Mister Rogers, Sesame Street & Jim Henson Introduce Kids to the Synthesizer with the Help of Herbie Hancock, Thomas Dolby & Bruce Haack

Does your child have a musical instrument? That’s good. Taken a few music lessons? Even better. If they’re so inclined, learning music is one of the best things kids can do for their developing brains, whether or not they make a career of the endeavor. But one doesn’t need classical training or jazz chops to make music, or even to become a musician. Those skills have served many an electronic musician, sure, but many others have created moving, complex music with ingenuity, finely-tuned ears, tech smarts, and wildly experimental attitudes.

Then there are electronic artists, like Bruce Haack, Herbie Hancock, and Thomas Dolby, who combined fine musicianship with all of the above qualities and made people stop and wonder, people who were not necessarily fans of electronic music, and who didn’t know very much about it.

None of these artists felt it beneath them to bring their art further down to earth, to the level of the kids who watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or Sesame Street. On the contrary, they’re natural educators, with a performer’s instinct for timing and audience and a geek’s instinct for highlighting the coolest technical bits. But leave it to Mister Rogers himself, above, to celebrate the music and the playfulness of synthesized sound in his mild-mannered Cole Porter-ish way, to the accompaniment of a good-old fashioned piano and one of his mother’s signature handknit sweaters, in green.

Above, we have the weird wonky Haack, a musical prodigy who studied at Juilliard, and who loved nothing more than making children’s records with his partner, children’s dancer Esther Nelson, and creating musical instruments from household objects and handwired circuitry that was activated by human touch. Fred Rogers was so taken with Haack’s playfulness that he had the composer and Nelson on a long segment of his show. You may or may not know that Haack’s work was inspired by peyote and that he recorded a rock opera called The Electric Lucifer about a war between heaven and hell, but you’ll probably sense there’s more to him than meets the eye. Rogers and the kids are mesmerized (see Part 2 of the segment here.)

Herbie Hancock’s appearance on Sesame Street operates much more on a get to know you level than the gestalt dance therapy performance art of Haack and Nelson. He jams out; charms future Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star Tatyana Ali by turning her name into high-pitched chorus of voices; and explains the many functions of his Fairlight CMI, a digital synthesizer born in the same year as the young actress. The technology isn’t nearly as interesting as Haack’s homemade curios, given that every one of the Fairlight functions can be fit into an app these days. The joy lies in watching the kids warm to Hancock and the then-new technology.

When it comes to Thomas Dolby’s appearance on the Jim Henson Company’s The Ghost of Faffner Hall program, we are in the position of the child audience. Dolby, with his peculiar English intensity, plays a mad scientist character who stares into the camera as he demonstrates his collection of synthesizers, analog and digital, for viewers. Dolby’s performance might have been aided by some real kids to play off of, but his “fly in a matchbox” example will easily help you and your young ones understand the basic principles at work in synthesizing sound. These playful tutorials were made for kids in 1968, 83, and 89 respectively, and maybe they can still work magic on young 21st century minds. But, as Fred Rogers says, “grownups like to play too, sure. And if you look and listen carefully through this world, you’ll find lots of things that are playful.” Few grownups have been better authorities on the subject.

Related Content:

Discovering Electronic Music: 1983 Documentary Offers a Fun & Educational Introduction to Electronic Music

How the Moog Synthesizer Changed the Sound of Music

The History of Electronic Music in 476 Tracks (1937-2001)

Two Documentaries Introduce Delia Derbyshire, the Pioneer in Electronic Music


Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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