Musique concrète is music composed by manipulating recorded sounds – specifically "concrete," real-world sounds (noises, nature sounds, etc.) rather than sounds that are generated electronically.
The term was coined by Pierre Schaeffer (1910–1995) in 1948 to describe his new approach to composition based on tape recordings of natural and industrial sounds.
Schaeffer was a radio engineer and broadcaster. Having gained a qualification from L'École Polytechnique in Paris, he joined Radiodiffusion Française (RF), initially as an apprentice. By 1942 he was leading research into the science of musical acoustics, using all the technological resources that RTF had to offer – turntables, and special disk-cutting recorders.
Schaeffer was interested in the way sounds behaved when recorded and manipulated. He would speed up and slow down recordings, reverse some sections of audio repeat others. He discovered that sounds took on a different character when the initial attack of the sound was edited out. These early experiments led to the first piece of musique concrète in 1948. Étude aux chemis de fer ('Study with trains'). This work, based on the recorded sounds of train engines, wheels, and whistles was broadcast on RF, introduced by Schaeffer as a concert de bruits ('concert of noises').
Works in a similar vein followed – Étude au piano (based on the sounds of a piano), Étude aux casseroles (rattling pots and pans), Étude pour piano et orchestre in which of an orchestra turning up was juxtaposed with an unrelated improvised piano part.
Upon his return to France from a lecture tour, Schaeffer recruited a team of assistants, including Pierre Henry (1927–2017) – a young composer who had studied with Mesiaen. Schaeffer and Henry soon became musical collaborators and produced a number of concrète works, including Suite pour quatorze instruments (Suite for fourteen instruments) and Symphonie pour un homme seul (Symphony for a lone man). This latter piece made use of human sounds such as breathing and vocal noises, as well as the sounds of percussion instruments, doors slamming, piano and orchestral textures.
In the 1950s, Schaeffer established the 'Group de Researche du Musique Concrète', a studio equipped with the very latest invention – magnetic tape recorders. The new medium enabled Schaeffer, and the other concrète composers, to develop new techniques for the manipulation of sound – cutting, splicing, and looping.
Other composers began combining the ideals of pure concrète works with other forms of electronic music. In 1958, Varèse used the found sounds of concrète with synthesized electronic sounds to create his Poème èlectronique, debuted at the Belgian World's Fair through a system of some 400 loudspeakers.
Musique concrète eventually fell out of favor, giving way to the school of Musik Electronische, arising from Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928–2007) and his contemporaries of the Studio für Electronische Musik in Cologne. But his genre had made its mark and remained an abiding influence on the electro-acoustic music of the latter part of the 20th century. The use of sound recorded from non-musical sources carried through into much rock and pop work, with many examples to be heard in the music of bands such as The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Indeed, many of the techniques of sound manipulation established by Schaeffer lie at the heart of sampling technology today.