Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Where is the “Sin” in “Synthesizer?: Robert Moog and “Synthetic” Sound

Robert Moog
Robert Moog (1934-2005)

We mark the death on August 21, 2005 – 18 years ago today – of the American engineer and electronic music pioneer Robert Moog.  Born in New York City on May 23, 1934, he died of a brain tumor in Asheville, North Carolina, at the age of 71.

First things first: let us pronounce this fine man’s surname properly.  It is not pronounced as “moo-g.”  “Moo-g” is a sound made by a cow after she painfully stubs her hoof.  Despite its double-o, the name is pronounced “mogue,” as in “vogue.”

Moog didn’t invent the sound synthesizer.  Rather, he (and his inventing “partners,” the composer Herbert Arnold “Herb” Deutsch, 1932-2022 and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Wendy Carlos, born 1939) democratized the thing, making it affordable, portable, and playable enough to be bought and used by anyone who could get around a piano-like keyboard.

Our Game Plan

Today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes posts are conceived as a single post, one that I’ve divided in half and will post on two successive days.  As my Patreon subscribers know, I’ve done this before; it’s no big deal and I will certainly do it again.  However, for those of you who are listening solely to the podcast of Music History Monday and have not subscribed to my Patreon page (at, tomorrow’s second half of this fascinating story will remain unheard (or unread, as the case may be). To my mind, this is a sorry state of affairs, like eating half a potato chip or watching just the first half of Gone with the Wind. 

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Music and Electricity

Now bear with me, as I will do my darndest to briefly explain the development of electronically produced and manipulated sound as it evolved in the twentieth century without confusing either you or myself.

The Grid
The Grid

A momentary but heartfelt bit of praise for the grid: how do we love thee?  Can we even hope to count the ways?  Personally, I cannot count them.  When our power goes out here in Oakland, CA – infrequent an event though it may be – life as I know and understand it comes to a screeching halt, so completely dependent am I on devices that employ the controlled movement of electrons between atoms.

My dependence is a recent phenomenon.  Mass electrification in Europe and North American did not begin until the early twentieth century, first in major cities and in areas served by electric railways.  By 1930, roughly 70% of all households in the United States had electricity.  That might sound like a high number, but huge swatches of American territory and population were without electric power (and, for that matter, often without plumbing, sanitary sewage and storm drainage, and telephone service); in 1934, fewer than 11% of all farms in the United States had electrical power.  

A poster dating from the 1930s, promoting the ‘Rural Electrification Administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture
A poster dating from the 1930s, promoting the ‘Rural Electrification Administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture

It wasn’t until 1935, with the creation of the Rural Utilities Service by executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt, that this issue was systematically addressed.  By 1942, nearly 50% of all farms in the United States had electricity, and by 1952 almost all farms in the United States – finally! – had electricity.

1952.  For some of us, 71 years might seem like a long time ago but, in fact, it was, by any historic measure, yesterday

And so the development of electronic musical instruments during the twentieth century, something that went hand-in-hand with electrification was, likewise, a very recent event. 

Strictly defined, an “electronic musical instrument” (or an “electrophone”):

“is a musical instrument that produces sound using electronic circuitry. Such an instrument sounds by outputting an electrical, electronic, or digital audio signal that ultimately is plugged into a power amplifier which then drives a loudspeaker, creating the sound heard by the performer and listener.”


Because I know you come to Music History Monday (meaning me) for the whole story, I am compelled to point out that the first electrified musical instruments date to the eighteenth century.

The first so-called “electronic musical instrument” was very likely a specialized harpsichord-like device designed and built by a Czech cleric, natural scientist, and musician named Václav Divíšek (1698-1765).  Sometime around 1748, Divíšek built a large keyboard instrument (which is long since lost) that sent an electrical charge through its iron strings in order to enhance and vary the quality of its sound. Václav Divíšek called his electro-toy a “Denis d’or” (meaning “Golden Dionysus”).  

Other such experimental, metal-stringed instruments came and went, including something called a “clavecin électrique” built by a French Jesuit priest named Jean-Baptiste de Laborde in 1761.…

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