Ambient music

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Ambient music is a genre of music that puts an emphasis on tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure or rhythm. Ambient music is said to evoke an "atmospheric", "visual",[2] or "unobtrusive" quality.[3] According to Brian Eno, one of its pioneers, "Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting."[4]

As a genre, it originated in the United Kingdom at a time when new sound-making devices were being introduced to a wider market, such as the synthesizer. Ambient developed in the 1970s from the experimental and synthesizer-oriented styles of the period. The work of Tangerine Dream, Cluster and composer Erik Satie, as well as the psychoacoustic soundscapes of Irv Teibel's Environments series, were all influences on the emergence of ambient. Brian Eno named and popularized ambient music in 1978 with his landmark album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. The Orb and Aphex Twin gained commercial success with ambient tracks in the early 1990s. Ambient compositions are often quite lengthy, much longer than more popular, commercial forms of music.

Ambient had a revival towards the late 1980s with the prominence of house and techno music. Eventually, ambient grew a cult following in the 1990s.[5] By the early 1990s, artists such as Aphex Twin were being called ambient house, ambient techno, or "ambient" by the media. Genre offshoots include dark ambient, ambient house, ambient industrial, ambient dub, psybient, and ambient trance.


Developing in the 1970s, ambient stemmed from the experimental and synthesizer-oriented styles of the period. Although German bands such as Popol Vuh and Tangerine Dream predate him in the creation of Ambient music, Brian Eno played a key role in its development and popularization, and is often erroneously[according to whom?] cited as ambient's founder. The concept of background or furniture music had already existed some time before, but only in the 70s was ambient music first created, which incorporated New Age ideals with the newly invented modular synthesizer. The impact the rise of the synthesizer in modern music had on ambient as a genre cannot be overstated; as Ralf Hutter of early electronic pioneers Kraftwerk said in a 1977 Billboard interview: "Electronics is beyond nations and colors...with electronics everything is possible. The only limit is with the composer".[6] Similarly, Eno said in a 2013 interview with The Guardian that "One of the important things about the synthesizer was that it came without any baggage. A piano comes with a whole history of music...when you play an instrument that does not have any such historical background you are designing sound basically. You're designing a new instrument. That's what a synthesizer is essentially. It's a constantly unfinished instrument. You finish it when you tweak it, and play around with it, and decide how to use it. You can combine a number of cultural references into one new thing."[6]

As a genre, ambient music usually focuses on creating a mood or atmosphere through synthesizers and timbral qualities. It often lacks the presence of any net composition, beat, or structured melody. Due to its relatively open style, ambient music often takes influences from many other genres, ranging from house, dub, industrial and new age, amongst several others.

Ambient did not achieve large commercial success, being criticized as having a "boring" and "over-intellectual" sound.[7] Nevertheless, it has also attained a certain degree of acclaim throughout the years. It had its first wave of popularity in the 1970s, yet saw a revival towards the late 1980s with the prominence of house and techno music, growing a cult following by the 1990s.[5]

As an early 20th-century French composer, Erik Satie used such Dadaist-inspired explorations to create an early form of ambient / background music that he labeled "furniture music" (Musique d'ameublement). This he described as being the sort of music that could be played during a dinner to create a background atmosphere for that activity, rather than serving as the focus of attention.[8] In his own words, he sought to create "a music...which will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration. I think of it as melodious, softening the noises of the knives and forks at dinner, not dominating them, not imposing itself. It would fill up those heavy silences that sometime fall between friends dining together. It would spare them the trouble of paying attention to their own banal remarks. And at the same time it would neutralize the street noises which so indiscreetly enter into the play of conversation. To make such music would be to respond to a need."[9] Like Satie describes, Brian Eno notes a time when he was too sick to put on music and got a friend to come over and do it for him. Listening to harp music on an old stereo, he was unable to hear it amidst the loud sounds of the rain outside his window. Initially this frustrated him, but eventually he found it interesting the way the music blended with the natural rain sounds in a way that made it not distinctly apparent, and he set out to create compositions that worked in a comparable way.[10] Eno went on to record 1975's Discreet Music with this in mind, suggesting that it be listened to at "comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility",[9] referring to Satie's quote about his musique d'ameublement.

Eno's 1973 collaboration with Robert Fripp (No Pussyfooting) can be seen as an early experiment in ambient music. Through the manipulation of reel-to-reel tape loops by Eno while Fripp played guitar over them, the duo was able to create multi-layered and dynamic pieces whose textures are similar to those of later ambient pieces, the genre not to be popularized by Eno until years later.[11] Their method of composition, involving the treatment and experimentation of loops, would prove influential and has since been emulated by modern artists such as William Basinski, whose work The Disintegration Loops consists of a series of tape loops that slowly deteriorate over as the songs progress, introducing noise and cracks to the initially pristine quality of sound.

Erik Satie is acknowledged as an important precursor to modern ambient music and influence to Brian Eno.

Brian Eno is generally credited with coining the term "Ambient Music" in the mid-1970s to refer to music that, as he stated, can be either "actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener", and that exists on the "cusp between melody and texture".[8] Eno, who describes himself as a "non-musician", termed his experiments in sound as "treatments" rather than as traditional performances. Eno used the word "ambient" to describe music that creates an atmosphere that puts the listener into a different state of mind; having chosen the word based on the Latin term "ambire", "to surround".[12]

The album notes accompanying Eno's 1978 release Ambient 1: Music for Airports include a manifesto describing the philosophy behind his ambient music: "Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting."[13]

Eno has acknowledged the influence of Erik Satie and John Cage. In particular, Eno was aware of Cage's use of chance such as throwing the I Ching to directly affect the creation of a musical composition. Eno then utilised a similar method of weaving randomness into his compositional structures. This approach was manifested in Eno's creation of Oblique Strategies, where he used a set of specially designed cards to create various sound dilemmas that in turn, were resolved by exploring various open ended paths, until a resolution to the musical composition revealed itself. Eno also acknowledged influences of the drone music of La Monte Young (of whom he said, "La Monte Young is the daddy of us all"[14]) and of the mood music of Miles Davis and Teo Macero, especially their 1974 epic piece, "He Loved Him Madly" (from Get Up with It), about which Eno wrote, "that piece seemed to have the 'spacious' quality that I was became a touchstone to which I returned frequently."[12]

Eno has also been outspoken about the role of the recording studio in ambient music, notably in the freedom it gives in crafting textures of sound. He notes "When I first started recording I didn't have the background of a musician, and in fact it was only because of the recording studio and because of the technology that existed there that I was ever able to become a musician of any kind...the recording studio allows you to become a painter with sound, that's really what you do in a studio, you make pictures with sound..."[9]

Beyond the major influence of Brian Eno, other musicians and bands added to the growing nucleus of music that evolved around the development of "Ambient Music". While not an exhaustive list, one cannot ignore the parallel influences of Wendy Carlos, who produced the original music piece called "Timesteps" which was then used as the filmscore to A Clockwork Orange, as well as her later work Sonic Seasonings. Other significant artists such as Mike Oldfield, Jean Michel Jarre and Vangelis, also Russian electronic music pioneer Mikhail Chekalin, have all added to or directly influenced the evolution of ambient music. Pink Floyd's last album The Endless River falls into the ambient genre. The Yellow Magic Orchestra developed a distinct style of ambient electronic music that would later be developed into ambient house music.[15]

While muzak can be seen akin to ambient music in that they are both meant to be heard in the background, Eno describes some notable differences between them: "Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to "brighten" the environment by adding stimulus to it...Ambient Music is intended to produce calm and a space to think."[9]

1990s developments[edit]

Main article: ambient house

By the early 1990s, artists such as The Orb, Aphex Twin, Seefeel, the Irresistible Force, Geir Jenssen's Biosphere, and the Higher Intelligence Agency were being referred to by the popular music press as ambient house, ambient techno, IDM or simply "ambient" according to the liner notes of Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports:

So-called 'Chillout' began as a term deriving from British ecstasy culture which was originally applied in relaxed downtempo 'chillout rooms' outside of the main dance floor where ambient, dub and downtempo beats were played to ease the tripping mind.[16][17]

The London scene artists, such as Aphex Twin (specifically: Selected Ambient Works Volume II, 1994), Global Communication (76:14, 1994), The Future Sound of London (Lifeforms, 1994, ISDN, 1994), The Black Dog (Temple of Transparent Balls, 1993), Autechre (Incunabula, 1993, Amber, 1994), Boards of Canada, and The KLF's seminal Chill Out, 1990, all took a part in popularising and diversifying ambient music where it was used as a calming respite from the intensity of the hardcore and techno popular at that time.[16]

Related and derivative genres[edit]

Dark ambient[edit]

Main article: Dark ambient

Brian Eno's original vision of ambient music as unobtrusive musical wallpaper, later fused with warm house rhythms and given playful qualities by the Orb in the 1990s, found its opposite in the style known as dark ambient. Populated by a wide assortment of personalities—ranging from aging industrial and metal experimentalists (Scorn's Mick Harris, Current 93's David Tibet, Nurse with Wound's Steven Stapleton) to electronic boffins (Kim Cascone/PGR, Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia), Japanese noise artists (K.K. Null, Merzbow), and latter-day indie rockers (Main, Bark Psychosis) -- dark ambient features toned-down or entirely missing beats with unsettling passages of keyboards, eerie samples, and treated guitar effects. Like most styles related in some way to electronic/dance music of the '90s, it's a very nebulous term; many artists enter or leave the style with each successive release.[18] Related styles include ambient industrial (see below) and isolationist ambient.

Ambient house[edit]

Main article: Ambient house

Ambient house is a musical category founded in the late 1980s that is used to describe acid house featuring ambient music elements and atmospheres.[19] Tracks in the ambient house genre typically feature four-on-the-floor beats, synth pads, and vocal samples integrated in an atmospheric style.[19] Ambient house tracks generally lack a diatonic center and feature much atonality along with synthesized chords. The Dutch Brainvoyager is an example of this genre. Illbient is another form of ambient house music.

Ambient industrial[edit]

Main article: Ambient industrial

Ambient industrial is a hybrid genre of ambient and industrial music; the term industrial being used in the original experimental sense, rather than in the sense of industrial metal.[20] A "typical" ambient industrial work (if there is such a thing) might consist of evolving dissonant harmonies of metallic drones and resonances, extreme low frequency rumbles and machine noises, perhaps supplemented by gongs, percussive rhythms, bullroarers, distorted voices or anything else the artist might care to sample (often processed to the point where the original sample is no longer recognizable).[20] Entire works may be based on radio telescope recordings, the babbling of newborn babies, or sounds recorded through contact microphones on telegraph wires.[20]

Space music[edit]

Main article: Space music

Space music, also spelled "Spacemusic", includes music from the ambient genre as well as a broad range of other genres with certain characteristics in common to create the experience of contemplative spaciousness.[21][22][23]

Many of the earliest performers were associated with the Berlin School of electronic music, which continues to inspire the genre.

Space music ranges from simple to complex sonic textures sometimes lacking conventional melodic, rhythmic, or vocal components,[24][25] generally evoking a sense of "continuum of spatial imagery and emotion",[26] beneficial introspection, deep listening[27] and sensations of floating, cruising or flying.[28][29]

Space music is used by individuals for both background enhancement and foreground listening, often with headphones, to stimulate relaxation, contemplation, inspiration and generally peaceful expansive moods[30] and soundscapes. Space music is also a component of many film soundtracks and is commonly used in planetariums, as a relaxation aid and for meditation.[31]

Ambient pop[edit]

Ambient pop is an extension of dream pop, possessing a shape and form common to conventional pop, while its electronic textures and atmospheres mirror the meditative qualities of ambient. It is influenced by the lock-groove melodies of krautrock, but is less abrasive.[32]

Ambient dub[edit]

Ambient dub involves the genre melding of dub styles. It was pioneered by King Tubby and other Jamaican sound artists, who used DJ-inspired ambient electronica, complete with all the inherent drop-outs, echo, equalization and psychedelic electronic effects. It often features layering techniques and incorporates elements of world music, deep bass lines and harmonic sounds.[33] According to David Toop, "Dub music is like a long echo delay, looping through time...turning the rational order of musical sequences into an ocean of sensation."[34] Notable artists within the genre include Dreadzone, Higher Intelligence Agency, The Orb, Ott, Loop Guru, Woob and Transglobal Underground[35] as well as Banco de Gaia.

Notable ambient-music shows on radio and via satellite[edit]

  • Sirius XM Chill plays ambient, chill out and downtempo electronica.
  • Echoes, is a daily two-hour music radio program hosted by John Diliberto featuring a soundscape of ambient, spacemusic, electronica, new acoustic and new music directions – founded in 1989 and syndicated on 130 radio stations in the USA.
  • Hearts of Space, a program hosted by Stephen Hill and broadcast on NPR in the US since 1973.[36][37]
  • Musical Starstreams, a US-based commercial radio station and internet program produced, programmed and hosted by Forest since 1981.
  • Star's End a radio show on 88.5 WXPN, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1976, it is the second longest-running ambient music radio show in the world.[38]
  • Ultima Thule Ambient Music, a weekly 90-minute show broadcast since 1989 on community radio across Australia.
  • Avaruusromua, the name meaning "space debris", is a 60-minute ambient and avant-garde radio program broadcast since 1990 on Finnish public broadcaster YLE's various stations.[39]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Drone is now classified as a subgenre of ambient music, but early drone music influenced the origin of ambient. See the other note from Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music (Cook & Pople 2004, p. 502), and the note from Four Musical Minimalists (Potter 2002, p. 91).
  2. ^ Prendergast, M. The Ambient Century. 2001. Bloomsbury, USA
  3. ^ "Ambient - Definition of ambient by Merriam-Webster". 
  4. ^ Eno, Brian. "Music for Airports". Retrieved 8 July 2013. 
  5. ^ a b "Music Genres - AllMusic". AllMusic. 
  6. ^ a b " - A history of ambient". Retrieved 2016-04-05. 
  7. ^ "AllMusic". AllMusic. 
  8. ^ a b Jarrett, Michael (1998). Sound Tracks: A Musical ABC, Volumes 1–3. Temple University Press. p. 1973. ISBN 978-1-56639-641-7. 
  9. ^ a b c d "/seconds.". Retrieved 2016-04-05. 
  10. ^ "Epsilon: Ambient Music, Beginnings and Implications, by Chris Melchior". Retrieved 2016-04-05. 
  11. ^ Tamm, Eric (1995). Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound. De Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80649-5. 
  12. ^ a b Tingen, Paul (2001). Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967–1991. Watson-Guptill. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-8230-8346-6. 
  13. ^ Brian Eno, [ Music for Airports liner notes], September 1978
  14. ^ Potter, Keith (2002). Four Musical Minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass (rev. pbk from 2000 hbk ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. [ 91]. ISBN 978-0-521-01501-1.  (Quoting Brian Eno saying "La Monte Young is the daddy of us all" with endnote 113 p. [ 349] referencing it as "Quoted in Palmer, A Father Figure for the Avant-Garde, p. 49".)
  15. ^ Yellow Magic Orchestra at AllMusic. Retrieved 2011-05-25.
  16. ^ a b Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House, Matthew Collin, 1997, Serpent's Tail ISBN 1-85242-377-3
  17. ^ Childs, Peter; Storry, Mike, eds. (2002). "Ambient music". Encyclopedia of Contemporary British Culture. London: Routledge. p. 22. 
  18. ^ AllMusic. "Dark Ambient: Significant Albums, Artists, and Songs". Retrieved 8 July 2013. 
  19. ^ a b "Ambient House". AllMusic. Archived from the original on June 5, 2011. Retrieved October 4, 2006. 
  20. ^ a b c Werner, Peter. "Epsilon: Ambient Industrial". Music Hyperreal. Retrieved December 11, 2011. 
  21. ^ "... Originally a 1970s reference to the conjunction of ambient electronics and our expanding visions of cosmic space ... In fact, almost any music with a slow pace and space-creating sound images could be called spacemusic." Stephen Hill, co-founder, Hearts of Space, What is spacemusic?
  22. ^ "Any music with a generally slow, relaxing pace and space-creating imagery or atmospherics may be considered Space Music, without conventional rhythmic elements, while drawing from any number of traditional, ethnic, or modern styles." Lloyde Barde, July/August 2004, Making Sense of the Last 20 Years in New Music
  23. ^ "When you listen to space and ambient music you are connecting with a tradition of contemplative sound experience whose roots are ancient and diverse. The genre spans historical, ethnic, and contemporary styles. In fact, almost any music with a slow pace and space-creating sound images could be called spacemusic." Stephen Hill, co-founder, Hearts of Space, What is spacemusic?
  24. ^ "A timeless ancient as the echoes of a simple bamboo flute or as contemporary as the latest ambient electronica. Any music with a generally slow pace and space-creating sound image can be called spacemusic. Generally quiet, consonant, ethereal, often without conventional rhythmic and dynamic contrasts, spacemusic is found within many historical, ethnic, and contemporary genres."Stephen Hill, co-founder, Hearts of Space, sidebar "What is Spacemusic?" in essay Contemplative Music, Broadly Defined
  25. ^ "The early innovators in electronic "space music" were mostly located around Berlin. The term has come to refer to music in the style of the early and mid-1970s works of Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel, Popol Vuh and others in that scene. The music is characterized by long compositions, looping sequencer patterns, and improvised lead melody lines." – John Dilaberto, Berlin School, Echoes Radio on-line music glossary
  26. ^ "This music is experienced primarily as a continuum of spatial imagery and emotion, rather than as thematic musical relationships, compositional ideas, or performance values." Essay by Stephen Hill, co-founder, Hearts of Space, New Age Music Made Simple
  27. ^ "Innerspace, Meditative, and Transcendental... This music promotes a psychological movement inward." Stephen Hill, co-founder, Hearts of Space, essay titled New Age Music Made Simple
  28. ^ "...Spacemusic ... conjures up either outer "space" or "inner space" " – Lloyd Barde, founder of Backroads Music Notes on Ambient Music, Hyperreal Music Archive
  29. ^ "Space And Travel Music: Celestial, Cosmic, and Terrestrial... This New Age sub-category has the effect of outward psychological expansion. Celestial or cosmic music removes listeners from their ordinary acoustical surroundings by creating stereo sound images of vast, virtually dimensionless spatial environments. In a word — spacey. Rhythmic or tonal movements animate the experience of flying, floating, cruising, gliding, or hovering within the auditory space."Stephen Hill, co-founder, Hearts of Space, in an essay titled New Age Music Made Simple
  30. ^ " Restorative powers are often claimed for it, and at its best it can create an effective environment to balance some of the stress, noise, and complexity of everyday life." – Stephen Hill, Founder, Music from the Hearts of Space What is Spacemusic?
  31. ^ "This was the soundtrack for countless planetarium shows, on massage tables, and as soundtracks to many videos and movies."- Lloyd Barde Notes on Ambient Music, Hyperreal Music Archive
  32. ^ "Ambient Pop". AllMusic. 
  33. ^ Holmes, Thom (2008). Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture. Routledge. p. 403. ISBN 0203929594. Retrieved 1 April 2013. 
  34. ^ Toop, David (1995). Ocean of Sound. Serpent's Tail. p. 115. ISBN 9781852423827. 
  35. ^ Mattingly, Rick (2002). The Techno Primer: The Essential Reference for Loop-based Music Styles. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 38. ISBN 0634017888. Retrieved 1 April 2013. 
  36. ^ "The program has defined its own niche — a mix of ambient, electronic, world, new-age, classical and experimental music....Slow-paced, space-creating music from many cultures — ancient bell meditations, classical adagios, creative space jazz, and the latest electronic and acoustic ambient music are woven into a seamless sequence unified by sound, emotion, and spatial imagery." Stephen Hill, co-founder, Hearts of Space, essay titled Contemplative Music, Broadly Defined
  37. ^ "Hill's Hearts of Space Web site provides streaming access to an archive of hundreds of hours of spacemusic artfully blended into one-hour programs combining ambient, electronic, world, new-age and classical music." Steve Sande, The Sky's the Limit with Ambient Music, SF Chronicle, Sunday, January 11, 2004
  38. ^ "Star's End" is (with the exception of "Music from the Hearts of Space") the longest running radio program of ambient music in the world. Since 1976, Star's End has been providing the Philadelphia broadcast area with music to sleep and dream to." "Star's End" website background information page
  39. ^

External links[edit]