Ambient music is a genre of music that emphasizes tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure or rhythm. A form of slow instrumental music, it uses repetitive, but gentle, soothing sound patterns that can be described as sonic wallpaper to complement or alter one’s space and to generate a sense of calmness. The genre is said to evoke an “atmospheric”, “visual”, or “unobtrusive” quality.
Ambient music focuses on creating a mood or atmosphere through synthesizers and timbral qualities, often lacking the presence of any net composition, beat, or structured melody. It uses textural layers of sound without prevalent musical tropes, rewarding both passive and active listening. Nature soundscapes are usually included, and the sounds of acoustic instruments such as the piano, strings and flute, among others, may be emulated through a synthesizer. 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.”
The genre originated in the United Kingdom in the 1960s and 1970s, when new musical instruments were being introduced to a wider market, such as the synthesizer. Eno named and popularized ambient music in 1978 with his album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. 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.
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 the 1960s, many music groups experimented with unusual methods, with some of them creating what would later be called ambient 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 Zen Meditation by Tony Scott (musician) (1964), Soothing Sounds for Baby  by Raymond Scott (1964), and Music for Yoga Meditation and Other Joys  by Tony Scott (1968).
Developing in the 1970s, ambient stemmed from the experimental and synthesizer-oriented styles of the period. Although Jamaican dub musicians such as King Tubby, Japanese electronic music composers such as Isao Tomita, 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, predate him in the creation of ambient music and/or were contemporaneous with him, Brian Eno played a key role in its development and popularization.
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. 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.
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 housemusic.
In the liner notes for his 1978 album Ambient 1:Music for Airports, Eno wrote:
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.
Eno, who describes himself as a “non-musician”, termed his experiments “treatments” rather than traditional performances.
The continued development of the synthesizer, namely the FM synthesizer, was instrumental in the maturing of ambient music throughout the 1980s. With the commercial release of synthesizers such as the Yamaha DX7 and the Korg M1 in the mid 1980s, the possibilities to create a sonic landscape increased through the use of sampling. Many of these FM synthesizers included capabilities of MIDI clock synching and external hardware compatibility, allowing the music to be much more textured than before. 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.
By the early 1990s, artists such as the Orb, Aphex Twin, Seefeel, the Irresistible Force, Geir Jenssen’s 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”. Ambient compositions are often quite lengthy, much longer than more popular, commercial forms of music. 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 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.
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 200,000 subscribers. Other verified channels that also publish ambient music include, Meditation Relax Music, which has over 1 million subscribers, Soothing Relaxation with 800,000 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.
Related and derivative genres
Ambient dub involves the genre melding of dub styles. It was pioneered 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, 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-floorbeats, 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 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
- 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.
- 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.
- World of Ambient, a bi-weekly 60-minute show featuring beatless ambient, space music and drones, hosted by Stars Over Foy and broadcast on Di.fm
- 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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- The Ambient Century by Mark Prendergast, Bloomsbury, London, 2003.
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- Eno, Brian. “Music for Airports”. Archived from the original on 29 January 2013. Retrieved 8 July 2013.
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- “Each spoke, tracing a thin pie-shape out of the whole, would contribute to the modern or New Ambient movement: new age, neo-classical, space, electronic, ambient, progressive, jazzy, tribal, world, folk, ensemble, acoustic, meditative, and back to new age… “New Age Music Made SimpleArchived 2010-04-05 at the Wayback Machine
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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 MusicArchived 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 DefinedArchived 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 glossaryArchived 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 SimpleArchived 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 SimpleArchived 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 ArchiveArchived 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 SimpleArchived 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 ArchiveArchived 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 DefinedArchived 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, 2004Archived 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 pageArchived 2007-08-14 at the Wayback Machine
- “Avaruusromua 25 vuotta radiossa ja kerran televisiossa!”. yle.fi. Archived from the original on 2016-06-25.
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