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.

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