The Music of Machines: The Synthesizer, Sound Waves, and Finding the Future

Essential Question

How did synthesizers allow musicians to create new sounds and how did those sounds reflect American culture throughout the 20th century?


The earliest attempts to combine electricity and musical instruments date to the mid-18th century. In both Europe and the United States, several pioneering inventors created “hybrid” electronic instruments in which electricity was used to modify the sound created by an acoustic instrument. Many hybrid instruments, such as electric string instruments like the guitar and bass, remain in use today.

The first “pure” electronic instruments, those in which sound is generated only with the use of electricity, were invented in the late 19th century. Among the first of these instruments was Thaddeus Cahill’s “Telharmonium,” a massive set of keyboard-controlled tone generators that weighed several tons. Though the Telharmonium, which could be moved only by train car, never became a common instrument, Cahill’s tone generator technology was a blueprint for many instruments to come. The much smaller “Theremin,” patented in 1928 by an inventor of the same name, is often considered the first “pure” electronic instrument to gain some notoriety. The eerie whine created by the Theremin found a home as a sound effect in early film music, but, like many early pure electronic instruments, the Theremin was largely considered a novelty.

Whether because of their design, size, or the amount of scientific knowledge required to use them, throughout the first half of the 20th century, pure electronic instruments were used primarily in the realm of the experimental. By the 1960s, however, engineer Robert Moog compressed the basic functionality of his previously massive “synthesizer” into a portable, suitcase-sized unit controlled by a piano-style keyboard. The guitar had “gone electric” years earlier and piano players responded to that development by putting microphones at their instruments. Now they too could just turn up the volume.  

More than offering just an increase in volume however, the Moog and other early synthesizers gave a single performer access to a sonic spectrum that ranged from notes below those on an electric bass to tones that soared in a register above the upper frets of an electric guitar. The instrument’s tone generators create “pure” sound waves and with the twist of a knob the performer routes those waves through filters that alter them, creating sounds that were, at the time of the Moog’s introduction, entirely new. As producer Bob Margouleff says in episode four of Soundbreaking, “The synthesizer is every instrument, it depends on how you want to use it.”

The Moog was successful partly because it introduced a consumer synthesizer. The new sounds the instrument could create, and the fully electronic way in which they were created, struck many as “futuristic,” giving the Moog and other early synthesizers a place among technologies that were part of an emerging American vision of the computerized future.

This lesson introduces students to the Telharmonium, the Theremin, the Moog and the component on which all of their sound syntheses are formed: the sound wave. Students learn what a sound wave is, how it travels and how our bodies convert it into intelligible sound. Using the Soundbreaking Sound Wave TechTool, students learn to recognize four basic waveform shapes by sound and sight. This lesson also explores the role the synthesizer played in relation to people’s perceptions of technology and culture in the 1970s, 80s and beyond.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • What a sound wave is
    • How sound travels
    • The difference between “hybrid” and “pure” electronic instruments
    • About Robert Moog and his advancements in analog synthesis technology
    • About cultural conceptions of technology in the 1980s and 1990s
    • How music can reflect broader cultural issues 
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Analyze statements from historical materials to arrive at a better understanding of the past
    • Understand connections between popular culture and the time, place and social circumstances in which it was created
    • Evaluate the effects of technology on history and culture
    • Make connections between popular music and historical events
    • Integrate and evaluate information presented visually, quantitatively, and orally in diverse media and formats