December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

How has music evolved so dramatically? We tread the tricky path from tape to techno...
Modern music – even Darwin didn’t see that coming.

Darwin was prepared to accept musical expression as a feature of natural selection. Indeed, remains dating back at least 40,000 years provide evidence of a diverse range of music forms among early Homo sapiens. But despite the rustic charm that playing drums on upturned logs continues to provide at Glastonbury, music has (thankfully) evolved along with us. Rather than a gradual progression, however, changing technical possibility and musical acceptability have caused music to progress in rather more noticeable leaps. Today, we are all able to produce and record sounds on our laptops, in the comfort of our own homes.

Daft Punk - masked electro-bandits
Daft Punk – masked electro-bandits

A study published in the Royal Society Open Journal last year, ‘The evolution of popular music in the USA: 1960-2010’, aimed to quantify the evolution of music. The authors noted that while much has been written about the origin and evolution of pop music, most claims were “anecdotal rather than scientific in nature”. These researchers analysed the musical properties of over 17,000 hit records to demonstrate quantitative trends in their harmonic and timbral properties. The properties were then used to classify musical styles and study the evolution of musical diversity.

After extensive investigation, they found that music progressed rapidly around three stylistic revolutions: 1964, 1983 and 1991. How and why did these uprisings occur? We take a look at a timeline that transports us from the cutting room floor to a digital reworking of an opera based on Darwin’s theory of evolution.


Nearly all radio programmes were broadcast live; recording was extremely cumbersome and expensive. Tape hadn’t yet been invented, and cheap computers were still half a century away.

Futurists were the first to appreciate the value of ‘noise’; placing artistic and expressive value on sounds which were not even remotely musical. In the 20s and 30s, early electronic instruments such as the etherphone were developed around this idea.

Sound recording made a leap forwards in 1927, when American inventor J. A. O’Neill developed a recording device that used magnetically coated ribbon. The method of photo-optic sound recording made it possible to obtain a visible image of a sound wave, as well as to synthesise a sound from an artificially drawn wave.

AEG developed the first practical audio tape recorder, the ‘Magnetophon’. It was unveiled at the Berlin Radio Show in 1935, and Bing Crosby became one of the first performers to record radio broadcasts and studio master recordings on tape.

“What’s that??” you cry. “TAPE. To record early music you fools.”


Daphne Oram working on painted sound waves
Daphne Oram – working on those painted sound waves…

The advent of cheap, reliable, high fidelity magnetic tape created huge potential for advancements in music. Most importantly, it was easy to manipulate. Before magnetic tape, individual sounds were recorded onto discs or spools of steel wire, making it impossible to edit them together in advance. Now, it could be slowed down, sped up, reversed, chopped and changed while remaining seamless and even looped to play repeat patterns of pre-recorded material.

machine with cables
Oramics. No, it doesn’t make sense to me either.

This era also saw the development of amplification and mixing, allowing the combination of pre-recorded pieces with little loss of fidelity. Daphne Oram realised that tape could be used to compose a new genre of music. The ‘noise’ that the futurists spoke of; the music of everyday sound. In 1958, she became the first Studio Manager of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, before setting up her own studio and developing the ‘Oramics machine’. This machine pulled eight parallel tracks of 35mm film over photoelectric cells, which converted black curved lines drawn by Oram into sound. This was considered so revolutionary that in 2011 the Science Museum in London curated an exhibition based on her work.

Delia Derbyshire, another pioneer of electronic music, realised that while the musical products of her generation weren’t yet the best that the medium had to offer, they would form the bedrock of what was to come. This was what the future would sound like.

1960s – Expansion (1964- The first musical revolution)

A MOOG synthesiser

The industry soon tired of ‘cutting and sticking’ tape. Experiments with computers and synthesisers lead to another leap in recording which saw electronica transition from the avant-garde to popular music.

Pink Floyd albums
Dark side of the vinyl – Pink Floyd

The availability of the Moog Modular Synthesizer produced in 1964 was key to this shift. The Beatles bought one, as did Mick Jagger, and the number of musicians working with new sounds and instruments grew. David Bowie and Pink Floyd famously experimented with futuristic sounds in the space rock of the 1960s and 1970s.

The ‘Theremin’ and ‘Mellotron’ were used to supplement and define the sounds of bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys, and by the end of the 1960s, the Moog synthesizer was entrenched in the sound of emerging progressive rock.

1970s, 1980s: Popularisation

(1983- The second musical revolution)

The New Romantic movement allowed synthesisers to dominate the pop and rock music of the early 80s, with bands like Heaven 17Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet coming to the foreground. Programmable drum machines were also developed, and the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) enabled new instruments to connect and communicate with other instruments and computers.

As synthesisers fell in popular estimations, the popularity of dance and techno music began to grow, prompting the rise of German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. The band took over the Turbine Gallery at the Tate Modern in 2013 to perform their seminal electronic back catalogue; inspired by their experiments with tape and synthesisers.

1990s/2000s/2010s (1991 – The third musical revolution)

light show with people around
‘Tomorrow, in a year’ at The Barbican

Computer technology is now so accessible and advanced that we all have the capacity to become music producers and consumers – whether we all have the creative capacity is open to debate. In 2010, The Knife, a Swedish electro-pop duo collaborated with a Danish theatre company to create an electro-opera at the Barbican Centre: ‘Tomorrow, in a Year’. It was a critically acclaimed look at the formative moments in Darwin’s life and the development of his theory of evolution. Incidentally, in doing so, they also highlighted the evolutionary nature of music. So there you go.

Images: DJ decks, Maxim Blinkof;Daft Punk, Andrea Raffin; Tape, tomertu; Daphne Oram,; Oramics machine, a trip to the science museum; MOOG, Peter Albrektsen; Pink Floyd vinyl, dean bertoncelj; The Knife at The Barbican, the

Sophie-Jo Walsh is studying for an MSc in Science Communication.