|Cultural origins||1960s-1970s, United Kingdom, Jamaica (dub music)  and Japan|
Ambient music is a genre of music that emphasizes tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure or rhythm. A form of instrumental music, it may lack net composition, beat, or structured melody. It uses textural layers of sound which can reward both passive and active listening and encourage a sense of calm or contemplation. The genre is said to evoke an "atmospheric", "visual", or "unobtrusive" quality. Nature soundscapes may be included, and the sounds of acoustic instruments such as the piano, strings and flute may be emulated through a synthesizer.
The genre originated in the 1960s and 1970s, when new musical instruments were being introduced to a wider market, such as the synthesizer. It was presaged by Erik Satie's furniture music and styles such as musique concrète, minimal music, Jamaican dub music and German electronic music, but was prominently named and popularized by British musician Brian Eno in 1978 with his album Ambient 1: Music for Airports; Eno opined that ambient music "must be as ignorable as it is interesting." It saw a revival towards the late 1980s with the prominence of house and techno music, growing a cult following by the 1990s. Ambient music may have elements of new-age music and drone music, as some works may use sustained or repeated notes.
Ambient music did not achieve large commercial success, being criticized as having a "boring" and "over-intellectual" sound. Nevertheless, it has attained a certain degree of acclaim throughout the years, especially in the Internet age. Due to its relatively open style, ambient music often takes influences from many other genres, ranging from classical, avant-garde music, folk, jazz, and world music, amongst others.
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.
In his own words, Satie 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."
In 1948, French composer & engineer, Pierre Schaeffer coined the term musique concrète. This experimental style of music used recordings of natural sounds that were then modified, manipulated or effected to create a composition. Shaeffer's techniques of using tape loops and splicing are considered to be the precursor to modern day sampling.
In 1952 John Cage released his famous three-movement composition 4'33 which is a performance of complete silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The piece is intended to capture the ambient sounds of the venue/location of the performance and have that be the music played. Cage has been cited by seminal artists such as Brian Eno as influence.
In the 1960s, many music groups experimented with unusual methods, with some of them creating what would later be called ambient music.
In the summer of 1962, composers Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick founded The San Francisco Tape Music Center which functioned both as an electronic music studio and concert venue. Other composers working with tape recorders became members and collaborators including Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Their compositions, among others, contributed to the development of minimal music (also called minimalism), which shares many similar concepts to ambient music such as repetitive patterns or pulses, steady drones, and consonant harmony.
In the late 60s, French composer Éliane Radigue composed several pieces by processing tape loops from the feedback between two tape recorders and a microphone. In the 70s, she then went on to compose similar music almost exclusively with an ARP 2500 synthesiser, and her long, slow compositions have often been compared to drone music.
In 1969, the group COUM Transmissions were performing sonic experiments in British art schools. Many pieces of ambient music were released in England and the United States of America between the late 1960s and the 1990s. Some 1960s music with ambient elements include Music for Yoga Meditation and Other Joys and Music for Zen Meditation by Tony Scott, and Soothing Sounds for Baby by Raymond Scott.
Between 1974 and 1976, American composer Laurie Spiegel created her seminal work The Expanding Universe, created on a computer-analog hybrid system called GROOVE. In 1977, her composition, Music of the Spheres was included on Voyager 1 and 2's Golden Record.
In April 1975, Suzanne Ciani gave two performances on her Buchla synthesizer - one at the WBAI Free music store and one at Phil Niblock's loft. These performances were released on an archival album in 2016 entitled Buchla Concerts 1975. According to the record label, these concerts were part live presentation, part grant application and part educational demonstration.
However, it wasn't until Brian Eno coined the term in the mid-70s that ambient music was defined as a genre. 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", referring to Satie's quote about his musique d'ameublement.
Other contemporaneous musicians creating ambient-style music at the time included Jamaican dub musicians such as King Tubby, Japanese electronic music composers such as Isao Tomita and Ryuichi Sakamoto as well as the psychoacoustic soundscapes of Irv Teibel's Environments series, and German bands such as Popol Vuh, Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream.
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". The Yellow Magic Orchestra developed a distinct style of ambient electronic music that would later be developed into ambient house music.
The English producer Brian Eno is credited with coining the term "ambient music" in the mid-1970s. He said other artists had been creating similar music, but that "I just gave it a name. Which is exactly what it needed ... By naming something you create a difference. You say that this is now real. Names are very important." He used the term to describe music that is different from forms of canned music like Muzak.
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 (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and leveling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. 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.
In the late 70s, new-age musician Laraaji began busking in New York parks and sidewalks, including Washington Square Park. It was there that Brian Eno heard Laraaji playing and asked him if he'd like to record an album. Day of Radiance released in 1980, was the third album in Eno's Ambient series. Although Laraaji had already recorded a number of albums, this one gave him international recognition. Unlike other albums in the series, Day of Radiance featured mostly acoustic instruments instead of electronics.
In the mid-1980s, the possibilities to create a sonic landscape increased through the use of sampling. By the late 1980s, there was a steep increase in the incorporation of the computer in the writing and recording process of records. The sixteen-bit Macintosh platform with built-in sound and comparable IBM models would find themselves in studios and homes of musicians and record makers.
However, many artists were still working with analogue synthesizers and acoustic instruments to produce ambient works.
In 1983, Midori Takada recorded her first solo LP Through The Looking Glass in two days. She performed all parts on the album, with diverse instrumentation including percussion, marimba, gong, reed organ, bells, ocarina, vibraphone, piano and glass Coca-Cola bottles.
Also in 1988, founding member and director of the San Francisco Tape Music Centre, Pauline Oliveros coined the term "deep listening" after she recorded an album inside a huge underground cistern in Washington which has a 45-second reverberation time. The concept of Deep Listening then went on to become "an aesthetic based upon principles of improvisation, electronic music, ritual, teaching and meditation".
By the early 1990s, artists such as the Orb, Aphex Twin, Seefeel, the Irresistible Force, Biosphere, and the Higher Intelligence Agency gained commercial success and were being referred to by the popular music press as ambient house, ambient techno, IDM or simply "ambient". The term chillout emerged 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.
London 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 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.
Other global ambient artists from the 1990s include American composers Stars of the Lid (who released 5 albums during this decade), and Japanese artist Susumu Yokota whose album Sakura (1999) featured what Pitchfork magazine called "dreamy, processed guitar as a distinctive sound tool".
Ambient music continued to gain popularity in the 2000s with a number of established and emerging artists published works to critical acclaim.
In 2011, Julianna Barwick released her first full-length album The Magic Place. Heavily influenced by her childhood experiences in a church choir, Barwick loops her wordless vocals into ethereal soundscapes. It was listed at number 30 on Pitchfork's 50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time.
In October 2014, an ex riot-grrrl band member Jo Johnson released an unexpected debut album Weaving. Featuring repetitive sequences, arpeggios and drones, Pitchfork magazine described the album as "a remarkably accomplished take on ambient music".
After several self-released albums, Buchla composer, producer and performer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith was signed to independent record label Western Vinyl in 2015. In 2016, she released her second official album EARS. It paired the Buchla synthesizer with traditional instruments and her compositions were compared to Laurie Spiegel and Alice Coltrane. Kaitlyn has also collaborated with other well-known Buchla performer, Suzanne Ciani.
By the late 2000s and 2010s, ambient music also gained widespread recognition on YouTube, with uploaded pieces, usually ranging from 1 to 8 hours long, getting over millions of hits. Such videos are usually titled, or are generally known as, "relaxing music", and may be influenced by other music genres. Ambient videos assist online listeners with yoga, study, sleep (see music and sleep), massage, meditation and gaining optimism, inspiration, and creating peaceful atmosphere in their rooms or other environments.
Many uploaded ambient videos tend to be influenced by biomusic where they feature sounds of nature, though the sounds would be modified with reverbs and delay units to make spacey versions of the sounds as part of the ambience. Such natural sounds oftentimes include those of a beach, rainforest, thunderstorm and rainfall, among others, with vocalizations of animals such as bird songs being used as well. Pieces containing binaural beats are common and popular uploads as well, which provide music therapy and stress management for the listener.
Verified YouTube channels, such as aptly titled Ambient has over 400,000 subscribers. Other verified channels that also publish ambient music include, Meditation Relax Music, which has over 1 million subscribers, Soothing Relaxation with three million subscribers, and Relaxing White Noise with over 500,000 subscribers, among others. iTunes and Spotify have digital radio stations that feature ambient music, which are mostly produced by independent labels.
Acclaimed ambient music of this era (according to Pitchfork magazine) include works by Max Richter, Julianna Barwick, Grouper, William Basinski and electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never.
Related and derivative genres
Ambient dub is a fusion of ambient music with dub. The term was first coined by Birmingham's now defunct label "Beyond Records" in early 1990s. The label released series of albums Ambient Dub Volume 1 to 4 that inspired many artists, including Bill Laswell, who used the same phrase in his music project Divination, where he collaborated with other artists in the genre. Ambient dub adopts dub styles made famous by King Tubby and other Jamaican sound artists from the 1960s to the early 1970s, using 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. 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." Notable artists within the genre include Dreadzone, Higher Intelligence Agency, The Orb, Gaudi, Ott, Loop Guru, Woob and Transglobal Underground as well as Banco de Gaia.
Ambient house is a musical category founded in the late 1980s that is used to describe acid house featuring ambient music elements and atmospheres. Tracks in the ambient house genre typically feature four-on-the-floor beats, synth pads, and vocal samples integrated in an atmospheric style. 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 techno is a music category emerging in the late 1980s that is used to describe ambient music atmospheres with the rhythmic and melodic elements of techno. Notable artists include Aphex Twin, B12, Autechre, and The Black Dog.
Ambient industrial is a hybrid genre of industrial and ambient music; the term industrial being used in the original experimental sense, rather than in the sense of industrial metal. 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). Entire works may be based on radio telescope recordings, the babbling of newborn babies, or sounds recorded through contact microphones on telegraph wires.
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.
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 older 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. Related styles include ambient industrial (see below) and isolationist ambient.
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.
Space music ranges from simple to complex sonic textures sometimes lacking conventional melodic, rhythmic, or vocal components, generally evoking a sense of "continuum of spatial imagery and emotion", beneficial introspection, deep listening and sensations of floating, cruising or flying.
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 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.
Notable ambient-music shows on radio and via satellite – Over The Air
- Sirius XM Chill plays ambient, chillout and downtempo electronica.
- Echoes, 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
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- "... 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? Archived 2006-03-25 at the Wayback Machine
- "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 Archived 2007-09-27 at the Wayback Machine
- "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? Archived 2006-03-25 at the Wayback Machine
- "A timeless experience...as 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 Archived 2010-12-25 at the Wayback Machine
- "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 Archived 2007-06-14 at the Wayback Machine
- "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 Archived 2010-04-05 at the Wayback Machine
- "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 Archived 2010-04-05 at the Wayback Machine
- "...Spacemusic ... conjures up either outer "space" or "inner space" " – Lloyd Barde, founder of Backroads Music Notes on Ambient Music, Hyperreal Music Archive Archived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine
- "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 Archived 2010-04-05 at the Wayback Machine
- " 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? Archived 2006-03-25 at the Wayback Machine
- "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 Archived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine
- "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 Archived 2010-12-25 at the Wayback Machine
- "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 Archived August 11, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
- "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 Archived 2007-08-14 at the Wayback Machine
- "Avaruusromua 25 vuotta radiossa ja kerran televisiossa!". yle.fi. Archived from the original on 2016-06-25.