EMS Proceedings and Other Publications

Teaching Electroacoustic Music: Issues of History, Context, Pedagogy, and Student Expectation

Mark Ballora

Assistant Professor of Music Technology
Penn State School of Music/Department of Integrative Arts


I teach the Penn State course INART 50 History of Electroacoustic Music, which combines acoustics, electronics, and music in a survey of the interactions among audio technology, computer technology, culture, and music composition from the invention of the phonograph to the present day.

The course is offered through the Department of Integrative Arts, a program in which students are able to tailor an individualized curriculum in the arts, often blurring the boundaries of traditional disciplines. As is the case at many schools, Penn State students must satisfy a certain number of credits in General Education, which is then subdivided into categories, with a requisite number of credits in each. INART 55 satisfies 3 out of 9 required credits in the Arts category. Thus, the course is available to students throughout the university.

Integrative Arts is a fitting designation for this course, as electroacoustic music, with its interdisciplinary nature and its blending of the technical and the aesthetic, is probably one of the most integrated art forms there is.

I propose using this course as a basis for consideration of a variety of issues concerning the presentation of electroacoustic music to a general undergraduate student population.

Topics will include:

Use of a Web-based history text developed for the course, and the use of Web resources.
The text can be found at:
It is comprehensive, but I would be eager to take suggestions about how it may be broadened or modified so that it becomes a general resource that is useful to others in the field.

Importance of fields ancillary to music that have played significant roles in the development of electroacoustic music — the developments in related technologies of commmunications, computer science, electrical engineering, etc. Students are exposed to a myriad of topics, from art and music history to electronics to briadcasting principles.

Appreciating the broad range of influences that have contributed to the evolution of this music is essential to appreciating the music itself.

Expectations of students about what "electroacoustic" means, how the term has come to imply dance music involving sampling, with a conscious set of cultural references cited musically by DJ artists. While this is certainly one strain of electroacoustic music, it is not its entire gamut. Yet electroacoustic music is an indelible component of popular music (in contrast to Milton Babbitt’s famous assessment of its function). Emphasizing the links between popular culture and electronically generated sound is essential for broadening the appeal of this music beyond an elite and arcane group of researchers.

Discussion of a multi-step approach to analysis (borrowed from Lawrence Ferrara’s Eclectic Analysis described in Lawrence Ferrara, Philosophy and the Analysis of Music. Excelsior Music Publishing, 1991). Discrete steps allow students to take in works that are often foreign and initially dissonant to them in a systematic fashion that enables them to come to an understanding of the piece (not their feelings about listening to it).