Pierre Schaeffer: Influences on modern music

Jean -Michel Jarre (Oxygen) was a student of Schaeffer’s and considers Schaeffer to be “… the one who invented the entire way music is made these days”, and “… it was Schaeffer who experimented with distorting sounds, playing them backwards, speeding them up and slowing them down” (Patrick, 2016).


Patrick, J. (2016) A guide to Pierre Schaeffer, the godfather of sampling. [Online]. Available at: https://www.factmag.com/2016/02/23/pierre-schaeffer-guide/ [Accessed: 18 December 2019]. 

Pierre Schaeffer: Links to other works

Pierre Schaefer – ‘Etude aux chemins de fer’ [Online]. Available at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9pOq8u6-bA time 3.22

Other works performed as part of the first works of music concrete included Ètude aux tourinquets (Whirligig Study) included African xylophone, four bells, three zanzas (mbira) and two whirligigs. [Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v43kfAk37Ik

Pierre Schaeffer: The sonic signature of the practitioner in their genre of electronic music

“The history of sampling can be traced to Pierre Schaeffer, an engineer, writer, composer and acoustician who pioneered musique concrète, a style of music constructed from mixed recorded sounds.”  (Electrobeats, 2017)

When Schaeffer recorded trains unleashing the sounds of their  engines, he was a little disappointed with the results, so in order to embellish the sounds he resorted to the editing studio. Through his experimentation, Schaeffer  discovered he could modify his field recordings  which he had  transferred onto shellac (acetate LP’s) through the  manipulation of turntables.  Etude aux chemins de fer transports the listener to a time and place where machines seem to communicate as a call-and-response dialogue emerges through the piece. 

In creating this work Schaeffer developed his techniques for transforming his field recordings. He “… began devising ways of manipulating the sounds by playing recordings at different speeds with the beginning of the sound” (the attack element) removed from his recorded sounds, not only to make them less recognisable, but  also to remove residual sound that might affect  the sound quality of the recordings  (Taylor, 2001, p.45-47).

Schaeffer seems to favour and utilise a call-and-response element in his crated sonic piece, and this   also seems feature in many of his later works .  

Through manipulation he found he could produce: 

  • Slowing down speed of recordings to half speed
  • Speed changes by selecting the play setting 33, 45 and 33+45=78
  • Repeating recordings as a loop
  • Rearrangement of the tape sections into new fragments using odd angles of spicing 
  • reverse, by movement of the turntable in the opposite direction
  • pitch shift, in early manipulations of sound by speed the pitch would also alter tone

Schaeffer made sound field recordings  of trains at Gare des Batignolles in Paris. These field recordings then had to be recorded onto  shellac  disc (LP).  Many consider Schaeffer as , “…one of the most influential figures in modern music, known for pioneering a radical innovation in 20th century music: Musique Concrète’ (Patrick, 2016).

On 5 October 1948, the first composition in the style of Music Concrète was given as a concert in Paris  where Schaeffer,  premieres his work Research into Noises: Cinq etudes de bruits (Five works for phonograph), which included Étude violette (Study in Purple) and Étude aux chemins de fer (Study with Railroads).  Through these works  by 1949, Schaeffer’s compositions are referred to  as Music Concrète, where the use of sound  is recognised as  a compositional resource.

Schaeffer stated: 

“when I proposed the term ‘musique concrète,’ I intended … to point out an opposition with the way musical work usually goes. Instead of notating musical ideas on paper with the symbols of solfege and entrusting their realization to well-known instruments, the question was to collect concrete sounds, wherever they came from, and to abstract the musical values they were potentially containing” (Reydellet, 1996, p.10).

Schaeffer clearly viewed technology as a way of rejuvenating music in the immediate post war era, and developed his approach after “… many years of studio research”, in his pursuit of abstracting the musical values they were containing  (Taylor, 2001, p.45). 

Schaeffer, was also one of the earliest pioneers in magnetic tape composition   and introduced  “… splicing and looping, and introducing several new inventions: a three-track tape recorder, a 10-head delay and loop machine (the morphophone), a keyboard-controlled device capable of replaying loops at various speeds (the phonogene), and several amplification systems used for spatial experimentation with sound” (Patrick, 2016). 


Electrobeats (2107) Discover Pierre Schaeffer, The Godfather Of Modern Sampling. [Online]. Available at: https://www.electronicbeats.net/the-feed/discover-pierre-schaeffer-godfather-modern-sampling/   [Accessed: 6 December 2019].

Patrick, J. (2016) A guide to Pierre Schaeffer, the godfather of sampling. [Online]. Available at: https://www.factmag.com/2016/02/23/pierre-schaeffer-guide/ [Accessed: 18 December 2019]. 

Reydellet, Jean de (1996). “Pierre Schaeffer, 1910–1995: The Founder of ‘Musique Concrete'”. Computer Music Journal 20, no. 2 (Summer): 10–11. JSTOR 3681324.

Taylor,D.( 2001) Strange Sounds: Music Technology & Culture. New York: Routledge

Technology as composition tools: Early Music Concrete

After the war, radio stations were limited by the available technology of the day. 

  • Shellac record players: were able to change speed ratios which could give the sound a transposed effect ( octave)
  • Mixing desk: this made possible volume  (gain) control  of sound, where several sources could be mixed together, and then sent onto a recorder and on to the speaker system. These early mixers for radio sometimes had filters or reverberation units
  • Shellac recorder:  was able to  record from the mixing desk 
  • Mechanical reverberation: this was usually made from metal plate or metal springs, and was used primarily to fuse the sounds together
  • Filters: usually Hi and low pass filters, which allowed or eliminated selected sound frequencies
  • Microphones: early microphones such as ribbon type 

This available technology allowed for discoveries in sound manipulation techniques such as: 

  • Sound transposition: which allowed for reading sound at a different  speed to that which it was recorded at
  • Sound looping: which involved creating loops at specific locations of a recording, but needed some technical skill to operate this function
  • Sound sample extraction: letting the stylus on the gramophone only reading a small segment of the recording (sampling)
  • Filtering: by eliminating the central frequencies of the sound signal by using the Hi pass or Low pass filters, some element of the original sound recording could be maintained

Pierre Schaeffer: Music Concrète historical context

During the second world war, Pierre Schaeffer joined Studio d’Essai de la Rediffusion Nationale, a resistance French radio station.  During his time at the radio station, Schaeffer developed his sound based knowledge through microphone set up and voice recordings, he was also influenced by cinema, and recording montage.

At the same time as Schaeffer was working on developing his sound practice, Halim El- Dabh  an Egyptian composer  was a student  in Cairo, where he was experimenting with tape music  using a wire recorder to record an ancient zaar ceremony, which he processed at the Middle East Radio studio, where he used: reverberation, echo, voltage controls, and re Recording. The recording was presented at an art gallery event in  1944, but  due to  the ongoing WWII (1 Sep 1939 – 2 Sep 1945)his work was not known outside Egypt,  although in later years  he did gain recognition for his influential work at Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre in the late 1950s.

Pierre Schaeffer: Étude aux chemins de fer, and Music Concrète

Music Concrète, began in the early 1940s in France. The term Music Concrète,  relates to a compositional practice that was initiated by Pierre Schaeffer (pictured in the image below). 

Pierre Schaeffer Image 
 at the phonogène – a multi-speed, keyboard-controlled tape player

Music Concréte  uses recorded sounds, which are often manipulated or modified through the application of audio effects or tape manipulation (for tape splicing – see image below).  

IMAGE controlled attack and delay by tape cutting Judd, 1961, p,58
Controlled Attack and Delay by Tape Cutting (Judd, 1961, p.58)

Whilst most electronic producers / composers today would use these techniques through their Digital Audio Workstation software, those preferring a more hands on approach, can  still utilise the effects of tape manipulation using the above splicing guide if they have access to the equipment. Before magnetic tape became a stable format, Schaeffer used shellac players, as early tape players,  weren’t reliable enough to utilise until 1950. At this time,  speed variation was added to the range of sound manipulations available for early sound art performers.  

Tape editing (micro-editing/ tape splicing) now  became a possibility in the editing process resulting in the manipulation of  sounds  in new ways through rearrangement. This allowed for  extremely small pieces of tape to be edited together in a way that completely changed the structure of the original recordings.

Through this process of manipulation, Schaeffer found he could make his original sound sources  unrecognisable, and so these techniques become an important feature of Electronic Music creation for him and formed a part of his professional practice. Judd (1961, p.15) considers, Electronic Engineering also a part of the creation of “… Electronic Music and Music Concrète”, as it “… makes it possible to manipulate and transform sound and finally control the production of music”, furthermore, Judd (ibid) puts forward the notion that, “… electronic reproduction offers numerous possibilities of practical importance, most of which lie in the electronic circuits of the apparatus”. 

Schaeffer, whilst working at the radio station, saw a more “… expansive aesthetic purpose for these captured snippets of the sound environment, rather than them being mere theatrical props” (Stubbs, 2018, p.80-1), as this access gave him, “… rare access to an array of equipment for storing and assembling the looped sounds he collated, which ranged from snatches of vocal and orchestral work to a welter of everyday objects”,  among which was a “ …direct disc-to disc cutting lathe” (ibid).  

According to Stubbs (ibid),  Schaeffer, imagined an entire orchestra of turntables, each playing a single note. Schaeffer, first used turntables and then tape recorders,  once they became commercially available. When tape machines  appeared, this then opened up possibilities for  Schaeffer and the development of  Music Concrète. Taylor (2001, p.42), regards music concrète  as a “.. kind of ‘found object’ works”, and today we would consider this composition  form as  sound sampling, sound art, or  sound collage. 

Music Concrète uses sounds from musical instruments,  such as: the human voice,  the natural environment, synthesizers and computer generated  digital content. Most noticeably in this style of music composition,  there appears to be no musical rules for melody, harmony rhythm and metre, which seem not the focus of the constructed piece.  And so, this type of composition can be best described as Sound Art.

In 1948, the first composition in the style of music concrete, composed by Pierre Schaeffer was produced from the sounds produced by trains. By utilising sound as the primary source of composition, Schaeffer, utilised new emerging technologies in  post war  Europe.   Working with microphones, magnetic tape recorders  and phonograph Radiodiffusion Television Francaise (his employer), allowed Schaeffer and his colleges (Luc Ferrari, Beatriz Ferreyra, Francois -Bernard Mâche, Iannis Xenarkis, Bernard Parmegiani, and Mirelle Chamass – Kyrou) the opportunity to experiment.

Schaeffer was one of the  first to recognise that the envelope of a sound can  affect the way in which it is heard and perceived by the listener. As a feature of this new sound movement,  Scheaffer wanted to create Laws about the “… nature of the sound object and reduced listening”,  and also to remove residual sound that might affect sound quality of the recording (Taylor, 2001 pp.59-60). Sonnenschein (2001, p.58),  informs that foley and cartoon were developing parallel to Music Concrète at this time in history, and that many instruments can be played with “… extended techniques”. Whereas Judd (1961, p.68-9), considers techniques for electronic music and Music Concrète to be similar, he puts forward the notion that Music Concrète is often confused with electronic music, which he informs started in Germany, where they were concerned with “… the electronic manufacture of sounds built up from basic tones”, whereas, Music Concrète  makes use of real everyday sounds which are “modified by tape manipulation and electronic treatment, where compositions can also include instruments”.  


Ableton (2019)   Pierre Schaeffer at the phonogène – a multi-speed, keyboard-controlled tape player IMAGE  [Online]. Available at: https://www.ableton.com/en/blog/grm-past-present-and-future-experimental-music/?utm_source=2019-12-18-grm-holiday-gift&utm_medium=email&utm_term=l10-std-suite&utm_content=header&utm_campaign=editorial+newsletter&&sc_src=email_6679488&sc_lid=321985784&sc_uid=SelHnkVfEo&sc_llid=27868&sc_eh=136a83ccadf4ce221  [Accessed: 18 December 2019]. 

Judd, F.C. (1961) Electronic Music and Music Concréte. London: Foruli Classics. 

Sonnenschein, D. (2001) Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema.   Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions.

Stubbs, D. (2018) Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music. London: Faber and Faber.

Taylor,D.( 2001) Strange Sounds: Music Technology & Culture. New York: Routledge.