Khem Chal White
Student ID 11148084

The development of a turntable based methodology.

The development of a practice based around the manipulation of turntables to create new musical works shall be analysed in context to the composers, theorists and deejays that established this methodology. The transformation of a playback device to a musical instrument and multi media controller has implications on how we define the role of the composer/artist and issues relating live performance.

Whilst many of the characteristics of this contemporary movement described by DJ Babu as Turntablism (Newman, 2003) are directly related to the development of techniques pioneered by the deejays of New York in the late 1970’s, the concept and application of the turntable as a musical instrument dates back to the early 20th century. By the 1920’s there are reports of people beginning to experiment with the turntables compositional possibilities, some combined multiple turntables to create complex layering of music material whilst others began recording sounds and adjusting the speed/pitch and reversing the playback. (Katz, M. 2001) . In 1922 a Hungarian artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy put forward the idea to “change the gramophone from a reproductive instrument to a productive one…” (Anton.2011).

Perhaps the most significant contribution many of these early composers and artists made to Turntablism was the very notion that the turntable was no longer limited to its intended use as a playback device. In the music journal Melos Ernst Toch describes this extension of the technology when referring to Originalwerke f r Schallplatten’ his collaborative composition with Paul Hindemith in 1930
Concerning my contribution to original gramophone music I would say this: the
concept arose from the attempt to extend the function of the machine—which up to
now has been intended for the most faithful possible reproduction of live music—by
exploiting the peculiarities of its function and by analyzing its formerly unrealized
possibilities (which are worthless for the machine’s real purpose of faithful reproduc-
tion), thereby changing the machine’s function and creating a characteristic music of
its own.
(Katz, M. 2001. p5)

John Cage is one of the few early 20th century composers who has been widely recognised for his use of turntables in his early compositions. It seems likely that Cage’s interest in exploring the turntables compositional attributes could be traced back to his exposure to Hindemith and Toch works whilst attending their performance in Berlin in 1930 (Katz, M. 2001). Cage’s 1939 work titled Imaginary Landscape no.1 utilised two variable speed turntables alongside muted piano and a large Chinese cymbal. This work required alteration of the speed of both turntables and rhythmic movement of the stylus up and down, this technique would later become referred to as ‘Needle Dropping’ by Turntablists Cage recognised the turntables role in liberating the available timbres available to the composer and the importance of electronic instruments such as the turntable in incorporating the aesthetic of noise into compositions as is evident in his “The Future of Music: Credo,” lecture he gave in 1937/38.

I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard. (Pritchett, J. 1993. p 10)
John Cage’s 1939 composition Imaginary Landscapes No.1, the high pitched sine tones are being frequency adjusted by turntables.

By the late 1940’s Musique Conrete composers such as Pierre Shaeffer and Pierre Henry began to harness the turntable as an instrument within their early compositions. They employed techniques and principles that would later become common aspects of the Turntablist’s practice, these included combining multiple turntables into a multi channel mixer and creating lock grooves to loop small sections of the record (Palombini.1999). Shaffer and Henry played an important role in establishing “the development of techniques to extend the timbral possibilities of existing instruments” (Guedes, C. 1996. p.3).

Traditionally Deejays played a role that was limited to the selection and presentation of pre-recorded material and were rarely associated with the production of the musical work. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s a new style of Deejaying was emerging out of Jamaica, portable sound system operators began to develop an interactive approach to the music they played. Jamaican Deejays started to provide vocal accompaniment to the records, initially this was imitating the delivery of American R&B radio Deejays but it quickly developed into a unique stylised approach referred to as ‘Toasting’. “What started off as exhortations to the crowd to dance, became an element in the music itself”( O’Brien & Chen. 1998). This new breed of Deejay became the focal point of the music, they developed a performance-based tradition that extends to modern Turntablism practice.

Kool Herc (Clive Campbell) was a Jamaican immigrant living in the Bronx, New York in the early 1970’s. Herc developed a sound system and Deejay methodology that borrowed heavily from his homeland. Herc is regarded as the missing link between the Deejay culture of Jamaica and the Hip Hop deejay culture that emerged in the Bronx in the early 1970’s (Forman & Neal.2004). A technique of looping small parts of a record (often the drum break) now referred to as ‘Beat Juggling’ was developed by Herc as a way to extend the most dynamic section of the song and develop a new composition in the process. This ‘Beat Juggling technique not only enabled the construction of new musical material it also demanded a high level of physicality and technique from the deejay, establishing a corporeality within the performance that had previously only been associated with the practitioners of more traditional musical instruments.

The technique of ‘Scratching’, pushing the record forwards and backwards was first discovered by another Bronx deejay Grand Wizard Theodre. ‘Scratching’ has evolved into one of the most fundamental aspects of Turntablism.

Grand Master Flash (Joseph Saddler) was both a deejay and an electronics enthusiast who became fascinated with the role of music technology in creating innovative music (Forman & Neal.2004). In 1973 Flash invented the cross-fader, essentially a volume fader that fades from one source to another but also enabling complex rhythmic adjustment. The use of the crossfader has become an integral aspect of deejaying and turntablism.

Close up of a crossfader on a multi-channel mixer

By the late 1980’s the role of the deejay was beginning to change once again. The age of the Turntablist had arrived, no longer content to provide the backing for a Hip Hop group or the music for a night club a more experimental turntable based musician began to push the boundaries of the medium. Turntablists began to establish their own aesthetics, methods of presentation and a musical language. Virtuosity and innovation of technique became far more important than track selection. Turntablists started to really exploit the technologies capabilities and develop an extensive body of advanced gestural controls.

Here is an example of DJ Q-Bert and DJ D-Styles demonstrating advanced Turntablism scratching techniques in 2000

In many ways the Turntablist was combining the Hip Hop deejay methodology with an exploration of noise and abstraction that had been pioneered by the early 20th Century composers who first started utilising the turntable as an instrument. Many Turntablists began developing unconventional methods of notating the complex techniques they were employing in their compositions as a means of documenting and transferring their ideas to other practitioners. Most Turntablists encountered similar limitations with conventional notation that other earlier composers such as John Cage had found, conventional notation proved to be insufficient to describe the subtle nuances and techniques necessary to replicate the original composition. An entirely new musical language was required to both describe and notate the emerging Turntablist’s methodology.

An example of one of the more successful versions of Turntablism notation, referred to as the Turntable Transcription Method (TTM).

Advancements in technology have enabled the turntables analogue parameters as a controller to be able to be applied to digital mediums. The turntable has developed into a multi media controller capable of manipulating video and other digital media, resulting in similar characteristics as are found in Turntablism. The dynamic analogue control of digital media that the turntable enables can result in a dramatic humanisation of the technology. This analogue to digital translation has also enabled Turntablist’s to manipulate their own sound works without having to undertake the expensive and time consuming process of pressing their own records.

An example of using the Turntable to control video

Other technologies such as tape recorders, digital samplers and digital audio environments enable similar compositional capabilities to that of the turntable but what distinguishes the turntable from most other controllers is its role as a dynamic performance instrument. Many experimental and new media composers are unable to adequately perform their work due to the lack of physicality associated with its generation. Micro-gesture is a term that describes the physical process of many digital performance artists who use small movements of a mouse or computer keyboard to control their performance. It is difficult for a member of the audience to perceive a correlation between the actions of the performer and the resulting event when micro-gestures or similar low physical methods of performance are employed, this often diminishes the dynamic efficacy of the performance. Performing with turntables in combination with a multichannel (DJ) mixer embodies a strong sense of corporeality through the actions required to manipulate the movement of the record and the mixers cross-fader. The rapid and complex actions employed by the Turntablist is a form of semiosis that informs the audience as to what they are experiencing and to the level of virtuosity that is being displayed.

Turntablisms appropriation of pre-recorded material challenges notions of authorship and copyright. Parallels can be drawn to artists of other mediums such as Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol, who employ a post modernistic approach to the creation of new work.

A chronological analysis of the turntables use as an instrument may misleadingly imply a direct correlation between each artist and movement but it does serve to describe the process in which a playback device metamorphisised into a musical instrument and multi media controller. Whilst some modern Turntablists may deny the role that early 20th century composers and theorists have played in establishing a turntable based methodology, it is remarkable how similar many of the fundamental techniques and ideologies remain.


Anton. 2011. Tour de vinyl and the pursuit of analogue glory. iCrates, Germany. Viewed 25th March 2011.

Forman, M & Neal, M. 2004. That’s the joint!: the hip hop studies reader, Routledge, New York.

Guedes, Carlos. 1996. Pierre Schaeffer, musique concrete, and the influences in the compositional practice of the twentieth century. Viewed 27th March 2011.

Katz, M. 2001. Hindemith, Toch, and grammophonmusik, Jounal of musicological research, vol 20, no 2, p2.

Newman, Mark. 2003. History of Turntablism. Pedestrian. Viewed 8th April 2011

O’Brien, K & Chen, W. 1998. Reggae routes: the story of Jamaican music, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Pritchett, J. 1993, The Music of John Cage. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

  1. The two things that I found most interesting about this report were;

    1: The fact that turntablists are using what was originally created as a play back device as an instrument. I found the wording of this particularly good and I think it would probably prevent a few people arguing that DJ’s aren’t musicians.

    2: Again, supporting the argument of turntablist musicianship is the example of turntable notation. I had no idea that this existed. Would it also apply to people who use CDJ’s?

    Recently I saw a live hip-hop performance where the turntables had been connected to an oscillator, the DJ was able to trigger, manipulate and scratch visuals through his turntables, it was a very impressive piece of entertainment.

    Thanks for this, a very enlightening report.

  2. Denny says:

    this report is very helpful for me~i can get lots infos and knowledge from it.
    first, im very interest in turntable, i can’t but i wanna learn it. i thought it very cool. however, i think is hard to control that after i saw your report, it is need more prefessional knowedge and related music foundation. there is a long way for me, especially i have bad sense of music,:( And this is very prefessional report, without a doubt you did deep research and analysis. thank you give us a good report.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s