What Defines Electronic Music?

An ordinary piece of pop music doesn’t automatically transform into electronic music because it is performed on a synthesizer; but electronic music has produced an extensive body of literature comprising theatre, film and television scores as well as serious concert pieces.

There is also a wide variety of styles specifically tailored for dancing, such as Italo disco, techno, house and trance. Additionally, there are experimental or home listening-oriented formats like IDM and glitch.


Electronic music’s roots can be traced back to creative imagination and technology that enabled people to record, manipulate and produce sounds. Over the first half of the twentieth century, various developments occurred that directly related to modern electronic music; one example being audio frequency technology with basic circuits for sine, square and sawtooth wave generators becoming available by 1920 (sine waves consist of pure tones; sawtooth waves combine fundamental tones with their associated overtones; while square waves consist of odd-numbered partial tones from natural harmonic series).

As early as the late 1950s, composers such as Halim El-Dabh from Egypt created some of the first known electronic tape music, later termed musique concrete, while American serial composer Milton Babbitt experimented with manipulating both acoustic sounds and electronic instruments. At about this same time, pioneering synthesizers came into widespread use allowing musicians to produce unique musical expressions by synthesizing sounds not possible via traditional means.

The 1980s marked an important turning point in electronic music history with the rise in popularity of house and dance genres such as techno, acid house, electro house, big room house and big room house largely due to the TR-808 drum machine which provided producers with access to an endless supply of rhythms and sounds that couldn’t otherwise be produced any other way. Furthermore, underground parties held across Europe saw this genre grow more widely popular thanks to DJs such as Danny Ramplimg of UK fame along with Germans Paul van der Graff and Sebastian Ingrossso who came together later as part of supergroup ‘Swedish House Mafia’ in 2008.

Industrial electro music emerged during the early 1990s. This genre, more industrial than its funk predecessors, features hard beats, high-pitched synth sounds and lyrics in languages like German, French and Arabic. Artists such as Germany’s Kraftwerk and US hip hop producer Afrika Bambaataa helped popularize it across New York City streets as well as clubs throughout America.


Although some may use the term ‘electronic music’ as an umbrella term for all electronic dance music genres, this genre actually encompasses an expansive area of musical expression encompassing many styles and subgenres – some of which are listed here.

House Music This genre evolved out of disco music and first made its mark in Chicago’s black neighbourhoods during the 1980s. Young musicians purchased Roland TR-808 drum machines at pawn shops; today DJs still perform its classic tracks at large festivals and gigs around the globe, creating subgenres such as techno and electro house that remain immensely popular worldwide.

Techno Music

One of the earliest forms of electronic music, techno emerged in Detroit under the guidance of artists like Juan Atkins and Derrick May. Characterised by an angular style characterized by four-to-the-floor beats complemented by atmospheric synths and raw soundscapes, techno can also take many different forms including acid, hardcore and bleep techno – often heard at underground parties taking place across Europe in gyms, fields or warehouses.

Electro Music

Though generally an instrumental genre, electro can often feature vocals processed with a vocoder or speech synthesizer for extra effect. Furthermore, its style often boasts darker tones with repeated patterns, as well as often making use of similar production techniques as industrial music.

Future Bass Music Future bass has an average BPM range between 130-141, combining elements of EDM with those found in dubstep and trap music. It is distinguished by a deep, warm bounce with risers leading up to its drop. Future Bass also stands out thanks to its use of detuned synths that buzz and purr rather than the usual dubstep or trap instruments which gulp and whomp during dubstep or thwoop and whoop during trap music tracks.


There are two primary categories of electronic musical instruments: those which recreate existing sounds and those which create entirely new ones. Acoustic synthesizers such as the Hammond organ or electromechanical devices like Theremin or Ondes Martenot simulate existing tones by sending electromagnetic signals through conductors to create vibrations within their circuitry; on the other hand, electric guitars, keyboard synthesizers, and drum machines create new music styles through creating electromagnetic vibrations; the latter grouping includes electric guitars, keyboard synthesizers, and drum machines used to compose new tracks from various styles of popular songs.

Early experiments in electronic music involved composers experimenting with novel instrumentation. Karlheinz Stockhausen created Mikrophonie I for orchestra in 1960 using tam-tams, hand-held microphones and filters; later he composed Mixtur for orchestra with four sine wave generators and ring modulators in 1965 – these experiments helped develop a form of music focused on timbral qualities rather than pitch or rhythm.

Mike Oldfield, Jean Michel Jarre and Vangelis became some of the earliest rock musicians and composers to embrace electronic instruments into their work in the 1970s. Utilizing synthesizers like Moog synthesizers as well as other electronic instruments such as theremins and Mellotrons they created new sounds by reinterpreting contemporary pop and rock songs with these instruments. Progressive rock bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Genesis made use of instruments such as these instruments for more depth in their music as well as progressive rock bands such as these.

In the 1980s, MIDI systems led to widespread adoption of polyphonic synthesizers and programmable drum machines. Their development coincided with the rise of musical styles such as krautrock, new wave and synthpop; each style relying heavily on these instruments but also including elements from classical, jazz and folk traditions.

Electronic artists began using various instruments in the 1990s, from computers and specialized software programs, to computers equipped with various digital samplers and other triggering devices, to store digital recordings of music and sounds and allow their playback through keyboard or triggering devices. Sometimes this sampling process is supplemented by noise manipulation or digital distortion techniques for further sonic exploration by electronic musicians.


Early electronic music was produced by composers who utilized different mediums and sound sources, like John Cage who published his Imaginary Landscape No.1 composition using variable speed turntables, frequency recordings, muted piano and cymbal mutes in 1939. Cage would subsequently publish five more Imaginary Landscapes between 1942 and 1952 without using electronic means for production.

Since World War II, developments have more directly led to modern electronic music. Electrical recording replaced mechanical acoustical recording in the 1920s; by the late 1970s and early 1980s synth-pop became an extremely popular subgenre of pop music which utilized synthesizers. Kraftwerk are widely credited with pioneering this subgenre through their revolutionary use of robot vocals, drum machines and synthesizers; it quickly spread into more traditional genres such as rock, funk and disco before ultimately helping lay foundation for hip-hop and techno.

By the 1990s, more musicians started to experiment with electronic instruments and effects, popularizing EDM with artists like Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers and Moby. Trip hop also gained prominence during this era; its blend of hip-hop beats with acoustic instrumentation was revolutionary for this period – while ambient was seen as more relaxing style that focused on textures rather than dancefloor rhythms.

Throughout the 2000s, technology advances continued to bolster electronic music’s growth. Innovative platforms like Ableton Live’s digital audio workstation (DAW) and studio emulation Reason made it possible for musicians with any budget to create professional-sounding electronic music using just their computers.

Digital Signal Processing (DSP) technology enabled musicians to manipulate and combine various sound sources. DSP can often be found in IDM productions – an electronic music style considered more intellectual and experimental than its counterparts yet still designed to be danceable.

Holly Herndon is one of many innovative electronic musicians renowned for pushing the limits of what can be accomplished using modern equipment and software. Her work spans both art and science, exploring machine learning’s ability to influence how musicians create music. In addition, Herndon offers workshops which demonstrate music-making’s power and joy for everyone from 10-year olds in Rotherham to 100-year olds with dementia in Parisian care homes.