Women’s History Month Profiles: Suzanne Ciani, Sound Designer and Electronic Music Pioneer

During Women’s History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of female innovators and history makers like Suzanne Ciani. Check back throughout March to learn about more important figures.

Born: June 4, 1946, Indiana
Best known for: Pioneering the genre of electronic music both artistically and commercially.

Suzanne Ciani, dubbed the “diva of the diode” and “America’s first female synth hero” is responsible for the pop-and-pour sound featured in Coca-Cola commercials, the noises of the Bally “Xenon” pinball machine and many more. She is a five-time Grammy-nominated composer and recording artist who has released over 20 solo albums in a career that has spanned decades.

Ciani grew up in the suburbs outside of Boston and began teaching herself how to play piano and read music when she was a child. She attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, both as a performer and composer. She was an expert in classical music but also discovered her fascination with technology when one of her classes took a trip to M.I.T., where a professor demonstrated his attempts to make a computer create the sound of a violin. Ciani later attended the University of California at Berkeley where she received a master’s degree in composition. At the nearby Stanford University and Mills College, Ciani met three other electronic music pioneers: John Chowning, Max Matthew and Don Buchla.

She became interested in the concept of creating music with machines and became a synthesizer virtuoso. She joked in an interview with The Guardian that one modular synthesizer called the Buchla, named for its inventor, Don Buchla, became “her boyfriend” for years. She spent days programming the cumbersome instrument to play compositions and was fascinated by electronic instruments’ abilities to push the limits of what traditional instruments could do.

Ciani’s expertise spanned both classical music and electronic realms, sometimes mixing both in the same compositions. She is also both a prolific artist and a successful businesswoman. She pioneered the new age genre, was nominated for five Grammys for her solo albums and was the first solo female composer to soundtrack a Hollywood film, The Incredible Shrinking Woman in 1980. That same year, she designed the sounds for the Xenon Pinball machine making her voice the first human female voice in a game. Other noises, like the fizzing of Coca-Cola being poured into a glass, and the beep of an old GE dishwasher are also Ciani’s creations. Though many people may not have recognized Ciani’s name, they certainly knew her work. However, she also made many TV appearances during the height of her career, demonstrating and explaining the various synthesizers she used, which helped her bring electronic music to the mainstream.

Her ability to create lush soundscapes out of both traditional instruments and synthesizers and her skill in designing many of the commercial noises that defined the American 20th century have earned her a slew of awards and recognitions. In 2012, she was inducted into the Keyboard Magazine’s Hall of Fame along with other electronic music inventors and pioneers, Buchla, Bob Moog and David Smith. In 2017, she received the Moog Innovation Award and in 2020, she received the A2IM Independent Icon Award. A 2017 documentary on Ciani’s life, A Life in Waves premiered at the SXSW Festival and is available to stream on all platforms.

She is now in her 70s and still making music and public appearances.

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