A brief history of electronic music

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This article is for you. For who hasn’t found yet an article that can provide a general introduction, to read in a few minutes, of this macro-musical category that everyone is talking about. For who found dozens of specialized insights about the various artists, or subgenres, but nothing oriented to getting started from scratch. This is a quick history of electronic music, ready for those who want to start discovering everything in it.

A complete history would probably take a whole book, that’s clear. And pay attention, we are not talking about an encyclopedia, or a book for readers who got already hooked by electronic music and are able to follow the references (there are already several books of that kind, perhaps specialized in this or that genre). We mean a story suitable for those who know nothing about electronic music: something easy to follow, that gives you the big picture and allows you, after the introduction, to start the deepening, according to your instinct or taste, strengthened by the general perspective already obtained. There are not many stories like that around, probably because they are not easy to develop. What you will read below is the best starting point we can offer, constantly updated and full of ideas to be explored later. In the end you’ll also find a schematic guide for names and subgenres, for those who wants the first hints for the follow-up.

Origins: the 70s

First of all, there is an important question that needs to be answered: what is electronic music? Somebody means it as “every kind of music made through the use of electronic instruments”, but this is a definition that we consider inappropriate, basically because in this way all contemporary music would be electronic (today’s music production, on any genre, regularly passes by a processing phase that includes the digital world). With electronic music, we prefer to identify those productions oriented to enhance the sound produced by electronic, analog or digital instruments (such as synthesizers or software). This also helps to limit the range of action, excluding historical moments and/or genres that used electronic sound in an occasional and limited way. Our history of electronic music covers expressions recognized as such in the classical sense.

For the same reason, we will avoid tracing the birth of electronic music too far back in time: we leave it at a later level of study, which investigates different experiments throughout the entire twentieth century. For the neophyte, the simplest and most appropriate way to discover the origins of electronic music is by declaring its birth in the 1970s. In those years, especially in the second half of the decade, several European artists began to exploit the new sound possibilities made available by synthesizers, some using them as an additional component of their sound (this is the case of some big names of progressive rock of those years, like Pink Floyd or Genesis), others giving life to a new way of understanding musical production that fully emphasizes new sounds: it was with the intention of producing music with more futuristic lines that electronic music was born.

If you asked for a name, just one, which could be referred to as the “inventor” of electronic music, almost everyone will answer in the same way: Kraftwerk. A german band originally belonging to the so-called krautrock (an avant-garde of psychedelic rock), but that, around 1974, began to orient its musical production towards the construction of an imaginary sound composed by the massive use of electronic components. Autobahn was the first album of their electronic phase, the first of a series of cult records for lovers of this music: in addition to that we have Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine. The latter, in 1978, formalized the image of the robot, enhancing the artificial traits of that music and actually laying the foundations for that mix of pop and electronic music that will explode in the following decade (The Robots is often referred to as the first accomplished example of electronic pop).

The 70s had other protagonists: Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis (they would fall under the “classic electronica” tag), Tangerine Dream (the so-called kosmische musik, another branch of krautrock), Giorgio Moroder (and the way he changed disco music) and Brian Eno (especially with his contributions in the development of ambient music) were some of the other big players in the electronic music evolution of the 70s. Those were the years in which electronic production was still considered an avant-garde experimentation carried out by a few individuals. The most aristocratic and beloved period in the history of electronic music, the moment in which the weapons were sharpened for what would happen later and the time window from which we often rediscover the cult artists who gave life to a whole, new musical genre.

Youth: the 80s

It was in the following decade, the infamous 1980s, that electronic music experienced the real success, actually transforming pop music. All the 80s are often remembered in a negative sense for the they “got extreme” in riding the fashion of electronic music (not far to what happened to disco music some years earlier), but that can be considered a venial sin in the management of an innovative sound, which gathered the enthusiasm of the listeners and presented an enormous number of evolutionary possibilities.

Electronic pop (call it synthpop, electropop or dance pop, we’re not going to make too much distinctions) was born in the early 80s, still in Europe, and basically never died: Depeche Mode (above), Soft Cell, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Visage, Tears For Fears and Alphaville were some of the names of the first phase (the growing one), while Pet Shop Boys and Erasure those playing in the second half of the decade (already considered the phase of decline in terms of popularity).

The 1980s were also the protagonists of another revolution linked to electronic music. The birth of the two musical genres that, from then on, will dominate the dance universe forever: house and techno. Two 100% American inventions (we normally place the birth of techno in Detroit and house music in Chicago) that in the early 1980s stormed into the world of clubbing (until then dominated by disco music) and never ever left since then. At the beginning the differences between the two genres were not so obvious, but with time the identities became clearer, with the house developing a smoother and easier-to-follow (and to dance) sound, and techno pushing more on the alienating side and on the accelerated rhythms. Just a handful of fundamental names from the very first stage: for the house, Frankie Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson and the exciting acid house wave with Mr. Fingers, Phuture and the others (if you want to know more, run here); for techno, the three guys who invented more or less everything were Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson.

First techno track ever? You can debate forever about it, but Clear by Cybotron (a creation from Juan Atkins and Richard Davis) has still many chances to win the contest.

Maturity: the 90s

Looking at the context as if it were a growing organism: if the 80s were those who enjoyed “playing” with the electronic matter in a cheerful, almost adolescent way, the 90s began to take it more seriously and adult. But before that happened, there was a series of events in rapid succession that changed the perception of things at that time, at least in Europe. It happened that the techno and house theories of overseas took root in the old continent and began to give life to several new evolutions, naughtier and faster. The acid house experienced a new moment of enthusiasm in England and next to it there was a newcomer, jungle music, a dance style characterized by fast breakbeats that became popular in those years. Acid house, jungle and (later) drum’n’bass (the logical evolution of jungle) were the music that gave birth to the rave age, which constituted a social and musical phenomenon of enormous influence on everything that happened in the 90s, determining the universe called hardcore (or, if you want to use the slang of that time, ‘ardkore). Some names? A Guy Called Gerald, The KLF, Baby Ford for British acid house, 4hero and Altern 8 for jungle, Goldie, Roni Size or Aphrodite for the drum’n’bass.

Next to rave music, the 90s saw also the birth of trance, another particularly energetic dance music genre, still alive today (although with different characteristics), which had a huge impact on the scene. And additionally, the 90s gave birth to a dance with more commercial features that caught on very quickly on the radio, called eurodance. Those who listened to the radios in that years will remember Corona, Haddaway, La Bouche and many others. If you add also pass by Dutch and Belgian techno, you will have a rough idea of ​​how things were going for young people in those years: dry, fast and explicit, made for a carefree audience that didn’t require great complexity.

For those reasons, in the midst of so many dance excesses, the need for a more elegant and noble use of electronic music soon emerged, and this gave rise to some of the most beautiful electronic expressions of the 1990s. A sound that was enormously successful in intellectual circles was the so-called intelligent dance music (IDM), which tried to provide a strong intellectual dimension to the possibilities of electronic rhythms: the wave gave birth to myths like those of Aphex Twin, Autechre and Boards Of Canada, labels like Warp Records and, in general, some of the most fascinating expressions of the whole electronic music genre. Moreover, in the second half of the decade, there was another eye-catching genre that stood out among the children of the intuitions of electronic music.

It was trip hop: another invention of the United Kingdom, a sound that conquered the music tvs and a style that influenced dozens of artists, up to the present day. It was the soundtrack of rainy afternoons, the sound of introspection and the forefather of the thousand expressions of emotional electronic music that still live today. The three absolute names of the genre are Massive Attack (above), Portishead and Tricky, active in the span of three decades and loved even by who is not a real expert of electronic music.

Last major trend to be reported in the 1990s (and we are already leaving several others out) was the so-called electro rock pursued by The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim and several others. We can let it match the definition of big beat, which includes artists from different backgrounds but constitutes a single intention to introduce electronic sounds into a musical sphere that would respond to the classic needs of rock.

Reconstructions: the 00s

When electronic music reaches the new millennium, we face the enormous legacy of all the great expressions inherited from the previous decade, plus a great awareness: inventing something new becomes increasingly difficult, and in the meantime there are always more examples where past music turns out to be more interesting for rediscovery. So, starting from this moment, we start to notice musical trends and intuitions that focus on revisiting, reinterpreting, reconstructing existing genres that may have completed their life cycle too soon.

Among all the electronic products of the 2000s, dubstep was the most important and perhaps the only one ready to contradict the cliché according to which every musical expression of this millennium is a recovery of something already existing in the past. Dubstep grew up in the first half of the decade as an intelligent mix of broken beats, bass and alteration of classical metrics and alternated darker moments to more introspective ones. He also managed to cross the next decade, while changing atmospheres, between sunnier expressions and younger drifts. The direct parent was 2-step garage, another subgenre that emerged in the transition to the new millennium, which fundamentally invented its rhythm (and which reached the peak of popularity with Artful Dodger and Craig David). Dubstep was the last electronic wave globally loved by the genre audience, and much missed nowadays. Key artists: Burial (above), Skream, Benga (first wave), Sepalcure (post-dubstep) and Skrillex (brostep drift and genre decline).

The rest, with regard to the ’00s, was a myriad of individual micro-insights, which made it the most multi-faceted decade of electronic music. After all it passed quickly and for many almost nothing happened, yet it became the protagonist of many localized explosions, perhaps of limited duration, but that all together represented a fine example of fantasy and eclecticism: in the initial phases there was electroclash (rapid “fashion” evolution of the house made of hyper-excited sounds and names like Felix Da Housecat and Miss Kittin); later on came wonky (advanced vision of abstract hip hop, with artists like the early Flying Lotus or Hudson Mohawke) then we had grime (the black brother of dubstep, with a strong rap character, referring to people like Dizzee Rascal), upstairs there was french house (the whole series of French artists who renewed house energy in a happier way, from there the explosion of Daft Punk, the wave of Justice, Cassius and Ed Banger), and here and there stood out quick sparks like nu rave (guitars, electronics and lots of energy, see Klaxons), dance punk (as above but even rougher, refer to LCD Soundsystem and DFA Records) and fidget house (the even more addictive evolution of the electroclash, The Bloody Beetroots are enough to understand). All together cheerfully to give different faces to an increasingly complex and colorful musical universe, able to include everything. In this way, we arrived at the new decade.

An ongoing story: the 10s

This is the spirit that still possesses electronic music in the 2010s. You still have the feeling that the prerogatives are endless, but they must be found between the cracks, in the tiny spaces between one intuition and another, while the past still stands out for its weight in quantitative and qualitative terms. There are not many new trends that emerged in this decade, but there are many small explosions invented by a handful of artists, who in a more or less obvious way have made trends.

The biggest one so far is probably the EDM that has been discussed so much: a new recovery in commercial dance landed together with new software for music production, which have opened up new possibilities for a wider generation of artists. Names like Avicii, Zedd and Martin Garrix were born, the wave lasted for several years until it met its natural decline (something that is actually part of the natural cycles of the commercial front: 4 years of enthusiasm followed by a moment of rearrangement).

Besides EDM, the biggest new trend emerged in the 10s is probably the modern definition of trap music: something that actually comes from 2000s rap but that, starting from 2012, built up a second wave of intelligent patterns and futuristic visions. The clever phase didn’t last much and can be nicely summed up with the first All Trap Music compilation, dated 2013, whereas later the genre showed the same heavy treatment that happened to dubstep some years before, first getting fat (see the turning point of RL Grime) and then handing over the whole idea to hip hop world again.

Next to EDM and trap music, a new myriad of small fragments have emerged and shown their influence: glo-fi (revisitation in a nostalgic and narcoleptic key of classic pop, listen to Washed Out), footwork (an acceleration of the very fast breakbeats, DJ Rashad rules), witch house (small dark parenthesis with the taste of ‘occult, referring to Salem) and emotional electro (with a strong songwriter component, mainly the result of the contribution of James Blake, which was followed by the various Sohn, Chet Faker or RY X). Meanwhile, pop music is contaminated by the many underground intuitions and also ends up clearing the so-called future bass, a strange mix of vocal parts and lively rhythms that marked the middle of the decade (Flume, for example). And the postmodern current is already on the scene, with the so-called PC music that rewrites a bit the rules of the interaction of music towards the public (Sophie, below, is the perfect summary). And the story goes on.

Here we stop, at least for the moment. So far, electronic music has been a young rebel who has taken on her shoulders the burdens of giving experimental charge and new ideas to the course of music over the last 40 years. He did it instinctively, but he had already peaks of absolute quality. The spirit is still the young one, as the protagonists of the scene are and the feeling is that it can still offer more initiatives before reaching a possible (utopian?) phase of adulthood. There is still all possible vitality, and possibilities too. The real challenge at this point is to stay original. And it becomes increasingly difficult.

Electronic Music: a guide for next deepening

Below you will find the main macrogenres of electronic music, and for each of them the main names of the first phase of that genre. Obviously, for every genre the story continued even in the following decades and a good analysis also includes the names that gave continuity to that genre over the decades. For example, for techno we listed the main names of the early years, but in next deepening phase you will have to get acquainted with later names like Ricardo Villalobos, Basic Channel and Paul Kalkbrenner. This type of study will come naturally once you investigate the history of every single genre. We will help you over time by publishing mini-stories for various genres in the future, and you will find the links below.

  • Origins: the 70s
    • Krautrock/kosmische musikKraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze
    • Electronica: Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis
    • Electronic disco: Giorgio Moroder, Cerrone, Chic
  • Youth: the 80s
    • Electronic pop – the forefathers: The Human League, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Gary Numan, John Foxx, Ultravox, The Normal, Fad Gadget
    • Electronic pop – the success: Depeche Mode, New Order, Soft Cell, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Visage, Yazoo, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Japan, Tears For Fears, Alphaville, Bronski Beat, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure
    • House music: Frankie Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson, Mr. Fingers, Jesse Saunders, Robert Owens, Jamie Principle, Phuture
    • Techno: Cybotron, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Carl Craig, Jeff Mills, Plastikman, Underground Resistance, Robert Hood
  • Maturity: the 90s
    • Hardcore: 808 State, The KLF, Altern 8, 4hero, Goldie, Roni Size, Aphrodite
    • Trance: Paul Van Dyk, Energy 52, Sasha
    • Eurodance: La Bouche, Corona, Ace Of Base, Haddaway, Paradisio
    • IDM: Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards Of Canada, The Black Dog/Plaid, Global Communication
    • Trip hopMassive AttackPortishead, Tricky, Morcheeba, Sneaker Pimps, Unkle
    • Big Beat: The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim, The Crystal Method, Groove Armada
  • Reconstructions: the 00s
    • Dubstep: Skream, Benga, Distance, Burial, Mala, Kode 9, Silkie, Boxcutter, Pinch, Plastician
    • Electroclash: Felix Da Housecat, Miss Kittin, Adult, Vitalic, Peaches, Fischerspooner
    • Grime: Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, Kano, Lethal Bizzle, Skepta
    • French House: Daft Punk, Justice, Cassius, Etienne De Crecy, Alex Gopher
    • Wonky: Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke, Lukid, Samiyam, Rustie, Onra
    • Nu Disco: Dimitri From Paris, Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas, Todd Terje
  • An ongoing story: the 10s
    • EDM: Avicii, Zedd, Martin Garrix, Calvin Harris, David Guetta
    • (intelligent) Trap: Flosstradamus, Baauer, RL Grime, TNGHT
    • Emotional electro: James Blake, Jamie Woon, SBTRKT, Sohn, Chet Faker, RY X
    • Glo-fi: Washed Out, Toro Y Moi, Neon Indian, Com Truise
    • Footwork: DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn, Traxman, RP Boo
    • Future bass: Flume, DJ Snake, Lido, Odesza, Cashmere Cat, Kasbo
    • PC Music: Sophie, A. G. Cook, Hannah Diamond, GFOTY
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