I always thought that electronic music was unsophisticated, uninspired and uninteresting. After all, where were the instruments or the musical geniuses who spent years developing their skill and talent? That’s right, electronica was not on my radar screen until quite recently. That’s when I learned that there’s a lot more there than meets the eye when it comes to electronic and electronic dance music.
What is Electronic Dance Music (EDM)?
There are few experts who agree on a standard definition of Electronic Dance Music. Essentially, Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is a range of percussive musical genres that originated with Kraftwerk and disco in the 1970s. The music became popular with the explosion of the club scene in the 1980s, so much so that by the 1990s, electronic dance music came into its own.
How is Electronic Dance Music organized? Basically, it’s a composite of several electronic instruments, like drum machines, synthesizers and sequencers, that come together ironically to mimic or exploit traditional acoustic sounds and instrumentation. Some of it, depending upon when it was written and produced, is quite simplistic in its composition whereas others, more recent compositions, show the amazing evolution on the genre.
Kraftwerk: The Mother Ship
Kraftwerk is notable for being one of the first groups to popularize electronic music. Formed by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider-Esleben in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1970, Kraftwerks’ signature sound is characterized by strong melodies combined with repetitive rhythms. There’s a striking minimalism in Kraftwerk and its music follows Western classical construction and harmonies. To this day, Kraftwerk is credited with being pioneers in this area and its influence on future mutations of electronic music cannot be understated.
Disco: Electronica’s Roots
Disco is a form and genre of dance music which may or may not include electronic components. Its roots could be found in the nightclub scene in big cities like New York and Philadelphia where disco became a popular, equalizing musical genre and scene for men and women, gays and heterosexuals, African Americans, Latinos, among others. Disco was, in essence, the rejection of rock and roll, the predominant music of the day. While disco hit its peak in the mid to late 1970s, its emergence and synchronicity with Electronic Dance Music cannot be emphasized enough.
Techno is a form of Electronic Dance Music that originated and was popularized in Detroit, Michigan in the 1980s. Techno blended the sights and sounds of Krafwerk with rhythm and blues, funk, jazz, Chicago house, among others. Techno is closely associated with futurism and related themes, like humans’ relationship to machines and technology, but is often confused with Electronic Dance Music and other forms of machine-based music. Techno holds itself in sharp distinction from other genres and subgenres within Electronic Dance Music.
It’s All About the Technology
Electronic Dance Music could not have emerged and evolved without real advancements in both music and technology. In particular, the MIDI protocol made everything possible. What’s MIDI? Essentially, MIDI is an industry standard protocol that facilitates communication and synchronization between electronic instruments, computers and other electronic equipment. Its sophistication stands in sharp contract to analog protocols which required performers to bring onstage a wall of synthesizers and electronic pianos. MIDI, on the other hand, permitted the interface between different equipment, manufacturers, and so forth, which made it possible for performers to control the sound from one keyboard.
MIDI was a game changer. MIDI facilitated quality recording at a fraction of the price and enabled performers to take recording out of the studio and into the garage. MIDI played a huge role in the digitization of music.
Electronic Dance Music Today
Electronic Dance Music is often defined as “club music” when, indeed, musical experts and journalists note the evolution of a sound and style that is really characterized by many genres, styles and iterations. These styles are sometimes typified by the number of beats per minute (BPM). Instruments and vocals also separate one form of Electronic Dance Music from another. The rhythm and patter of drum beats also differentiate one form of Electronic Dance Music from another. Some forms of electronic dance music invite the listener to hear the music rather than dance to it. These include glitch, IDM, and trip hop which are widely experimental and free flowing, like the names themselves. Others invite dancing, like break beat, house, techno and electro, among others.
Electronic Dance Music has earned respect of the entire music industry as it has grown in sophistication. Its widespread acceptance can be felt in both traditional and progressive performances worldwide, its inclusion in theater, arts and music programs and scholarship, and the many labels that have sprung up to promote the genre.
The importance of scholarship is notable in the advance of electronic music. The Julliard School, one of the world’s most prestigious performing arts conservatories, has a Music Technology Center that sponsors performances blending traditional keyboards and strings with electronic music. In 1983, The Peabody Conservatory of Music and The Johns Hopkins University, both leaders in music and research technology, combined to offer one of the most comprehensive training programs in the world for students interested in musical performance, recording and production. Music Technology majors are common place in academic music programs around the world.
The Julliard School
Peabody Conservatory of Music
Electronic Music Association
MIDI Manufacturers Association
New York Clubs & Nightlife
Philadelphia Clubs & Nightlife