Sample This! Part 1

Updated: Jan 24


Photo by Ignat Kushanrev, Unsplash

A Brief Introduction to Sampling in Music: Part One – Early History


What Is Sampling?

In music, sampling refers to re-using and/or re-purposing audio content to create new audio content. This could be a segment from a music song recording, such as an instrumental portion of a song, a recorded segment of a nature sound, such as a bird call, or re-playing a musical line from one piece in another piece. This may be done with a sampler device or instrument, computer software, or by cutting splicing magnetic tape. This idea is nothing new. Re-using and re-purposing musical ideas to create new works has most likely been done since the first people sang melodies to communicate before spoken language evolved. And, it has likely had some controversy surrounding it since the beginning as well.


A good composer does not imitate, he steals. – Igor Stravinsky

Early Origins


In today’s music world, when we refer to “sampling,” we are usually referring to taking an audio segment from a recording and re-purposing it in a new recording, however, musical ideas are re-played and borrowed as well. Both of these methods of sampling have raised issues since the beginning of the modern music publishing and recording industries in the 20th century. Prior to this, composers often borrowed and sampled from each other. This is logical as nothing happens in a vacuum (unlike the Philco PT-44 Vacuum Tube Radio pictured above) and old ideas often inspire the innovations that lead to new ideas. This includes all sorts of invention, not just music or the arts.

“Classical” composers who borrowed from one another throughout music history include J.S. Bach, Handel, W.A. Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky, and even Leonard Bernstein. Some composers would re-use and re-purpose musical ideas from their own works. Mahler did this in his symphonic works where he based the melodies on those from songs he had written previously. Beethoven did this when we took the musical material from the Second Movement of his Piano Sonata No. 20 to create the Minuet of the Op. 20 Septet. Sampling in this way continued until the early 20th century when jazz musicians “sampled” parts of melodies or hooks that inspired them during performance as an homage to music that they enjoyed. This was “a musical in joke” for those who were familiar with the borrowed melodies.


Musique Concrète and Tape Music

Audio recording was invented at the end of the 19th century. With the advent of recorded music, the process of sampling became an art in itself. The earliest recorded audio sampling was made wit record players and recorders. The invention of magnetic tape by Fritz Pfleumer in Germany in 1928 revolutionized how recorded audio content could be re-purposed and re-used. The magnetron manufactured by AEG during the 1930s using plastic tape made by BASF was one of the earliest reel to reel tape recorders. With tape, composers and engineers invented many of the techniques still used in sampling audio today. These techniques included looping, sample extraction, speed up audio, slowing down audio, transposing the pitch, and filtering the audio.

Many of the resulting pieces were sound montages, also called Musique Concrète. Musique Concrète literally translates as “concrete music” or “real music.” The word “concrete” refers to solid or fixed, as the resulting music from these techniques only exists in its recorded form, frozen in time, as opposed to other music creation processes which rely on performers and change with every performance. Musique Concrète was developed by Pierre Schaeffer (pictured to the right in a photograph from 1948 along with with the phonogene, a tape-based musical instrument that he invented) along with Pierre Henry and others at Studio d’Essai (Experimental Studio or Studio of Trying) at Radiodiffusion nationale in France. Listen to one of Schaeffer and Henry’s early experiments Symphonie pour un homme seul [Symphony for A Lone Man (1949)].


One of the earliest creators of tape music was Egyptian composer Halim Abdul Messieh El-Dabh (March 4, 1921 – September 2, 2017). He borrowed a wire recorder from Middle East Radio and captured outside sounds, specifically an ancient zaar ceremony, a type of musical performance and exorcism conducted in public. El-Dabh was fascinated with recorded music and believe that he would be able to “open up the raw audio content of the zaar ceremony to further investigation into "the inner sound" contained within.” Listen to his The Expression of Zaar (Wire Recorder Piece) from 1944.


Using tape to create musical collages continued into the 1960s and entered the world of popular music as well. One of the most famous examples of Musique Concrète is The Beatles’ Revolution 9 (1968). While The collage is credited as written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, as most Beatles’s songs were due to the publishing arrangement they had with their publisher. However, it was constructed primarily by John Lennon (pictured to the right with his partner, Yoko Ono) along with assistance by fellow Beatle George Harrison, as well as Yoko Ono. The Beatles’ drummer, Ringo Starr (Richard Starkey), helped select the tape samples. It was produced by George Martin. Ono had recently introduced Lennon to the Musique Concrète of avant-garde, art music composers including the French Edgard Varèse, the German Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the American John Cage. Moreover, Lennon had studied art at the Liverpool College of Art and was himself a visual artist and had worked with collage as a visual medium. Sound collage with tape was a natural fit for him. Revolution 9 contains many samples, including Finnish composer Jean Silbelius’ Symphony No. 1, The Beatles’ Revolution 1, King’s College Choir O Clap Your Hands, Robert Schumann’s Études Symphoniques, and a sound effects album, Jac Holsman’s College Cheers. Listen to Revolution 9 and compare it with some of the samples that the Lennon et al. used on whosampled.com.


In upcoming installments, we will continue to learn about the history of sampling in music and see how it continues to flourish as an art form in popular and arts music. We will learn about break beats, short samples of drum beats which created the basics for several genres of 20th and 21st century music. Additionally, we will see how sampling has changed musical instruments and led to musical instrument innovation. And, we will see how sampling, sampling software, and sampler devices continue to be an important part of today’s music production. Also, we will take a look at the controversies that surround sampling and creative borrowing and appropriation.


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is passionate about tea and creating our own daily rituals. Visit www.PerennialMusicAndArts.com for more about music lessons and www.JanaeJean.com for more about a variety of wellness related topics including tea, sound healing, and more. Contact her via janaejean@me.com for questions about tea, ceremony, music composition, sound healing, writing, photography, or other relevant topics.



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