From dubstep to disco, electronic music is a broad category of modern music that includes a wide variety of styles. While most people think of electronic music as a product of the 21st century, the reality is that electronic music has been around for almost 50 years.
From the famous Moog synthesizers of progressive rock to the driving anthems of Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, read on and learn the history of electronic music, from the early 1970s to the dubstep, trance, and house superstars of today.
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The Origins of Electronic Music
Think of early electronic music and you’ll probably picture the disco anthems of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Although electronic music didn’t become popular until the mid 1970s, artists were using electronic instruments as early as the 1960s.
Progressive rock bands like Pink Floyd made the iconic Moog synthesizer one of the most important aspects of their sound. Pop rock bands like The Beatles also began to incorporate keyboards and synthesizers into some of their experimental songs.
At the same time, composers were using new instruments like the Theremin in their work, particularly in the film industry. The commercial Moog synthesizer, released in the mid-1960s, is regarded as the first iconic instrument of electronic music.
Synthpop and Disco: The 1970s
Although electronic instruments were being used in the 1960s, it wasn’t until the 1970s when electronic music entered the mainstream. Bands like Kraftwerk – an iconic West German band – introduced the electronic sound to a wider audience.
Formed in 1980s, Kraftwerk paired the driving rhythms of bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple with the futuristic sounds of the Moog synthesizer and vocoder. In the 1970s, their interesting new sound influenced a wide variety of musicians and created the foundations for the electronic music scene.
Once Kraftwerk had introduced electronic music into the 1970s music scene, other artists soon followed. Giorgio Moroder, now famous for his involvement with Daft Punk, used electronic instruments to capitalize on the growing disco music trend.
Moroder collaborated with mainstream artists to bring electronic music to a new audience, producing tracks for Donna Summer, David Bowie, and more. His use of synthesizers introduced the electronic sound to the musical mainstream.
Although electronic music was growing in popularity throughout the 1970s, most electronic tracks still used the structure of pop or rock and roll. It wasn’t until the 1980s when synthpop, dance, and other genres would emerge on their own.
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Perhaps the most notable example of 1970s electronic music is the theme to the movie Midnight Express, scored by Giorgio Moroder. The track, known as Chase, became one of the first electronic tracks to reach #33 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The Synth Era: The 1980s
Think of synthpop and you’ll probably think of the 1980s. The era of glitz, glamor, and excess was a great time for electronic music, with new styles such as synthpop and house, as well as new technology like MIDI emerging.
Many of today’s most popular electronic music styles, such as house and trance, are the product of 1980s synth music. The 1980s club scene made new wave, post-disco, and synthpop well-known styles and brought electronic music into the mainstream.
Bands like A-ha, Pet Shop Boys, and Depeche Mode combined the structure of rock music with the new sounds made possible by MIDI. Even hard rock bands like The Sisters of Mercy embraced electronic music, using MIDI effects and drum machines to create new forms of music like dark wave and alternative dance.
Towards the end of the 1980s, band like Orbital created the foundations for dance music genres like trance and techno. The rising popularity of home computers like the Atari ST introduced MIDI technology to a wide audience of producers.
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Dance Music: The 1990s
During the 1990s, distinct genres of electronic music emerged, from hard house and techno to ambient and experimental. The early 1990s also marked the emergence of well-known electronic music genres like trance and drum and bass.
Influential electronic hits from the time include Halcyon + on + on, a famous ambient trance track from English band Orbital. At the same time, techno developed from an underground form of music into a mainstream style in Germany and the UK.
The 1990s was also the first decade in which electronic music composition became something anyone could do. The massive popularity of PCs resulted in the creation of new software like Fruity Loops (now FL Studio) aimed at home users.
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The EDM Era: 2000 to Today
Since 2000, electronic dance music (EDM) has grown from a popular genre into an influential part of all mainstream music. Today, iconic electronic artists like Tiësto and David Guetta have worked with mainstream artists and reached the top of the most important album and singles charts.
At the same time, genres like dubstep and trance have influenced the structure of mainstream pop music. From Taylor Swift to Justin Bieber, many of today’s most popular pop artists have implemented aspects of dubstep, house, and trance into their singles.
Although electronic music is more popular than ever, it remains a genre that exists both in and out of the mainstream. While dubstep and electro entered the world of pop music, many of the electronic world’s most iconic artists continue to produce music aimed not at the mainstream but at smaller, underground audiences.
Learn more about the new genres of electronic music that have emerged over the past 20 years with our blog post on electronic music genres.
The Internet and Electronic Music
Part of the huge growth of electronic music can be attributed to the Internet. The popularity of social websites like YouTube and SoundCloud has made finding new music easier than ever before, spreading electronic music to new listeners.
It’s also made promoting music easy. New artists that would have had to find their own distributors or sign record deals decades ago can share their music via social networks and distribute it using outlets like Beatport and iTunes.
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The Internet has also made producing electronic music easier than ever before. The availability of applications like FL Studio, Ableton Live, and Logic Pro gives anyone the ability to become an electronic music producer if they’d like to.
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The Future of Electronic Music
Over the last 40 years, electronic music has grown from an underground niche into one of the biggest genres in the world. Every day, it continues to grow more, fueled by the popularity of websites like SoundCloud, Beatport, and YouTube.
Do you want to get started as a DJ or producer and make your mark on the future of electronic music? Read our blog post on beginner DJ equipment and start remixing, spinning, and producing your way to electronic music success.