Date Thesis Awarded


Access Type

Honors Thesis -- Access Restricted On-Campus Only

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)




Brian Clarence Hulse

Committee Members

Sophia Serghi

Robert S. Leventhal


One of the groundbreaking developments in the history of technologically mediated music was the conception and construction of the delay line system. Although in the past and present, the concepts of the delay line system have been conceived, constructed, and marketed in a variety of fashions, from tape recorders to analog effect pedals to software algorithms, its purpose and utility remains the same. It consists of data or sound waveforms that are passed along a single loop across multiple "nodes" that read and then record new altered "data" back onto the loop as it completes a multitude of indefinite "cycles." These cycles are repetitions of sound that build and fade based on the technical parameters of the nodes and nature of the cycle. This assemblage represents the culmination of an evolving technique to erect a musical practice that exudes ambience and coloration, rather than progressive melodies and harmonies. Originally built as an assemblage of several tape recorders looped together with a single sequential tape feed, the technological and artistic variations that this sound duplication system underwent in the past five decades represents great advancements in musical and technical thought. These experimental directions continue to give rise to unique processes and systems of music composition, as the use of the tape recorder delay line system has greatly surpassed its initial usage as a strict "electronic" instrument, blurring the line between the electronic and acoustic, the performer and the composer, and the engineer and the producer. As one such individual that straddles these roles, Brian Eno exhibits foresight and experimentation with delay line systems and represents the archetype for the compositional mindset in question- one profoundly engaged with the parameters of the creative process itself. Rather than endeavor to create traditionally structured music or music that is laden with intention or narrative, Eno and his contemporaries developed what may be thought of as the "process or system" approach to guide the development of their music. They develop a creative schema (often represented mechanically as a complexity of multiple tape recorders passing the same feed of tape between them through multiple "variables" that alter the content of the sound) either as harmonic equalization filters, filters that bend the phase of the waveform, or filters that adjust the speed and frequency of the sound. In Eno's pieces such as Discrete Music and Music for Airports, these strategies and systems may be heard- extremely pretty, ambient and repetitious. With this backdrop in mind, I intend to explore Eno and others' use of the delay line technique with the following questions in mind: 1.) What is it about delay line processes that produce ranges of emotions such as calm, longing, thoughtfulness, etc? Listeners generally associate the emotions of a musical work with the intentionality of the motives and gestures provided by the composer. When the delay line system delivers these emotions absent such musical factors, one becomes compelled to question why deep seated emotional reactions still take place in the listener. 2.) What is it about pre-conceived delay line processes that attracts Brian Eno, other musicians, and the listeners? The aesthetic experience of the "traditional" composer and the listener diverge as the composer toils through the parts of the piece, whereas the listener hears only the cohesive whole. The aesthetic experience of the "delay line system" composer in the absence of any direct encounter with pre-conceived parts of the music (as the delay line system lacks these partitions) likely evolves in a different manner. The composer sharing the anticipation of the listener compels an investigation into the origins of the fascination that both parties share when experiencing delay line pieces. 3.) When the composer assumes a passive role in the unfolding of a musical piece, how should listeners evaluate the role the composer? Instead of the composer as an intentional actor, the delay line systems commits the composer to the role of a creative, yet distant, engineer. The work of composers like Brian Eno, individuals that only provide a guiding hand in the actual construction of a piece, fundamentally questions the popular and academic view of the composer as an agent "directing musical traffic" and controlling all of the minute parts of the musical whole. 4.) Does the use the delay line system as a process or system of musical composition constitute improvisation? The delay line system's repetitious nature allows for the composer to capitalize on unanticipated musical moments, often interpreted as "mistakes" in a typical compositional framework. Using audio manipulation devices in the sequence of the delay line system, the composer is able to insert variables when these mistakes occur- often in the same manner as a jazz or blues musician that relies on the unpredictability of a piece to make a new musical statement. If the dynamic between the composer and the delay line system does amount to improvisation, what is the nature of this improvisation that makes it fascinating to the listener? 5.) What should a listener's conception of a "musical work" be when music is being produced with the delay line system? A musical work such as Beethoven's 9th Symphony represents a traditional composition as it relies on the development of theme, tonal variations, and virtuostic ornamentation to generate a sense of grandeur or beauty. The presence of ambient and electroacoustic works developed by the assembly of delay line processes and systems, compositions that intrinsically lack these commonly anticipated traits of development and variation, demand a re-examination this notion of the "musical work."

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


Thesis is part of Honors ETD pilot project, 2008-2013. Migrated from Dspace in 2016.

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