For those not involved in club culture, electronic dance music (or just dance music) simply seems like a solid beat accompanied by synth chords, with very basic lyrics:
Yet dance music has a rich history that started in the hippest disco dance halls in the 1970s, and has blossomed into an international phenomenon. Playful and culturally relevant, with an infectious beat that dares you to even try to stand still, dance music is here to stay.
The EDM Family Tree
It is not surprising that we find the beginnings of dance music in the tripping 1970s disco halls. The genre, long associated with drug culture, provided the soundtrack to a generation that was fresh out of the political turmoil of the sixties and was now deeply embedded in drinking, recreational drug use, and all-night dancing. Although disco’s popularity died by the 1980s, some of its musical innovations – like the use of synthesizers – formed the pulse of later genres like house, electro, and techno.
Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” was heavy on the synthesizers and strong beat:
DJ culture in the 1980s further developed dance music, incorporating old disco records, drum machines, and continuous repetition that made club crowds go dizzy with dance. At the same time, house music in the early 1980s developed a more minimalistic approach. When you listen to “On and On” by Chicago DJ Jesse Saunders, often touted as one of the most pivotal and noteworthy house tunes, you can hear some of the basic components of electronic dance music like the use of synthesizers, an almost futuristic sound, and a sustained repetitive beat:
Meanwhile, not far from Chicago, yet another offshoot of house music was coming into being: Detroit Techno, with its distinctly futurist sound and its range of African-American musical influences. The iconic compilation Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit was released in the late 1980s by Virgin Records, helping cement techno as its own identifiable genre unto itself:
An Explosion of Styles
Since the 1990s, dance music has exploded into a myriad of styles, from jungle and drum ‘n’ bass to tropical house and futurepop. What has stayed constant is the use of synthesizers and electronic instruments, minimalist textures, and a catchy repetitive beat to encourage dancing.
Today, dance music can be found throughout the globe, from Europe to the Americas to the Caribbean and Asia. In the 21st century, the immense popularity of dance music gained the attention of major labels and corporations like iHeartMedia, which have played an incredible role by bringing electronic dance to the masses through festivals, big name artists, and new labels that specialize in commercializing electronica:
Dance Music Breakdown
Whether you are listening to acid house, trance, techno, or future house, there are a few key elements that make up the basics of electronic dance music.
The repetitive and simple drum beat in every dance tune may be the one distinguishable feature. Often played in 4/4 time by a drum machine or synth, the purpose of this constant heartbeat of a pulse is to establish a beat for clubgoers to move in time to:
While the original beat from the disco roots of dance music was a very basic single pulse, in later styles, syncopation and a marked increase in tempo became commonplace, like in this jungle techno example from Jack Smooth and Spencer T:
Many electronic dance tunes have what is called the drop, or a section where there is a noticeable dramatic change in the song. Before the drop, there’s usually a build-up that gradually increases the energy of the song. These buildups can be anything from the recognizable snare drum buildup, starting slow and then doubling progressively in speed, or increased dynamics and/or layering in the synths.
- Changes in rhythm
- Instruments dropping out
- The new section
You can hear a noticeable drop in this dubstep song “Havoc” by DatsiK at around [0:55]:
It’s not surprising that many of the key players in electronic dance music have harbored a fascination for all things sci-fi and futurist. Twisting electronic synthesizers with a trance-inducing repetitive sound, electronic dance music often seems like it was birthed out of this world.
This eclectic sound has even leaked into the mainstream; plenty of top 40 hits keep to the electronica trend, adding interest to their music in the form of wicked synth lines.
Dance music is not always known for its lyrics, often because they are a single stanza repeated throughout, or are absent entirely. However, remixes of popular songs by talented DJs often make the clubs, bringing instant fame to the artists:
Electronic dance music has meshed with different styles like dancehall, pop, and hip hop to create a new fusion of music. Even far-flung influences such as experimental electroacoustic music and video game culture have made a huge impact on dance music as we know it.
Listen to the examples below of different types of electronica. Use your ears to distinguish the various characteristics of dance music in each genre.
- What is the beat?
- What electronic elements are used?
- Are there any sci-fi qualities?
- Is it instrumental? Or are there lyrics?
- What is the use of the synthesizer?
- Are there any popular culture references in the music?
Here’s an acid trance track:
And a song from the godfathers of electronica, Kraftwerk:
The Future of Dance Music
Going off a steady beat, a very futuristic robotic sound, and plenty of electronic innovation, electronic dance music has evolved considerably over the years. This evolution will continue in full force: dance music is constantly cross-pollinating with other genres, creating offshoots which turn into genres in their own right. You can only imagine what new styles of music will be spawned next!
Want to watch this musical evolution in person? Grab a friend (or five!), hit the dance floor, and party on to the music of the future.
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