Development of Pierre Schaeffer's Musique Concrete Term Paper

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Pierre Schaeffer succeeded far beyond his expectations in that he not only was able to conceal the object sources of his musical compositions from the listener but simultaneously for a time, concealed the very primitive base of his musical compositions from other composers who in that period post-war 1948 adjudged Schaeffer not to be among true composers. The primitive roots of Schaeffer's music is shielded from view because of the technological electronic methods used in producing these sounds from common and concrete everyday objects. Pierre Schaeffer was one of the first modern musicians that connected music to common-place objects in the world surrounding him, or at least in modern times and the paradox is his timing, at the onset of electronically-based music. Schaeffer focused toward the source of music and turned the ordinary into extraordinary in composing and producing music with these common concrete items electronically. As art and beauty are often said to be 'in the eye of the beholder' music be it good music or bad is 'in the ear of the hearer' and in the 'realm of the perception' of those who hear the many forms of composition which are known to be music.


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The methodology of this study is one of a qualitative nature in which an extensive review of relevant and peer-reviewed academic literature will be reviewed. This review of literature will not be limited only to literature of musical content and critique but also of scientific and philosophical content and information regarding factors that affect the perception of music and the composition of music.


The importance of this study is in the knowledge that will be added to previous studies of Pierre Schaeffer and 'musique concrete'.. Further, this study will serve to clarify some of the confusion surrounding the debate of 'musique concrete'.


TOPIC: Term Paper on Development of Pierre Schaeffer's Musique Concrete Assignment

Pierre Schaeffer composed 'Etude aux Chemis de Fer' (Railroad Study) in 1948. This composition was an assemblage of steam engines, whistles and other various railroad sounds. The term 'musique concrete' was coined by Schaeffer to describe music that was made "concretely" through working directly with sounds as compared to music that was made in an abstract manner through using symbols for sounds such as in a musical score. Schaeffer organized the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrete in 1951 which was a group that focused on the use of tape recorder in making music. This composition was entirely created through use of audio technology and existed entirely in a recording and required no musicians. Moreover, this composition was created completely from sounds that had been recorded and that were not traditional music sounds. Schaeffer's work was confirmation of what Russolo had posited that any sound could be considered as music and Schaeffer further confirmed the thought that objects that were not in their original contexts could be reframed as art and it was this that led Schaeffer to coin the term 'musique concrete'. Schaeffer stated in his writing that: "This determination to compose with materials taken from an existing collection of experimental sounds, I name musique concrete to make well the place in which we find ourselves, no longer dependent upon preconceived sound abstractions, but now using fragments of sound existing concretely and considered as sound objects defined and whole."

Schaeffer's Education & Training

Peter Schaeffer (1910-1995) graduated at the Paris Ecole Polytechnique and started work at Radiodiffusion Francaise (RF) in his job as a broadcaster and engineer. During 1942, in the middle of the Nazi occupation Schaeffer was appointed project director of research in the area of science of musical acoustics. Toward this end, Schaeffer used the turntables at the radio station as well as the disc recorders, disc cutting lathe, mixers as well as a library of sound effects. Schaeffer devoted a great deal of time to the study of the use of this type of equipment through experimentation in music and radio theatre. In 1948, Schaeffer had developed the technique of lock-grooving records, which is a method of instead of the disc being comprised of a spiral type groove toward the disc's center, there was instead a series of circular grooves that were enabled to continuously loop.

Commonplace Objects and Their Sounds in Musique Concrete

Schaeffer became engrossed in the study of the nature of commonplace natural sounds and made recordings of the different striking of percussion instruments as well as in editing bell recordings. Schaeffer's discovery was that added to timbre, specific sounds could be given a classification based on their volume changes over time described as an 'envelope' and most specifically due to the rise in initial volume, or what is termed in music as the 'attack' and the overall volume and how it is shaped up next following the attack, known in music as the 'sustain' and the decay of sustain.

Schaeffer's Creation of a Series of Etudes

Schaeffer created a series of etudes, which were all composed through recording sounds onto a disc using a lathe. Schaeffer would play back several discs at the same time through a mixer while composing each piece. Speeds of the turntables would be varied which affected the pitch, attack, and decay. The Etudes were named as follows:

Etude aux Tourniquets - Created from sounds of toy tops and percussion instruments;

Etude Violette - Created from recordings of sounds from the piano;

Etude Noire - created from piano sounds; and Etude Pathetique - Created from the sounds of saucepans, canal boats, a harmonica, a piano, and vocals.

Schaeffer broadcast these etudes in his program 'Concert de Bruits' translated to 'Concert of Noises' in 1948 with a divided listener response which garnered these compositions much in the way of attention even while they were controversial. At this time, two assistants were appointed to Schaeffer, namely, Pierre Henry, who had studied with Messiaen and was the first musician who was trained formally and who made the decision to dedicate his career to electronic music. Secondly appointed to Schaeffer was Jacques Poullin, an engineer who assisted Schaeffer and Henry in realization of many of their ideas. The work of Schaeffer, took on a philosophical bent as he attempted to provide definition to the 'object sonore' or translated: 'sound object' in his attempts to derive a basic sound from that objects natural environment and time frame. By 1950, Schaeffer and Henry had produced a concert live of 'musique concrete' featuring 'Symphonie pour un Homme Seul', which required several turntables and mixer, which was the first live performance to feature these without a mistake. Schaeffer added a tape recorder to his studio in 1951.

Special Machines Created by Schaeffer and Poullin

Several special machines were created by Schaeffer and Poullin including the 'Phonogene', which had a speed that was variable and enabled variations in pitch. One of the Phonogene's had a keyboard that was used in the production of tape speeds corresponding to notes on a musical scale. The 'Morphophone' had twelve playback heads which enabled delay and reverberations and through splicing a passage could be played reversed through a simple splicing of a segment out and taping it back in to the composition upside down. Furthermore, Schaeffer and Poullin designed a 'tape loop' created through connection of splices to one another then going through the guide system for the tape. This studio further had a sound system that could play five stereo tracks over five loudspeakers allowing performances to feature effect specialized by two front speakers, one speaker in the rear and one speaker overhead with the fifth track divided among four speakers with a handhold coil, similar to the joystick. Tape echo effects were created though a patch on the output of one track to the input of another track, which created a delayed version of the first track on the second one. Other pieces created in this studio include:

Etude I sur un Son (1952, Pierre Boulez);

Etude II sur Sept Sons (1052, Pierre Boulez);

Timbres-Durees (1952, Olivier Messiaen);

Etude (1952, Karlheinz Stockhausen); Orphee, a concrete operation (1951, Pierre Henry); and La Riviere Endormie (Etude Poetique) (1954, Darius Milhaud). (Penn State University, nd)

The following illustration shows Schaeffer's conception of the classes of pitch structure, grain elements, and vibrato.

Classes of Pitch Structure - Grain Elements -

Source: Penn State University (nd)


The work of Alan Nisbett entitled: "The Sound Studio: Audio Techniques for Radio, Television, Film and Recording" states that according to the originators of 'musique concrete' this type of music was built up in "three distinct phases: (1) selection; (2) treatment; and (3) montage."(Nisbitt, 2003) Nisbett states that "The first characteristic of musique concrete lies in its raw material: a sample sound which, by the choice of beginning and end, becomes complete in itself. In some of the earliest compositions, emotional associations of the original sound were incorporated into the music. There was a later reaction away from this, on the grounds that the lack of an immediate mental association could lend power to… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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