Ambient music feels very special to me indeed, and it stands apart from all others, having a certain
something that others don't. So here is a brief guide to this wonderful form of music, some of it's history
and key players. I also want to include a recommendation of artists & albums to check out.
Ambient remains a relatively obscure corner of music, and I presume it will remain so. There's not a
lot that would lend itself to marketability, so it remains pretty much underground. From time to time ambient
or ambient-like artists do make waves, such as Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, The Orb, The KLF and Moby, but
as you may notice, these people often have a more mainstream friendly output.
So what is it? What does it sound like? Modern day ambient will most probably be created by electronics. As
such, ambient is usually lumped in with other dance/electronica/IDM genres, which of course are well
known for having an absurd number of categories. Indeed it is becoming common for artists to produce work
that can be categorised as ambient AND as IDM or techno etc. There's been a lot of cross over between
genres for decades now, and it is usually a very positive thing. To understand what it sounds like, it is a
good idea to see where it originated. Although it can be traced as far back as the 19th century to the
Classical Avant Garde musicians such as Claude Debussy and Erik Satie (Satie formed a concept of
'furniture music' for pianos or small groups of musicians, which closely resembles the concept of
'ambient'), the best place to start is with Brian Eno.
Brian Eno is a British musician and producer (full name Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la
Salle Eno) who was a member of the 70's group Roxy Music. In January 18, 1975, he lay in hospital having
been hit by a taxi. He was restricted to his bed, and heavily medicated. A friend had brought him a record
of classical harp music to listen to, and having put it on, it turned out that the stereo was broken, and
only playing at a very low volume. The sounds of the harp mixed with the sound of the rain on the window,
and being too weak to fix the stereo, he listened to the sounds as they were:
"I drifted into this kind of fitful sleep, a mixture of pain-killers and tiredness. And I started
hearing this record as if I'd never heard music before. It was a really beautiful experience, I got the feeling
of icebergs, you know? I would just occasionally hear the loudest parts of the music, get a little flurry of
notes coming out above the sound of the rain - and then it'd drift away again..."
It's here the genre was born. Eno conceived his new direction in music to be 'sonic wallpaper', music to
be heard and not to be overly involving on the surface. The music is intended to be environmental - ie
ambient - and to give a sense of place, time or even a state of mind. In this regards it is usually quite
minimal sounding at first, but upon closer listening, it begins to blossom as attention is paid to it. The
structure and complexity is usually hidden or obscured by the apparent simplicity. Like minimalist techno, it
can often be thought of as being insubstantial, but unlike this form of techno, it can carry a feeling of
This is what I love about it, and probably why it has avoided the mainstream - it has to be listened to.
It is not just a nice tune or a hard beat. It is, to quote, "A minimal form of music based on timbre,
texture and deliberate, somewhat randomly shifting structures." The more you put in, the more you get out.
Modern ambient music is usually made purely by electronics, although guitars, pianos, cellos and
other live instruments are happily used by many musicians. Being so based in a concept of environment,
'found sounds' are often used too, often those of nature. Today's ambient music may have more of a beat, a
pulse or melody thanks to its interaction with other electronic genres.
Around 1990-95, post Acid house, musicians who were part of the house music explosion centred in the
UK looked for something else, a comedown for the genre. Experimenting with the quieter and more
experimental aspects of ambient groups like The Orb produced music, borrowing thematic cues from
house, but calming it down and producing music that was more of a landscape. Usually for the 'chillout
rooms' in clubs and raves, chill out rescued ambient from a death that may have come from the direction
of New Age music. This influence is felt today, as most ambient has a sound that is like a distant cousin
to techno, house or even drum and bass. It is here that the link between ambient and dance/IDM etc was
cemented, dance borrowing from ambient and ambient from dance. Combined with other more experimental
ideas has produced a vast array of electronic music, and dance music is now not restricted to sounds for the
dance floor, and produced words such as 'electronica' or 'IDM' (intelligent dance music). The current
state of electronic music and the huge amount of invention and variation present is chiefly due to the cross
pollenation with ambient in the 90's.
Now for some recommendations. These are no way comprehensive, but I hope you can trust me. I've re- edited
this to form some basic "sub genres". Each are pretty self explanitory. I've given Eno one of his own, as he
really created all this, and Music for Airports" was the chief originator of his style.
90's House Inspired
More resources can be found at www.sleepbot.com/ambience or at