EDM–electronic dance music–is super en vogue at the moment, with artists like Daft Punk and Deadmau5 bringing it out of the shadows and into the pop flow, but it’s not even remotely new. Fans of the style know that elements of electronic music have been integrated into music genres as far back as (shudder) disco, but the fact is, when you break electronic music all the way down to its basic definition–music that incorporates electronic musical instruments and electronic recording devices–you will find that electronic music has been around as long as well, electricity has.
EDM appeals to all kind of people, and a major aspect of its draw is the fact that you don’t need to be proficient in an instrument as much as you do a computer. Make no mistake, however, electronic music, whether you are looking to produce it or create it, requires a solid grasp of music theory and fundamentals so it’s important not to skip it if you’re interested in dabbling in any of the varied electronic music genres.
The Surprising History of Electronic Music
Electricity was a novelty from the very beginning, with its discovery and the subsequent harnessing of its flow providing exciting notions of nearly endless possibilities.
In fact, the earliest two potential elements of electronic music are the telharmonium, an early electric organ that was actually developed all the way back in 1897. People were eager to adopt it, but the sheer size of the massive instrument made it nearly impossible. The phonautogram, on the other hand, had unrealized potential where the telharmonium had recognizable possibility in spafes. It was initially developed as a means to study acoustics in 1857, where it could be used in a laboratory to record sound waves on charred paper or smoked glass in visual dips and valleys. It wasn’t until twenty years later that people discovered that by replicating the undulations onto a metal plate, you could use the phonautograph to initiate playback.
Obviously, we think of electronic music genres as being a wholly modern invention, but you can see from the examples above that it existed long before most people even realize. Of course, there’s a huge jump between a roaring twenties theramin and the modern soundboards that we see today, and the digital synthesizer deserves a lot of the credit–it had a kind of awakening in the 1970s and 80s, and while the days of Devo are long gone, electronic music never looked back. A synthesizer is still a vital part of any Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW, a major part of any digital musician’s accoutrements. If you want to get into producing electronic music, and can’t wait to get started, you’ll need a DAW, which won’t be hard to set up if you know how it’s done. Still, we know you’re not here for a history lesson, you’re here for the electronic music genres, right? Well, get ready, because here comes the drop.
House draws its influence from the 1970’s disco scene, surprisingly enough. As an electronic music genre all its own, however, it came into being in the early to mid 80’s, and likely originated in a downtown Chicago club named The Warehouse, where it was spun nightly by DJ Frankie Knuckles, who came to eventually be referred to has the godfather of house. Breakbeat hardcore shares a large part of the credit as a forerunner of house music and other electronic music genres like techno.
House was mainly produced with synthesized tracks over a 4/4 beat provided by a drum machine, but it’s distinct sound wouldn’t be what we recognize it as today without the experimental mixing and editing techniques employed by DJs at the time. During the past few decades, house has spun out into multiple sub genres, like these:
- Deep House-house is typically minimalist, with most of the emphasis going toward the four-on-the-floor beat and drum machine. Deep house added complex melody elements into house tracks, initially with jazz, funk, and soul bass lines. Deep house music is meant to be ambient and does not often reach a climax.
- Acid House-the etymology of “acid house” is hotly debated, with some saying it draws its name from the popularity of the illicit drug that shares it. It came into being in the late 80s and exploded throughout the 90s, with its signature sound being the use of a “squelching” bass derivative on the Roland TB-303 synthesizer.
- Tribal House-like most forms of house music, tribal house relies on sampled tracks laid over a 4/4 beat, but typically these tracks will be sampled from world music, and the underlying drum line will be a synthesized derivative of ethnically diverse percussion, like derived bongo or tabla sounds.
Techno was coming out of Detroit at the same time that House was gaining ground in Chicago. It’s forerunners rejected Motown R&B formulas, instead opting to include electro, house, and synth-pop music with sampled funk and soul tracks to push music into the technological age.
It still used the 4/4 back beat, but marks time using an additional drum derivative, like a snare or symbol to mark each 4th or 8th note. Like House, it relies on a repetitive over track, but adds an element of futurism to the mix.
Techno has some notable sub genres as well, although techno music has made its way into mainstream pop music with tracks by Madonna, U2, and many others. Of course, it too has branched out into many genres:
- Amigacore-this genre gets its name from the primary “instrument” used: the Commodore Amiga Computer, which had limited sound options and imbued the genre with a “raw” sound.
- Ghettocore-gritty and unpolished, ghettocore features explicit lyrics and raw, grinding beats. It’s also much faster than traditional techno tracks at 145-190 beats per minute, or bpm.
- Freetekno-freetekno has no “rules” per se and combines many different sounds from high-energy techno tracks. Fans of freetekno are called teknitians and often meet at sound events known as teknivals.
Of the electronic music genres that we’ve already explored, trance music is one of the newest. Unlike house and techno, it has its origins overseas in Germany in the 1990s, where many people concur that it was “born” on the European rave scene. It is primarily distinguishable by the way that it repeatedly builds up a track and then subsequently deconstructs it again–“breaking it down”.
Trance tracks also employ a hook, or melody that is repeated throughout the entire song, and employs a motif just before the breakdown of rapid arpeggios to give the listener an idea of what the break down will sound like.
There are some notable trance genres that also include:
- Psychedelic Trance-psychedelic trance has roots in Indian music and includes sampled ragas and derivative tabla beats, and sitar tracks.
- Hard Trance-hard trance is categorized as “aggressive” with a slow, pressing beat and is generally accepted to have originated in Frankfurt, Germany in the late 1990s.
- Buchiage Trance-this style of Japanese trance music often uses more than one syntlines, typically high pitched with a “poppy” sound. Where a lot of trance is deep and a little bit dark, buchiage trance is one of the more upbeat and optimistic electronic music genres out there.
Dub step is growing increasingly more popular of late and has pushed EDM into the spotlight, introducing electronic music genres to many people who might not have been aware of them previously. Of course, just because it has become popular recently doesn’t mean that dubstep as a genre hasn’t been around for a good long while.
It originated in Great Britain in the late 90’s, typically as a B side of a techno single cassette. Its distinct sound is characterized by thumping, overwhelming bass drum lines. It’s got an average bpm of about 138-142, and wouldn’t be complete without the “wub”, or an electronic bass note that is extended in order to be manipulated.
Here are some additional dubstep electronic music genres:
- Brostep-usually used as a somewhat pejorative term, brostep refers to the more mainstream iterations of dubstep tracks by artists like Skrillex, who emphasize the middle register of dubstep tracks, resulting in higher pitched sounding music.
- Luvstep-while lots of electronic music genres incorporate vocals into them, luvstep emphasizes their inclusion, especially emo-type vocals that are full of feeling.
- Thugstep-thugstep brings the multiple electronic music genres around full circle; where house and techno drew from soul, jazz, and other traditional African-American influences, thugstep does the same by incorporating hip hop, R&B, and rap elements over a dubstep sound.
These few electronic music genres and sub genres don’t even really begin to scratch the surface of the many, many electronic influences and sounds out there. If you’re intrigued, but still feeling a little overwhelmed, a broad scope electronic music introduction can break it down even further before you get out and hit the clubs. Once you speak EDM fluently, you can explore professional music production for fun and profit.