|Cultural origins||1960s and 1970s, United Kingdom, Jamaica, Japan|
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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. 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. Intended to relax, 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."
As a genre, it originated in the United Kingdom in the 1970s, when new sound-making devices were being introduced to a wider market, such as the synthesizer. Brian Eno named and popularized ambient music in 1978 with his album Ambient 1: Music for Airports, with the genre gaining popularity in that era. 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 due to usage of (synthesized) instruments, and drone music, as some works may use sustained or repeated notes.
Ambient 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, among several others.
Brian 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."
Eno has 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..."
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."
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."
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, Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel, Cluster, as well as the psychoacoustic soundscapes of Irv Teibel's Environments series, and German bands such as Popol Vuh 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". 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". The Yellow Magic Orchestra developed a distinct style of ambient electronic music that would later be developed into ambient house music.
Brian Eno is generally cred 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". "Ambient" is based on the Latin term "ambire", "to surround". Eno, who describes himself as a "non-musician", termed his experiments in sound as "treatments" rather than as traditional performances.) 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 after...it became a touchstone to which I returned frequently."
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. 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.
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.
By the late 2000s and 2010s, ambient music gained the most popularity and widespread recognition through internet, namely 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, massage, mation and gaining optimism, inspiration, and creating peaceful atmosphere in their rooms or other environments.
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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, Mation 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.
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-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 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 mative 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.
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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 mation.