The question ”what is EDM?” might seem simple to answer, as people commonly associate it with DJs dropping massive dance anthems at a festival or club, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring just how diverse the different subgenres of EDM can be.
It covers everything from electro, house and techno to trap, drum & bass and dubstep, and loads more in between. So let’s break down the history of EDM and have a close look at the main subgenres associated with it.
In this article
- History of EDM
- Main genres and subgenres of EDM
- How is EDM created?
- What are the minimum equipment requirements for creating electronic dance music?
- Why is EDM music so popular?
History of EDM
There are literally hundreds of different music genres, but what exactly is EDM music? Let’s have a look at how the different types of EDM have developed over the years, starting way back in the early 1900s!
Forerunners of electronic dance music
- The Telharmonium, the first instrument powered by electric, can be traced back to 1897, but there are a number of interesting touch points though the 1900s that lead the way for EDM;
- Karlheinz Stockhausen & Pierre Schaeffer’s post war work in the field of electroacoustic, that paved the way for electronic devices being used to alter acoustic sounds, and create what is arguably the earliest electronic music
- Delia Derbyshire’s work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, including the composition of the timeless Dr Who tv theme show.
- Robert Moog’s invention of the Moog Synthesizer in the 1960’s, a sound that is still front and centre in many modern EDM tracks.
- Brian Eno’s work in creating ambient soundscapes in the 1970’s, including his much revered Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks album.
- German pioneers Kraftwerk, and the music that laid the groundwork for a vast majority of contemporary electronic music.
EDM music of the 1980s
The 1980s is arguably when music created using electronic instruments really crossed over into the mainstream, defining what EDM music is for a generation. Here’s a few of the key artists who were front and centre during the evolution of electronic dance music.
- Depeche Mode - Although their origins date back to 1977, it was their debut album Speak and Spell, and the hit singles New Life and Just Can’t Get Enough, that propelled them into the charts, and launched a career as pioneers of early electronic music that continues to this day.
- New Order - Rising from the ashes of seminal British band Joy Division, New Order forged a new more electronic direction, with the 1983 single Blue Monday remaining the best selling 12” single of all time.
- Jean-Michel Jarre - the French pioneer of early electronic music released classic albums such as Oxygene and Équinoxe in the 1970s but it was his 1986 album Rendez-Vous and the groundbreaking live shows from that tour, that cemented him as one of the greatest of all time.
- Vangelis - became a household name through his soundtrack work for 1980s films Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire, and is still regarded today as one of the finest composers of synth based music.
- Gary Numan - Numan’s 1979 single Car kick started a decade of producing some of the finest electronic pop music. He’s still a huge global star, whose influence can be heard from across many genres from techno to industrial and many types of EDM.
- Afrika Bambaataa - arguably the grandfather of hip hop, and one of the earliest artists to incorporate sampling and turntablism into recorded music. His generation of producers and DJs have arguably had the biggest impact on almost all types of electronic music, and the wider pop music landscape.
Electronic dance music of the 1990s
If the 80s saw electronic music cross over into the mainstream, it was the 1990’s that saw the birth of what we now know as EDM, with the invention of rave culture and the superstar DJ. Here are a few of the groundbreaking artists that pushed things forward in the 90s, producing different types of electronic music, such as house, trance, breaks and techno, and many of the genres that focussed on that 4/4 kick drum pattern which is at the centre of what makes electronic music danceable.
- Aphex Twin - one of the most celebrated and elusive artists in the history of electronic music. Producer of groundbreaking tracks such as Windowlicker and the Selected Ambient Works albums. For a generation of electronic music fans, if you asked them what is EDM music, they’d probably point you in the direction of Aphex Twin.
- Marshall Jefferson - one of the leading figures of early House music, and one of the first producers signed to the pioneering Chicago house label Trax. His legendary Move Your Body track set the bar for house producers around the world, and still gets played by DJs around the world today.
- Daft Punk - originators of the French Touch scene, who went from celebrated sample digging producers to world conquering robots, refusing to settle on one genre of EDM, choosing instead to pioneer many!
- The Prodigy - the biggest breakthrough act from the UK rave scene in the early 90s. Their mash up of punk, techno and breaks, saw them become a globe trotting headline act of festivals around the world.
- Paul Van Dyk - his track For An Angel remains one of the all time great trance tunes, a genre that he pioneered in the 90s alongside fellow producers Ferry Corsten and Armin Van Buuren.
- Sasha - Arguably one of the most influential DJs of all time. His God like status in the EDM scene was cemented in the 90s with the Renaissance and Northern Exposure mix series, created with long term collaborator John Digweed, becoming the yet to be surpassed gold standard for mix albums.
EDM music in the 21st century
As we hit the 2000s, the different types of EDM music being produced branched out even further and the whole genre went stratospheric, with a number of big name producers becoming guns for hire for the biggest pop stars in the world. Arguably the last couple of decades have seen EDM really hit the mainstream, with uber producers like David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia, making hit pop records within the EDM genre. Here’s a few of the key artists at the forefront of the scene.
- Skrillex - the first global dubstep star, and producer of the stars with credits on hit records by Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Mariah Carey.
- Deadmau5 - known as much for his unique brand of progressive electro house, as he is for his on stage mouse themed headwear, Deadmau5 has been a mainstay of the global electronic scene for decades, and remains one of the most highly regarded producers on the scene.
- Martin Garrix - known for his massive hit Animals, produced when he was just 17 year sold, Garrix quickly became one of the poster boys for his generation of stadium-filling EDM, and a first class example of how bedroom producers could breakthrough into the mainstream
- David Guetta - Like him or loathe him, no one can argue the influence he’s had on not just EDM but popular music in general, over the last couple of decades, working with some of the biggest stars in the world.
Main genres and subgenres of EDM
In some ways the question of what is EDM, is almost impossible to answer, as the list of diverse subgenres that come under the EDM banner, expands every year, wth new producers breaking boundaries and smashing genres in ways we haven’t seen before. So if you’re trying to figure out what music is EDM, here’s a breakdown of some of the sub genres that have become mainstays within the EDM scene.
in the late 80s/early 90s acts like The Orb and The Klf took influence of 70’s synth pioneers like Tangerine Dream and layered deep synths over found sounds and atmospherics, that ditched any kind of pop song structures for epic soundscapes that had more in common film film scones that pop hits or dance anthems.
One of the more recent subgenres of EDM, arguably the genre that brought us the “drop” and certainly one of the most commercially successful. A mainstay of festivals like Tommorowland, Big Room house has taken some flack for its overly simple formula, but artists like Hardwell and Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, are huge touring artists that draw big crowds around the world, so they must be doing something right!
A genre born from those afternoon sessions in Ibiza clubs like Cafe Mambo, artists in the genre can bring in influences of hip hop, ambient, yacht rock, house and balearic. Designed to do what is says on the tin, chill out is perfect for relaxing with a cocktail on a sunny afternoon, in the mediterranean. Perfected by a wide range of artists such as Air, Moby, Zero7 and Morcheeba.
Born in the 190s in Chicago when DJs like Frankie Knuckles started using new drum machine technology to augment cut up disco loops, house is one of the first genres that comes to mind when someone asks what is electronic dance music? Known for its 4/4 drum rhythms, repetitive basslines and extensive sampling, house music is a continually evolving sub genre, with many splinter genres popping up all the time.
Made popular in the 90s by DJs such as Sasha, John Digweed and Dave Seamen, progressive house eschewed the loop based formula of house music, and opted for longer evolving pieces of music instead. Progressive house tracks could easily clock in around 8 to 10 minutes, with extended atmospheric breakdowns in the middle.
Made popular in the early 2000s by artists like Deadmau5, Wolfgang Gartner and Benny Benassi, electro house took the chunky beats of house music, and blended that with noisy buzzing basslines of electro to create a rather short lived but hugely influential subgenre. Arguably without electro house there would be no Big Room House and other types of EDM like it, and effectively a very different scene. Many of the early electro house producers like Axwell and Steve Angello have gone on to dominate the Big Room house landscape.
Developed in the US in the mid 90s, deep house is known for its more soulful vibes, usually featuring jazz influenced grooves and vocals. The use of real instruments such as live bass and saxophones, would tend to give deep house a more “real” sound than many other house sub genres.
Drum and bass
One of the types of electronic music that stands out as being very different from many of the others, due to its increased tempo (approx 170-180 bpm), its use of heavily processed breakbeat samples, and huge sub bass basslines. A direct descendent of the rave music of the early 90s, Drum and Bass (DnB) has continued to be very popular with all kinds of music fans, and has even crossed over into the popular music realm with artists like Roni Size and Goldie breaking through to receive critical acclaim from the mainstream music press and fans alike.
Another one of the types of EDM that ditches the standard 4/4 house beat, for something much more syncopated, dubstep usually comes in around 140 bpm, but sounds a lot slower down to its half time beat. Arguably the genre that brought us the “drop”, it’s origins come from south London but that original dubstep styles of artists like Burial and Skream were quickly replaced with a sound with more in common to big room house from artists like Skrillex and Flux Pavilion.
Originating in Detroit in the USA, techno took the house model, pushed the tempo a little, introduced more electronic sounds, and ditched arrangement for repetitive looping atmospheres. Common place in the UK and many European countries like Germany, techno is still one of the most enduring underground subgenres of EDM, that has only crossed into the mainstream via acts that blend techno with more stadium EDM sound, such as Underworld and Orbital.
Arguably one of the most popular subgenres of EDM, trance was popularized in the early 90s by artists such as Paul van Dyk & Ferry Corsten, whose use of uplifting chord progressions, ethereal vocals and repetitive driving basslines, created a subgenre that was instantly popular with clubbers and festival goers alike. Its emphasis on atmospheric buildups and breakdowns saw big name trance DJs draw in huge crowds on stages around the world, and arguably paved the way for the current EDM festival scene.
On the Sonic Academy website we have over 3000 hours of tutorials that cover every genre we’ve just discussed plus many more. So, if you’re still confused as to what is edm and how it sounds, then click here to check out what we’ve got to offer.
How is EDM created?
What is electronic dance music and how is it created? The vast majority of EDM is created using a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). This is a piece of software that allows you to take many different sounds and blend them together to make a track. These sounds are usually created with virtual synths that can be programmed within the DAW, or audio samples, that are small snippets of recorded sound. There are many DAWs on the market that all pretty do the same thing, but have their own unique set of features to appeal to both beginners and seasoned pros. A few of the most popular DAWs available are Ableton Live, Cubase, Logic Pro and FL Studio.
We think the best way to get started making your own EDM music is to have a look at our extensive range of tutorials where some of the greatest producers in the world will show you how to create many different subgenres of EDM, and reveal the secrets behind many of the world’s biggest tunes.
What are the minimum equipment requirements for creating electronic dance music?
The first thing to consider when learning how to make your own electronic music, is the gear you will need. Your basic setup could include the following bits of kit;
- Computer - to host your software and all your samples
- Pair of speakers - to monitor the sound in your home studio
- MIDI controller - to give you hands on control of the functions of your DAW
- Sound card - to increase the quality of sound reproduced in your studio, and to give you more options when recording external instruments or vocals.
- DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) - the software you use to record, arrange and mix your tracks.
These would be the core bits of equipment used in studios for electronic music creation, although at a push you could start with just a computer and a decent set of headphones. You can create really good music with minimum equipment, and we’d bet on the fact that all your favorite producers started out in a bedroom with hardly any gear at all. If you’ve got drive and good ideas, you’re pretty much good to go!
Why is EDM music so popular?
There are a number of factors that have led to EDM becoming so popular. Let’s have a look at a few of the key ones;
- Cultural change - since the turn of the last century, the production styles associated with EDM have become commonplace in popular music, it effectively made the jump from being a collection of underground scenes to becoming the mainstream. This has brought those sounds to the attention of a much wider audience.
- Streaming - Also over the last couple of decades, the rise in streaming and access to music, has increased at a phenomenal rate. Everyone around the globe with a smart phone and internet access, can hear any song they want in an instant, which has given artists a platform that they didn’t have before.
- Multigenre - as we mentioned before, there are literally hundreds of subgenres that have sprung up, over decades, that come under the banner of EDM. This means that there’s probably something that could be categorized as EDM, for many different demographics.
So there’s no escaping the fact that EDM is now a global phenomenon, with many different subgenres contained within, with producers creating everything from strange ambient soundscapes, to massive club anthems and pretty much everything inbetween. So the next time someone asks, EDM music, what is it? The answer may not be that straightforward, but the truth is that they will have probably heard lots of EDM before, and not even known it.
Do you want to start making your own EDM? We have a bunch of amazing tutorials from some of the world’s greatest producers who are ready to show you how they create their music, covering all major DAWs and many many different subgenres of EDM.
So, hopefully, we’ve helped you understand what is EDM and covered how it has come about - we’ve lots of other articles on the site worth checking out below as well.
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