What is EDM?
Whether you’re new to the rave scene or you’ve been exploring different musical genres for years, you’ve likely heard the term “EDM” as it refers to music. Maybe you know that you love the beats and rhythm, but you’re wondering what exactly EDM is. After all, you’ve probably heard a lot of music described as EDM, but not all of it sounds the same. We’ll take you on a deep dive into the world of EDM.
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EDM is an acronym that stands for “electronic dance music.” Sometimes called electronic music or dance music, EDM is mostly produced to be played at clubs, raves, and music festivals, but you can also listen on common music sites like Spotify, Soundcloud and Live Nation Radio. EDM is characterized in general by a repetitive percussion track, often with a melody played by a synthesizer laid over the percussion. There are numerous sub-genres of EDM and different remixes, which is why not all music in the genre sounds the same. We’ll dig into those in more detail below.
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Where Did EDM Originate?
EDM has been around for decades, but the new music on the playlists heard today are vastly different from what was around back when the genre got its start in underground clubs and raves around the globe. The genre has continued to evolve in every decade since. The early days of EDM can be traced back to the disco music of the late 70s, which used many of the same synthesized percussion sounds and electronic instruments heard in EDM today to get people out on the dance floor. Some of the early pioneers of the genre include Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder, who would later go on to collaborate with Daft Punk; they wrote the synthesized disco song “I Feel Love,” by Donna Summer, which ushered in a new era of synthesized pop that would continue into the 1980s.
The 1980s saw the movement of ultra synthesized pop into the mainstream with hits like “Take On Me” and the song that is today considered one of the first house records, “On and On,” by Jesse Saunders. However, the music of the 1970s and 80s still wouldn’t be recognizable to today’s EDM fans. By the 1990s, dance music had taken over. Popular EDM songs in the 90s included “Strings of Life” by Derrick May, which helped define techno in the US.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s and 2010s that EDM became truly entrenched in mainstream American pop culture, as producers like Daft Punk, Avicii, Hardwell, Diplo, Martin Garrix, Tiesto, David Guetta, and Skrillex came onto the scene. In the 2000s, EDM went from something you’d hear only at raves or clubs to music you’d hear on any billboard Top 40 radio station. Today, EDM sounds are used by most mainstream pop and hip-hop artists, including everyone from Taylor Swift to Justin Bieber, Drake, Marshmello, and Selena Gomez. Chances are, one of your favorite songs is probably EDM and you don’t even know it!
What are The Subgenres of EDM?
Part of what makes EDM a bit confusing is that there are about a thousand (or at least 15) different subgenres associated with the genre. Subgenre purists sometimes get frustrated when their favorite sounds are lumped into the giant category known as EDM, but unless you’re deep into rave culture and your closet is full of gear from iHeartRaves, it can be a little challenging to get a handle on all the different styles at first. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it! Here is a list of subgenres that are popular now, but by no means cover the entire genre as a whole.
- House: One of the most well known EDM subgenres is house music, which originated in Chicago in the 1980s. Most of the EDM-sounding tracks you hear on Top 40 radio belong to the house subgenre, and you’ve probably heard of some of the most popular house DJs, like Daft Punk, Deadmau5, David Guetta, and Calvin Harris. There are also subgenres under the house subgenre (this is getting meta!), including tropical house, deep house, electro house, progressive house, and future house music.
- Tropical house: Tropical house incorporates beachy, tropical sounds with the use of steel drums, marimbas, horns, and slower tempos. This type of EDM is calm and relaxing while still remaining upbeat (think pool party vibes). Kygo is considered a pioneer of tropical house music.
- Deep house: Deep house music originated in the 1980s and combines lower vocals with funky basslines at about 120-130 beats per minute. This type of EDM typically follows a 4/4 beat structure with heavy bass.
- Electro house: Electro house is a distinctive style of house music featuring heavy synth use, pounding bass, and strong build ups without a lot of percussion.
- Future house: Future house is a subgenre of deep house that emerged in the 2010s.
- Trance: This subgenre is defined by its repetitive synths, which typically range between 125 and 150 beats per minute. Trance music is intended to feel hypnotic in nature, so songs focus heavily on the buildup and breakdown of the song and focus on the melody. Trance originated in the 1990s. Trance has two subgenres, including progressive trance and psytrance.
- Progressive trance: You’ll know progressive trance when you hear its smooth flow from start to finish and futuristic tones.
- Psytrance: Psytrance will have your whole body moving to the hypnotic beat and lengthy songs.
- Drum and Bass: There’s not a lot of mystery to where the drum and bass sub genre gets its name; these are the two essential elements of “DnB” music. Drum and bass has two subgenres, including NeuroFunk and Future Bass.
- NeuroFunk: Sometimes called techstep, neurofunk adds an industrial element and continuously builds backbeat to its drops.
- Future Bass: Future bass is a mix of several different genres, so you never know exactly what you’ll hear when it hits the airwaves. You’re guaranteed to get some heavy synth elements and sick trap beats, though!
- Dub: Born in London in the late 90s, dubstep is characterized by overwhelming bass, occasional vocals, clipped samples, and reverberant drums. Dub can sound pretty aggressive, so watch out for all the headbanging that’s sure to be going on around you when you’re listening to it! Dub has three subgenres, including dubstep, trap, and glitch-hop.
- Dubstep: If you’re grooving along at a high number of beats per minute and listening to rhythmic percussion patterson with huge drops, you’re probably listening to dubstep.
- Trap: Trap has its origins in rap and hip hop, but today it is characterized by loud kicks and succinct snares that set off the style’s heavy bass.
- Glitch-hop: While many subgenres are defined by the number of beats per minute in their songs, glitch-hop is characterized by the manipulation of different sounds and beats into “glitches” like clicks or beeps.
- Techno: While many people think that techno and EDM are the same thing and refer to them interchangeably, this is not the case. Techno was created in Detroit in the 1980s. Techno is characterized by computerized tones (giving the subgenre its “tech” name) and plenty of staccato, and you won’t be able to stop dancing once you hear it.
- Tech House: If this sounds like a blend of techno and house, you’d be right, but tech house has a flavor all its own. You’re likely to hear the synthetic melodies of techno with the tempo and rhythm of house to back it up.
- Acid Techno: Acid techno isn’t widely understood, but think of it like throwing acid on something and watching it distort. Acid techno producers use lots of distorted layers and sounds to bring out the beats in this unique subgenre.
- Hardstyle: Hardstyle is characterized by a ferocious kick drum and reversed basslines, and it’s highly popular in Europe. Hardstyle is catching on in North America and typically hits at about 140 to 150 beats per minute.
- Ambient/Ethereal: You probably won’t hear ambient music at your next rave, but this type of EDM might be able to cheer you up or help you fall asleep! Ambient music is typically instrumental and has no constant beat, and shares a lot of similarities with ethereal music, which was popularized and even made official by Grimes.
Hyperpop: Popularized by artists like Charli XCX and SOPHIE in the mid 2010s, hyperpop is quickly becoming one of the most popular genres to emerge into mainstream EDM culture in the 2020s. Categorized by its high energy beats and often intrusive sounds, it's a genre your music taste will have to get used to. But once it does, you won't be able to get enough.
The reality is that if you walk up to anyone wearing neon eyeliner at your next rave, they’re sure to have a subgenre of EDM that they swear is their favorite, and they’ve also probably got their own ideas about just how many subgenres EDM has and which ones are legitimate.
As much as it might frustrate genre purists, the beauty of EDM is that it’s constantly changing and evolving, so there’s always something new to hear and a fresh beat to groove to at your next festival. The next time you hit the festival circuit, consider branching out from your usual stage and catching a set or two of a subgenre you’ve never tried before. You might just be pleasantly surprised at what you hear!
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