Lockdown Lesson 15

History of Electronic Music
Over the last two lessons, we’ve charted the history of rock and dance music, looking at their shared roots, and seeing how they gradually developed into new genres, from rock’n’roll and soul to metal and disco.

In both lessons, we stopped our journey at the end of 70s. There is a reason for this – in the 80s, electronic dance music took off, which had a huge influence on other genres. Over the following decades rock, soul, and disco took on more and more electronic elements resulting in entirely new genres of music, including the modern ‘pop’ sound. So before we move on to modern pop music, let’s listen to the electronic music from which it grew.

The Pioneers
Electronic music really came into its own in the 80s, when developments in technology meant that electronic instruments and equipment became more portable, more affordable, and more reliable.

an early synthesiser from 1901. It’s a bit big to carry!

However, electronic music had been around for many years before then. For as long as recording equipment and noise generating machines have existed, musicians have been experimenting with using them in their compositions. Here’s a song from the 90s with an instrument called a ‘vocoder’ applied to the voice, which makes it sound like a robot.

Although it’s a sound we associate with modern music, this sort of technology goes way back!

In the 1940s, thanks to the invention of recording technology, a style called musique concrète emerged. This was created by recording and layering different sounds on top of each other, like a collage made from sound.

a picture like this, made from different materials such as books or photos, is called a collage.

This type of music pioneered a technique called sampling – taking pre-existing recordings and using them to make part of a new piece of music. Although this is example is from the 80s (many decades after musique concrete originated), it’s a good example of this style. Notice the layers of sound. This style is sometimes described as a soundscape rather than music (because it creates a landscape with sound). While listening, try to pick out all the different sounds and instruments you can hear.

Sampling was a fundamental part of the hip-hop, rap, and jungle movements which came many years later. Let’s have a look at how sampling in more detail.

Sampling – Hip Hop, Rap, Jungle, and Drum & Bass
In this next video I’m going to give you a demonstration of how sampling works, using one of the most influential five seconds of music ever: the Amen Break.

Now let’s hear some examples of the Amen Break in action. In this next video from the 90s, the sample is used in a hip-hop track by NWA.

Here’s another example from the 90s, with this typical example of the break used in a jungle track by Peshay.

This next video is a more recent example by Rudimental. In this track, the rhythm of the break is being performed live by a drummer.

It isn’t just drum loops that are sampled. You may know this song already.

But it could sound familiar for another reason, this track by Kanye West.

Here’s a more modern track being sampled, Machine Gun by Portishead. Listen to the beginning of the original then see if you can hear the sample in the next song by The Weekend.

Synths and Drum Machines – House, Techno, and Trance
Let’s pick up where we left off last lesson, looking at how disco led to house and techno.
Through the 70s, disco was generally performed by live musicians – singers, guitarists, bass guitar, piano, drummers, and other percussion. Throughout the 80s, disco gradually became more and more electronic, with synthesisers (keyboards) and drum machines taking more important roles.

Thanks to the invention of the drum machine, house music was born. Here’s one of the earliest Chicago house tracks from 1984.

While Chicago house had quite a dark flavour, by the 90s, a more soulful form of house had emerged – deep house.

Listening to modern artists like Disclosure it’s easy to still hear those roots.

While house was finding a softer voice, a harder style had also been developing in the Motor City – Detroit. Home to Motown, Detroit is famous for the Ford car factories in the state, where many of its residents worked. Inspired by these industrial, robotic factories, house music there kept the edgier sound of Chicago house and pushed it to harder, darker and more aggressive extremes. The result is a genre now know as techno. Here’s one of the earliest Detroit techno tracks by Juan Atkins.

And now an example of a modern techno track from two years ago. This track is much heavier than the Detroit style, with a much more thumping ‘kick’, but also features some deep house style vocals and synths.

In the 90s, another form of electronic dance music took off, called trance. Trance music is very similar to techno – heavy, fast, and mostly made with synths and drum machines. However, it’s much more melodic than techno, and with lots of hypnotic synths and catchy melodies, and often features singers and a song-structure as the main focus.

Over the next 10 years or so, trance had a huge impact on popular music, leading to a style called EDM (which is short for electronic dance music, but refers to this particular style, which is very poppy). Here’s a typical EDM song by Avicii from 2011. It’s a lot slower than trance and less intense but still features the singers, big breakdowns, and huge melodic synths.

UK Garage, Contemporary R&B, Dubstep and Trap
These genres also have their roots in the 90s, developing out of house, soul and rap. UK garage was a soulful form of house that often featured vocals similar to the 60s soul singers. A similar style, UK grime, had similar beats but tended to feature rappers rather than singers. Both styles had a garage beat – drums that sounded housey but were more chopped up and ‘bouncy’ than the usual “4 to the floor” found in house music. Here’s some UK Garage by MJ Cole.

And some UK grime from So Solid Crew.

In the US, singers like Beyoncé were also returning to soulful roots, but with hip-hop beats, in a style called contemporary R&B.

Over the 2000s, UK grime artists began exploring a much heavier sound, resulting in a completely new style called dubstep. In dubstep, the bouncy garage beat is much more exaggerated, and the bass often changes in texture and volume in time to the music.

Poppy EDM artists began to use this sound in their own tracks, resulting in a more commercial style of dubstep such as that written by Skrillex.

While EDM artists were making dubstep more commercial sounding, rap artists went the other way, continuing the original underground garage vibe with trap and drill, which brings us up to date with modern grime music!

We covered a lot today! There is still a lot of electronic music we didn’t get to cover, but hopefully you found some songs you like in there!

Modern pop music takes elements from many of the styles we’ve looked at so far – disco, hip-hop, soul, house, and rock music, as well as others. Now we’ve learned about these styles, we’re ready to begin looking at modern pop music. See you next week!