Ambient (music)

Ambient music

Ambient music is a musical genre in which sound is more important than notes. It is generally identifiable as being broadly atmospheric and environmental in nature.

Ambient music evolved from early 20th century forms of semi-audible music, from the impressionism of Erik Satie, through musique concrete and the minimalism of Terry Riley and Philip Glass, and Brian Eno's deliberate sub-audible approach.

Later developments found the dreamy non-linear elements of ambient music applied to some forms of rhythmic music presented in chill-out rooms at raves and other dance events, but always with the primary feature that the music is intended to drift in and out of the listener's awareness while creating its effect on the listener's consciousness.


Turn of the 20th century French composer Erik Satie created an early form of ambient music that he referred to as "furniture music" (Musique d'ameublement), in reference to something that could be played during a dinner whose sound would simply create an atmosphere for that activity rather than be the specific focus of attention.

Early electronic soundscape music and theories come from the work of Pierre Schaeffer, considered as the inventor of "Musique Concrète", who followed the futurists in classifying music into categories such as man made, natural, short and long. He made some of the first electronic music using record players and natural sounds, and cutting up tape, making the first experimental music use of recording and magnetic tape. Even his work can be seen as preempted by Schopenhauer's ideas of 'soundworlds', literally worlds made up entirely of sounds. Karlheinz Stockhausen created pioneering electronic musical experiments later in 1955, and these two (amongst others) lay the groundwork for ambient music to appear decades later when music technology had developed.

Brian Eno is generally credited 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." Eno, who describes himself as a "non-musician", termed his experiments in sound as "treatments" rather than as traditional performances. Eno used the word "ambient" to describe music that creates an atmosphere that puts the listener into a different state of mind; having chosen the word based on the Latin term "ambire", "to surround".

The liner notes of Eno's 1978 release Ambient 1: Music for Airports includes a manifesto describing his philosophy of ambient music:

"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."Brian Eno, Music for Airports liner notes, September 1978

Eno has acknowledged the influence of Erik Satie and John Cage, in particular Cage's use of chance such as throwing the I Ching to direct a musical composition; and minimalist music in general. This influence was manifested in Oblique Strategies, a set of cards devised by Eno and Peter Schmidt and intended to direct the musician or artist when a dilemma occurred in a working situation. Eno used the term "ambient music" to distance his work from elevator music and Muzak. Eno also acknowledged influences of the mood music of Miles Davis and Teo Macero, especially their 1974 epic piece, "He Loved Him Madly", about which Eno wrote, "that piece seemed to have the 'spacious' quality that I was became a touchstone to which I returned frequently."

In fact, much ambient music existed well before Eno's work, and early albums such as Ummagumma by Pink Floyd and by the "kosmische Musik"-oriented krautrock artists, like Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, and Cluster have greatly influenced the genre. Among the first electronic ambient albums were Affenstunde (1970) and In Den Garten Pharaos (1971) by Popol Vuh. Other notable albums include Sonic Seasonings (1972) by Wendy Carlos and L'apocalypse des Animaux (1973; recorded in 1970) by Vangelis. Additional early artists, such as Klaus Schulze (a former member of Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel), Jean Michel Jarre, and Kraftwerk in the 1970s and 1980s, were influential.

In the 1970s, some ambient, krautrock, and other musicians who were influenced by new age spirituality created the eclectic genre known as New Age music, selling millions independent from the mainstream music industry by direct order or new age shops.

Influences on other genres

Beginning in the 1970s, Ambient music influenced some pop bands including New Order, Depeche Mode, Simple Minds and U2. Later, electronic dance music and synth pop merged in many artists' works with the dreamy, meandering sound of Eno-style ambient music. Under the guise of various styles, this new genre sometimes referred to as ambient house, ambient techno, ambient dub, IDM, ambience, or simply "ambient" in common use, saw the birth of a new wave of artists like The Orb, Aphex Twin, the Irresistible Force, Geir Jenssen's Biosphere, and the Higher Intelligence Agency.

Early Warp records artists, (as well as later ones such as Aphex Twin), FSOL Future Sound of London (Lifeforms, ISDN) Autechre, (Incunabula, Amber), Boards of Canada, Massive Attack, Portishead, and The KLF all took a part in popularising and diversifying ambient music.

Chillout is generally linked to club culture and is sometimes used as a term which includes ambient music as a subset of itself, though usually chillout music has a beat and is not completely ambient with no rhythm at all. UK techno developed in particular at Warp Records in Sheffield, where previous electronic pioneers such as Cabaret Voltaire and Autechre laid the groundwork for ambient techno to develop, and for Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada to develop later. From this scene developed ambient dub and ambient techno. Intelligent Dance Music is another term synonymous with this scene. Electroacoustic and acousmatic music are 'classical' art music forms that use electronic sound creation instead of or alongside acoustic instruments. Glitch music is a subset of this work. Some club groups have created live ambient music, mixing dub techniques with ambient textures and dance grooves.

Several second-wave black metal artists (most notably Burzum) experimented with dark ambient textures on some of their albums. The two genres still remain linked, however loosely, to this day, as evidenced by the music of Xasthur.


Ambient music has been used in many television shows and motion pictures and is notable for contributing to their atmosphere, or soundscapes. David Lynch's 1984 film Dune, for example, forgoes the epic sci-fi adventure style theme music popularized by Star Wars in favor of a more atmospheric music score by Toto and Brian Eno. Electronic musician Paddy Kingsland is noted for the music style he brought to several serials of the television series Doctor Who which had until then relied mostly on stock music cues or minimal music for much of its history.

Related and derivative genres

Ambient dub

Ambient Dub was a phrase first coined by the now defunct Beyond record label in early 1990s in Birmingham, England. Their defining series of albums "Ambient Dub 1, 2, through to 4" inspired many, including sound engineer and producer Bill Laswell, who used the same phrase in his music project Divination, where he collaborates with different musicians on each album (though sometimes the same ones are on more than one of the albums such as Tetsu Inoue and others). Laswell also presented Ambient dub and Ambient house music on albums by his collaboration project Axiom Dub, featuring recording artists the Orb, Jah Wobble, Jaki Liebezeit and DJ Spooky.

Ambient dub involves the genre melding of dub styles made famous by King Tubby and other Jamaican sound artists with DJ inspired ambient electronica, complete with all the inherent drop-outs, echo, equalization and psychedelic electronic effects. As writer and performer David Toop explains in an early Beyond Records newsletter, "Dub music is like a long echo delay, looping through time...turning the rational order of musical sequences into an ocean of sensation."

Organic ambient music

Organic ambient music is characterised by integration of electronic, electric, and acoustic musical instruments. Aside from the usual electronic music influences, organic ambient tends to incorporate influences from world music, especially drone instruments and hand percussion. Organic ambient is intended to be more harmonious with nature than with the disco. Some of the artists in this sub-genre include Robert Rich, Steve Roach, Vidna Obmana, O Yuki Conjugate, Ma Ja Le, Vir Unis, James Johnson, Loren Nerell, Tuu and Robert Scott Thompson.

Some works by ambient pioneers such as Brian Eno, Laraaji or Popul Vuh who use a combination of traditional instruments (such as piano or hammered dulcimer or hand percussion, though usually processed through tape loops or other devices) and electronic instruments, would be considered organic ambient music in this sense. In the 70s and 80s Klaus Schulze often recorded string ensembles and performances by solo cellists to go along with his extended Moog synthesizer workouts.

Nature inspired ambient music

The music is composed from samples and recordings of naturally occurring sounds. Sometimes these samples can be treated to make them more instrument-like. The samples may be arranged in repetitive ways to form a conventional musical structure or may be random and unfocused. Sometimes the sound is mixed with urban or "found" sounds. Examples include much of Biosphere's Substrata, Mira Calix's insect music and Chris Watson's Weather Report. Some overlap occurs between organic ambient and nature inspired ambient. One of the first albums in the genre, Wendy Carlos' Sonic Seasonings, combines sampled and synthesized nature sounds with ambient melodies and drones for a particularly relaxing effect. The album Second Nature by Bill Laswell, Tetsu Inoue, and Atom Heart is an ambient album that uses processed nature sounds, with reverb and echo to create a hypnotic environment.

Dark ambient

Dark ambient is a general term for any kind of ambient music with a "dark" or dissonant feel, but often involves extensive use of digital reverb to create vast sonic spaces for frightening, bottom-heavy sounds such as deep drones, gloomy male chorus, echoing thunder, and distant artillery. It has an eerie feel. The Robert Rich/Lustmord collaboration album Stalker epitomizes this sub-genre. Related styles include ambient industrial and isolationist ambient. (See also List of dark ambient artists)

There are also a few black metal bands, such as Burzum and Beherit, who produce ambient music, be it not always with such a dark atmosphere. Illbient is another kind of dark ambient music that has more of a beat but still creates the spooky disturbing feelings.

Ambient techno

A rarefied, more specific re-orientation of ambient house, ambient techno is usually applied to artists such as B12, early Aphex Twin, the Black Dog, Higher Intelligence Agency, and Biosphere. It distinguished artists who combined the melodic and rhythmic approaches of techno and electro—use of drum machines; well-produced, thin-sounding electronics; minor-key melodies and alien-sounding samples and sounds—with the soaring, layered, aquatic atmospheres of beatless and experimental ambient. Most often associated with labels such as Apollo, GPR, Warp, and Beyond, the terminology morphed into "intelligent techno" after Warp released its Artificial Intelligence series, although the music's stylistic references remained largely unchanged.

Ambient house

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.

Ambient industrial

Ambient industrial is a hybrid genre of ambient and industrial music; the term industrial being used in the original experimental sense, rather than in the sense of industrial metal or EBM. A "typical" ambient industrial work (if there is a such 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 and/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.

Among the many artists who work in this area are Coil, CTI, Lustmord, Susumu Yokota, Hafler Trio, Nocturnal Emissions, Zoviet France, PGR, Thomas Köner, Controlled Bleeding, and Deutsch Nepal. It is important to note, however, that many of these artists are very eclectic in their output, with much of it falling outside of ambient industrial per se.

Space music

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, commonly used in planetariums, and used as a relaxation aid and for meditation.

Hearts of Space is a well-known radio show and affiliated record label, specializing in Space Music since 1984, having released over 150 albums devoted to the music style. Notable artists who have brought elements of Ambient music to Space music include Michael Hedges, Michael Stearns, Constance Demby, Jean Michel Jarre, Robert Rich, Steve Roach, Numina, Dweller at the Threshold, Jonn Serrie, Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream (as well as the group's founder Edgar Froese).

Isolationist ambient music

Isolationist ambient music is also known as "isolationism", differentiated from other forms of ambient music in its use of repetition, dissonance, microtonality, and unresolved harmonies to create a sense of unresolved unease and desolation. The term was popularized in the mid-1990s by the British magazine The Wire and the Ambient 4: Isolationism compilation from Virgin, this began as more or less a synonym for ambient industrial, but also inclusive of certain post-techno streams of ambient, such as Autechre and Aphex Twin. The Sombient label is now the primary purveyor of isolationist ambient, in particular with the "drones" compilation series. Some of the artists known for this style of ambient music include Robert Fripp and Chuck Hammer Guitarchitecture.

Notable musicians and works in chronological order

Artist name Influential works
Erik Satie 1917 - Furniture music (1)
1920 - Furniture music (2)
1923 - Furniture music (3)
Edgard Varèse 1934 - Ecuatorial
Terry Riley 1964 - In C
1968 - A Rainbow in Curved Air
Miles Davis 1969 - In A Silent Way
1974 - Big Fun for "Orange Lady"
1974 - Get Up With It for "He Loved Him Madly"
Popol Vuh 1970 - Affenstunde
1971 - In den Gärten Pharaos
Cluster 1971 - Cluster
1972 - Cluster II
1974 - Zuckerzeit
1976 - Soweisoso
1977 - Cluster & Eno (with Brian Eno)
1978 - After The Heat (with Brian Eno)
1979 - Grosses Wasser
1980 - Live In Vienna (with Joshi Farnbauer)
1981 - Curiosum
1991 - Apropos Cluster
1995 - One Hour
1997 - Japan 1996 Live
1997 - First Encounter Tour 1996
Tangerine Dream 1971 - Alpha Centauri
1972 - Zeit
1974 - Phaedra
1975 - Rubycon
1975 - Ricochet
1976 - Stratosfear

2000 - The Seven Letters from Tibet
Wendy Carlos 1972 - Sonic Seasonings
Klaus Schulze 1972 - Irrlicht
1973 - Cyborg
1974 - Blackdance
1975 - Timewind
1976 - Moondawn
1977 - Mirage
1977 - Body Love Vol. 2
1978 - X
1979 - Dune
1995 - In Blue
— With Pete Namlook:
1994 - Dark Side of the Moog I - Wish you were there
1994 - Dark Side of the Moog II - A saucerful of ambience
2002 - Dark Side of the Moog IX - Set the controls for the heart of the mother
2005 - Dark Side of the Moog X - Astro know me domina
Can 1973 - Future Days
1974 - Soon Over Babaluma
Gong 1973 - Flying Teapot for "The Octave Doctors and the Crystal Machine"
1974 - You for "A Sprinkling of Clouds"
Fripp & Brian Eno 1973 - No Pussyfooting
1975 - Evening Star
2005 - The Equatorial Stars
Kraftwerk 1975 - Radio-Activity
Harmonia 1974 - Musik Von Harmonia
1997 - Tracks and Traces
Neu! 1975 - Neu! '75
Brian Eno 1975 - Another Green World
1975 - Discreet Music
1978 - Ambient 1 / Music For Airports
1980 - Fourth World 1 / Possible Musics (with Jon Hassell)
1982 - Ambient 4 / On Land
1983 - Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks
1985 - Thursday Afternoon 1992 - The Shutov Assembly
1993 - Neroli
Steve Reich 1976-1978 - Music for 18 Musicians
Jean Michel Jarre 1976 - Oxygène
1978 - Equinoxe
1990 - Waiting for Cousteau
Chuck Hammer 1977 - Guitarchitecture
Michael Stearns 1978 - Ancient Leaves
1979 - Morning Jewel
1981 - Planetary Unfolding
1984 - M'ocean
1988 - Encounter
2000 - Within
Erik Wollo 1985 - Traces
1986 - Silver Beach (re-release 2006)
1990 - Images of Light
1992 - Solstice
1996 - Transit
1998 - Guitar Nova
2001 - Wind Journey
2003 - Emotional Landscapes
2003 - The Polar Drones
2004 - Blue Sky, Red Guitars
2007 - Elevations
Earthstar 1978 - Salterbarty Tales
1981 - Atomkraft? Nein, Danke!
1982 - Humans Only
Robert Fripp 1981 - Let The Power Fall
1998 - Gates Of Paradise
Robert Rich 1982 Sunyata
1983 Trances
1983 Drones
1987 Numena
1992 Soma (with Steve Roach)
1997 Fissures
2001 Somnium
Steve Roach 1984 - Structures from Silence
1988 - Quiet Music
1988 - Dreamtime Return
1993 - Origins
1994 - Artifacts
1996 - The Magnificent Void
2000 - Early Man
2003 - Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces
Coil 1984 - How to Destroy Angels
1998 - Time Machines
Hirokazu Tanaka 1986 - Metroid
The KLF 1990 - Chill Out
Enigma 1990 - MCMXC A.D.
The Orb 1991 - The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
1992 - U.F.Orb
Biosphere 1992 - Microgravity
1994 - Patashnik
1996 - Polar Sequences (with Higher Intelligence Agency)
1997 - Insomnia
1997 - Substrata
1998 - Nordheim Transformed (with Deathprod)
2000 - Birmingham Frequencies (with Higher Intelligence Agency)
2000 - Cirque
2002 - Shenzhou
2004 - Autour de la lune
2006 - Dropsonde
Aphex Twin 1992 - Selected Ambient Works 85-92
1994 - Selected Ambient Works Volume II
Pete Namlook 1992 - Silence I
1993 - Air I
1994 - Air II
1996 - Outland 2 (with Bill Laswell)
1996 - The Fires of Ork (with Geir Jensen of Biosphere)
Moby aka Voodoo Child 1993 - Ambient
1996 - The End of Everything (as Voodoo Child)
2005 - Hotel:Ambient (Disc Two) (limited edition only)
Neptune Towers (Gylve Nagell aka Fenriz) 1994 - Caravans to Empire Algol
1995 - Transmissions from Empire Algol
Kenji Yamamoto 1994 - Super Metroid
Robert Leiner 1994 - Visions of the past
Global Communication 1994 -
Alpha Wave Movement 1995 - Transcendence
2000 - Drifted Into Deeper Lands
Burzum (Varg Vikernes) 1996 - Filosofem (tracks 4 to 6)
1997 - Dauði Baldrs (Balder's Død)
1999 - Hliðskjálf
Future Sound of London 1994 - Lifeforms
Richard Bone 1998 - The Spectral Ships
1999 - Ether Dome
Stars of the Lid 1996 - Gravitational Pull vs. the Desire for an Aquatic Life
1997 - The Ballasted Orchestra
1998 - Per Aspera Ad Astra
1999 - Avec Laudenum
2001 - The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid
2007 - Stars of the Lid and Their Refinement of the Decline
Marvin Ayres 1999 - Cellosphere
2002 - Neptune
Ishq 2001 - Ishq
2001 - Orchid
William Basinski 2002 - The River
2002-2003 - Disintegration Loops I, II, III and IV
Robert Scott Thompson 1996 - The Silent Shore
1998 - Frontier
2002 - Sidereal
2005 - At the Still Point of the Turning World
2008 - Frozen Light

Notable films incorporating ambient music or sound design

Film Director Composer or Sound Designer Comments
1956 - Forbidden Planet Fred Wilcox Louis and Bebe Barron (electronic tonalities) This soundtrack is generally considered to be ahead of its time with its spacey ambient sounds
1968 - 2001: A Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick György Ligeti (composer "Monolith" and "Beyond Saturn" themes)
Winston Ryder (sound editor)
"A cutting edge ambient, multimedia accomplishment...the ambient revolution, now and for the past couple of decades, owes much of its impetus to the achievement of 2001." — D.B. Spalding
1971 - THX 1138 George Lucas Lalo Schifrin (composer)
Walter Murch (sound design)
Murch's "Theater of Noise" offered as alternate soundtrack on Director's Cut DVD
1972 - Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes Werner Herzog Popol Vuh (composer)
1976 - Sebastiane Derek Jarman Brian Eno (composer)
1977 - Eraserhead David Lynch Alan Splet (sound design) Features innovative ambient noise sound design in place of musical score.
1977 - Sorcerer William Friedkin Tangerine Dream (Composer)
1980 - The Elephant Man David Lynch Alan Splet (sound design)
1981 - Halloween II Rick Rosenthal John Carpenter & Alan Howarth (composers)
1982 - Halloween III: Season of the Witch Tommy Lee Wallace John Carpenter & Alan Howarth (composers)
1984 - Starman John Carpenter Jack Nitzsche (composer)
1986 - The Hitcher Robert Harmon Mark Isham (composer)
1989 - For All Mankind Al Reinert Brian Eno (composer) Score released as Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks
1989 - Sex, Lies, and Videotape Steven Soderbergh Cliff Martinez (composer) Soderbergh's instructions to Martinez were to channel Brian Eno. Soundtrack on Virgin/EMI Records
1992 - Alien³ David Fincher Elliot Goldenthal
1997 - Insomnia Erik Skjoldbjærg Biosphere (composer)
2001 - Donnie Darko Richard Kelly Michael Andrews (musician) (composer)
2001 - Traffic Steven Soderbergh Cliff Martinez (composer)
Brian Eno (composer- end title theme)
End title them is "An Ending (Ascent)" from Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks
2002 - Solaris Steven Soderbergh Cliff Martinez (composer)
2005 - Me and You and Everyone We Know Miranda July Michael Andrews (musician) (composer)
2006 - The Prestige (film) Christopher Nolan David Julyan (composer)
2007 - 30 Days of Night (film) David Slade Brian Reitzell (composer)

Notable ambient music shows on radio and via satellite

  • 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.

See also

External links


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