musique concrète


His aim

He wanted to isolate naturally produced or 'found' sounds; then record, transform and play them back in a musical context.


In 1948, he studied the effect of striking percussive instruments different ways. He recorded bell tones to disc, using a volume control between the mike and the cutter to eliminate the attack.

First official composition

Etude aux Chemins de Fer (Railroad Study) was a montage of sounds recorded at a train depot in Paris. The sounds included six steam locomotives whistling, trains speeding up, wagons passing over the joints in the tracks and hissing steam. Here is an extract from Etude aux Chemins de Fer. The full version lasts 2'53"

Significance of this work

Although the composition is considered to be more of an experimental essay rather than a serious composition, it was significant in four ways:

1. An act of musical composition was accomplished by a technological process.
2. The work could be replayed any number of times in exactly the same way.
3. This replaying did not depend on a human performer.
4. The elements were 'concrete' and posed a new challenge for the listener.


Schaeffer played records at different speeds. This affected not only pitch and duration, but also the amplitude envelopes of the sounds.

Putting the sounds together

Etude pour piano et orchestre combined the sounds of an orchestra tuning up with spontaneous improvisatonal piano playing. The effect was of two unrelated ideas and therefore had no coherence.

Etude au piano I and Etude au piano II were based on piano sounds alone. Schaeffer tried to piece the multiple styles of piano such as classical, romantic and atonal together into a cohesive production but failed to do so.

Suite pour quatorze instruments (composed with Pierre Henry) consisted of five movements. In one of the movements there was a simple musical phrase recorded on different instruments. Pitch transposition was used for variations. Schaeffer was not happy with the results since the phrase retained many of its original characteristics, even with all of the treatments.

The performing space

The first public performance of musique concrete took place in 1950 in Paris. Schaeffer used a PA system, several turntables and mixers. Four speakers were used for playback. Two speakers were located in front of the stage on the left and right, one was placed directly in the back (centre) and one hung from the ceiling. The ceiling speaker allowed for experimenting with vertical sound placement as well as the usual horizontal placement.

Sound events (objets sonores)

Schaeffer decided to arrange sounds into categories:

1. Living elements such as voices
2. Noises
3. Prepared instruments
4. Conventional instruments.

Characteristics of sound events were published in his book, A la recherche d'une musique concrète (The Search for a Concrete Music), which went into detail defining sound to the most exact descriptions possible.



pierre schaeffer
Pierre Schaeffer, Inventor of Musique Concrète

    Schaeffer's techniques were partly dictated by the technology available to him at the time. Computers make it possible to try out his ideas without tape recorders and scissors.