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

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