Basic Essential Subgenres of Electronic Music
One (we) would argue that this genre first sprouted in the 1970s with ambient music that came as a result of the now ubiquitous (and affordable) synthesizer.
Here’s a nice little playlist that exhibits some classic ’70’s ambient music, a branch of the electronic tree of music.
Then into the 1980s and 1990s especially we saw the growth of underground club and rave culture, of which electronica was a large part.
The music that is produced by machines may go on forever, unlike live musicians who are human and will tire out. This energy fed the late late late night (and early early early morning) crowds dancing in the clubs.
Electronic often gets labelled as techno, which is mostly accurate. This music is so favoured by DJs because, like we said, it has a never-ending energy, but it’s also typically made in 4/4 time.
This makes it easy for DJs throwing on tracks for the crowd: the resulting effect is seamless sound even when the DJ may not be familiar with a track.
Here’s some 80’s techno, another branch on the tree of techno music.
With electronic as the root genre, let us look at branches growing from that there tree, known as subgenres.
Following the musical style or form of electronic music we have a subset of musical styles that are made with electronic instruments but have their own characteristics to set them apart.
Do read about all the genres listed because we guarantee there is something for everyone here!
Ambient music is the earliest form of electronic music: it sprouted in the late 1960s and 1970s with the advent of the synthesizer.
This instrument was new to the public market – more affordable than test instruments from the 1950s – and opened the doors to new worlds of sound.
Artists were now able to record looping sound and emulate different instruments with the synthesizer.
Ambient music was significantly different from the hippies’ acoustic folk and rock songs of the 1960s, and has maintained popularity pretty steadily since inception. That’s because it covers a wide range of needs and activities.
This musical style provides relaxing atmosphere with the use of slow, repetitive sounds or notes. There are few instruments used.
It is a very clear and flowing music that can be equally enjoyed or ignored. You notice there is rarely percussion or vocals in this music.
It is commonly used for meditation and that sort of thing: for any atmosphere that requires a calming background noise. For example, you’ll hear ambient music on yoga DVDs, in some book stores and guided meditations.
Popular artists from this time period include Brian Eno, Isao Tomita and Popul Voh. You will notice this 1970s ambient to be very spacey and this is because the genre developed right out of the Cold War and Space Race era.
Read our article, “Early Ambient Artists and Their Great Albums” for more info…
Dark ambient is haunting. If you’re looking for atmospheric music for a goth night, throw on some dark ambient (sample artists are listed below).
There is a sense of being lost and rather anxious as dark ambient artists make use of unneverving sounds like the slow but repetitive hammering of tin or high-pitched theremin wails to resemble ghostly voices.
While the music may stir up feelings of fear, while listening you engage in the act of facing your fear – the feeling of utter dread – and thus feel a release. It’s a very powerful style, really.
These artists are top of the game in our opinion: Klaus Wiese, Controlled Bleeding and Nocturnal Emissions. Even the names are spooky. Cool.
Read our article, “What Is Dark Ambient Music?” for more info…
Downtempo is real chill-out music often found in lounges or after hours at parties. It’s laidback like ambient music, but has a beat you can groove to, unlike ambient music.
DJs use this music at the end of the night to bring down the energy of a crowd. It’s perfectly relaxing and groovy at the same time.
Be sure to check out Helicopter Girl and Portishead.
Read our article, “What is Downtempo music?” for more info…
EDM is short for electronic dance music. This style is what you’ll hear most often at festivals, raves and clubs. In the 1990s there was a huge surge in club culture: EDM is a direct result of that.
It consists of seamless tracks that DJs can play for crowds without interruption. It can include other genres like trance, drum and bass, techno and trance.
Some of the most popular artists in this genre are Skrillex, Steve Aoki and Calvin Harris.
Electropop is just as it sounds: pop music written with electronic instruments, usually meaning the synthesizer. Electropop usually has lyrics and beats that are fluffy and sugar like pop music.
We included Kraftwerk on our ambient music list, but we’ll also list them here. Their music is a good example of electropop as they make use of catchy and simple rhyme schemes and lyrics.
Other artists you probably know include Depeche Mode and Owl City.
Read our article, “What is electropop music?” for more info…
IDM is short for intelligent dance music. This highly pretentious name has been contended by the music community but simply refers to any kind of ambient music or electronic music that is designed for home listening rather than clubbing.
It would seem that folks who dance give into animal behaviour and therefore are less intelligent, whereas those who stay home in a sedentary lifestyle on a chaise lounge may listen to this music with their nose in a book.
We say these things with full sarcasm, of course.
Bear in mind most of these artists contest the name of the genre: Aphex Twin, LFO and Plaid.
Read our article, “Intro to Intelligent Dance Music” for more info…
New Wave is a genre more associated with the punk genre of rock – in fact several early punk artists went on to create and join the new wave movement (like Joy Division becoming New Order after Ian Curtis passed away).
New Wave is rock or poppy rock music that incorporates elements of disco, mod and electronic, even going so far as to spawn its own subgenre of synthpop.
It is punk’s theatrical sibling, but it is on our list to appeal to those who may not have taken interest in any of our aforementioned genres. Synth is one of the defining elements of new wave.
Some of our favourite new wavers include Soft Cell and Talking Heads, while the early 2000s saw new wave of new wave including The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand.
Synthwave is a cool style of music inspired by video games and 1980s futurism. The genre sprouted in the mid 2000s but you wouldn’t know it by listening to it.
It’s a real throwback to the 1980s in style and sound, incorporating elements from science fiction and action films.
It also takes inspiration from composers of the 1980s such as John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream. It is mainly instrumental and uses analog synthesizers and reverb.
This nostalgia for the 1980s has been pretty popular with Generation M.
Synthwave artists include Perturbator, Carpenter Brut and Scandroid.
Read our article, “What is Synthwave?” for more info…
This genre developed in Detroit in the late 1980s as synthesis of funk, electro and jazz, as well as incorporating elements of electronic music.
It makes use of futuristic elements and celebrates mechanization, by proving that technology can have positive spiritual impact, rather than being entirely alienating.
It is characterized by repetitive instrumental sounds, usually played by DJs, and has a lot of drum and bass. This music is typically fast-paced.
It is favoured by DJs because most of it is written in 4/4 time and without vocals or lyrics, making it very easy to transition from one song to the next.
Techno artists include Carl Craig, Moby and Nina Kraviz.
Witch House is perhaps the youngest genre on our list, after Synthwave, having been born in 2009. The most common electronic instruments used include the synthesizer, drum machine and sampler.
This music is rather like a synthesized potion of other dark genres including industrial, chopped-and-screwed, drone and shoegaze, to name a few. It is both sonically and visually informed by the occult, and inspired by 1980s goth musicians like The Cure or the Cocteau Twins.
Picture a witch making music: shrieking, horror, darkness. Combine it with house music and you get witch house.
Listen to Zola Jesus, Crystal Castles and Pictureplane.
It’s guaranteed to freak you out.