synthpop bands.


Classic albums