Ambient music

Template:Genrebox Ambient music is a loosely defined musical genre that incorporates elements of a number of different styles - including jazz, electronic music, new age, rock and roll, modern classical music, reggae, traditional, world and even noise. It is chiefly identifiable as having an overarching atmospheric context.



The Cover of Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, widely considered a quintessential ambient music release from 1983, ten years after Eno defined the term "ambient" as related to music.
The Cover of Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, widely considered a quintessential ambient music release from 1983, ten years after Eno defined the term "ambient" as related to music.

The term was first coined by Brian Eno in the late 1970s to refer to music that would envelop the listener without drawing attention to itself, that can be either "actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener". Hence, Brian Eno is considered the father of ambient music: his 1978 release Ambient 1: Music for Airports includes a manifesto describing this music. Although having coined the phrase "ambient", he is also quick to reference the works and influence of Erik Satie. Sometimes associated with elevator music and Muzak, it is more often similar to mood music or an ambient background in movie and radio sound effects. Often listeners will forget they are listening to ambient music, which is one of the biggest attractions of the genre. It can be any musical style, including jazz, electronic music and modern classical music.

Retrospectively, some of the works of the 20th century French composer Erik Satie, today best known for his Trois Gymnopdies suite, can be regarded as predecessors of modern ambient music. He referred to some of his music as 'furniture music' (or more literally, 'music for the furniture') and 'music to mingle with knives and forks', referring to something that could be played during dinner and would simply create an atmosphere for that activity rather than be the focus of attention. The invention of the theremin in the early 20th century is also considered an important influence on the later development of ambient music. Similarly some of the works of the French composer Edgar Varse, who used the theremin extensively in his compositions as well as atonal techniques and non-standard time signatures, can also be viewed as predecessors of ambient music.

Early albums from the 1970s by Tangerine Dream, such as Phaedra (1974), have greatly influenced the genre. Also the album Sonic Seasonings (1972) by Wendy Carlos has been important. Other early artists such as Kraftwerk, Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis in the 1970s and Ray Lynch and Mannheim Steamroller in the 1980s, all of which were considered New Age or Space Age, also influenced the growth of ambient electronic music.

Purely ambient music is traditionally beatless. In the late 1980s and early 1990s ambient music underwent a resurgence with the reconciliation of rhythm with the dreamy, meandering reverb of the first (late 1970s - 1980s) wave of ambient music. Under the guise of various styles, ambient electronic music (sometimes referred to as ambient techno or ambient dub) saw the birth of a new wave of electronic music in the works of artists like The Orb, Aphex Twin and the Irresistible Force.

Styles of ambient music

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, Numina, O Yuki Conjugate and Tuu.

Some works by ambient pioneers such as Brian Eno, which use a combination of traditional (such as piano) and electronic instruments would be considered organic ambient music in this sense.

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.

Isolationist ambient music

Isolationist ambient music is perhaps the darkest, least accessible of ambient music. Inspired by industrial music, noise music, and classical music, isolationist may be rather dirge-like: more repellant than inviting. The Sombient label is 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, Vidna Obmana, Jeff Greinke, Naut Humon, and Iszoloscope.

Ambient electronic music

Ambient electronic music is the current most widely heard form of the ambient music and began in its modern form in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Artists considered to be part of the inception of the late 1980s, early 1990s ambient electronic music movement included Aphex Twin, Pete Namlook, The Orb, Moby, Future Sound of London, and William Orbit. Other prominent artists that make ambient electronic music include Air, Biosphere and Bill Laswell. Initially an underground movement, ambient electronic music continued to rise in popularity until its less obscure status in the early 2000s.

Although not strictly speaking ambient music, mainstream electronic dance music styles such as trance, techno and drum and bass draw inspiration from the soothing electronic sound of ambient music. Artists in these styles often incorporate ambient elements into their work. Examples are found in Voodoo Child's (aka Moby) The End of Everything album and others like early PWOG (Psychic Warriors Of Gaia) albums and COIL. Other artists have created their own entire sad-retro genre completely such as Boards of Canada and kneeL[1] (

Some types of ambient electronic music:

Ambient dub

A chronology of ambient evolution would be lacking without mentioning the impact early reggae dub studio producers had on the shaping of soundscapes using reverb, echoes and delay effects. In short the sounds created by Sir Coxsone, Scientist, King Tubby and Lee Perry still linger in the ambient environment. Works by Bill Laswell, Jah Wobble and others, including a number of compilations by various artists. Includes prominent bass guitar as does dub music, but without drums, vocals, or horn sections of reggae, and with the usual prominent synthesizers ambient music is known for.

Ambient groove

Ambient groove music could be seen as a sub-genre of both ambient and trip hop music. Ambient groove is a stylistic middle ground between the two, incorporating elements of both along with dub and world music. The sub genre was created accidentally by the series "A Journey Into Ambient Groove" by Quango Records, a subsidiary of Island Records. (Quango itself evolved out of the ambient groove project.) All four in the series are various-artists compilations, with tracks selected and compiled by Bruno Guez. Guez featured similar music on his radio show in L.A., though the movement is European in its origination. As with most sub genres in music, there is some overlap between them. This style is mostly limited to the mid 1990's. The ambient groove sound was created in particular by artists on the Pork label. Guez collected songs exclusively from this label for the "A Taste of Pork'" compilation. The songs themselves feature a combination of synthesizers and drum machines as well as acoustic percussion and other acoustic instruments. Ambient groove does not feature much in the way of vocals or four-on-the-floor techno beats, but the beat and the groove are featured elements, unlike ambient per se. The style has much in common with more modern dub, but generally less reggae-inspired, though there are dub tracks included on the compilations.

Some definitive recordings

  • A Journey Into Ambient Groove Quango/Island, 1994
  • A Journey Into Ambient Groove Phase 2 Quango/Island, 1995
  • A Journey Into Ambient Groove 3 Quango/Island, 1996
  • A Journey Into Ambient Groove 4 Quango/Island, 1997
  • A Taste of Pork Pork/Quango/Island, 1995

Some defining artists

Ambient house

Ambient house music takes the catchy, simple beats of house music, specifically the TR-808 sound, and combines it with warm synth pads. Ambient house is almost always attributed to UK group The Orb, who combined the house sounds with obscure samples and dub production. Early works by 808 State, such as "Pacific 202", and others can also be considered in this genre.


Beatless ambient electronic music has no overt drum machine or explicit drum sound-driven beat, but sometimes maintains rhythm through repetition of some sort of sound as exemplified on some tracks of Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Beatless is more often used to describe drone-oriented or arhythmic ambient music, where no actual tempo can be discerned.


No overt repetition of a sound or sound phrases is clear. This kind of ambient electronic music is, for some listeners, the least accessible. Some examples include Radiohead's track "Treefingers" from the Kid A album, some of the work of Japanese musician Nobukazu Takemura, and IDM artist Hrvatski's album Playthroughs (recorded under his real name, Keith Fullerton Whitman).

Psychedelic chillout and psybient

Psychedelic chillout music is the ambient form of psychedelic trance and Goa trance and is considered one of the most complex form of ambient music. It dates back to the early 1990s with artists such as The Infinity Project and Astralasia. Many Goa trance artists, most notably Astral Projection, used to add a chillout piece as the last track in their trance albums. This type of music gained a boost in popularity during the late 1990s and early 2000s. One of the reasons for that was the form of Shpongle, a still active cooperation between Simon Posford and Raja Ram. Their first album - "Are You Shpongled?" (1998) set the standards for psychedelic chillout music. Artists such as Shulman and Violet Vision began composing this music with great success. Today this type of music is considered very popular among the psychedelic scene with some dedicated chillout record labels.

Important releases

Notable artists and works in chronological order

Main article: List of ambient artists

Artist nameInfluential worksTime period
Erik SatieTrois Gymnopdies
Edgar VarseEcuatorial1930s
Wendy CarlosSonic Seasonings1972
Tangerine DreamZeit


Brian EnoAnother Green World

Discreet Music
Ambient 4: On Land
Possible Musics: Fourth World (with Jon Hassell)

Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks
DeuterCall of the Unknown.1970s - 1980s
Steve RoachStructures from Silence

The Magnificent Void

Quiet Music
Wally BadarouEchoes.1980s
The OrbA Huge Ever-Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From the Centre of the Ultraworld
The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
KLFChill Out1990
Future Sound of LondonISDN
Dead Cities
Aphex TwinSelected Ambient Works 85-92
Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2.
Global Communication76:141994
Moby AKA Voodoo ChildAmbient
The End of Everything.
Pete NamlookSilence I
Air I
Air II

1992 -
Substrata 2
1991 - 2004
Karlheinz EsslfLOW
1998 - 2004



  • fLOW ( ambient soundscape generator by Karlheinz Essl (Apple Macintosh)
  • SEELEWASCHEN ( ambient sound environment by Karlheinz Essl (Apple Macintosh)

See also

External links and references

  • Ambient Music Resources ( dreamSTATE's anotated guide to the most relevant ambient music mega-sites.
  • ( Guide to positive ambient music, including cd reviews and forum.
  • David Toop Ocean of Sound: aethertalk, ambient sound and imaginary worlds (1995) Serpent's Tail ISBN 1-85242-382-X ISBN 1852427434
  • ( Supporting Independent Electronic Music (
  • Ambient Music ( Guide to ambient music style, including reviews of important ambient works.
  • Factory Of The Green Light (, a simple example of ambient music
  • Ultima Thule Ambient Music Radio (, a longrunning programme on Australian public radio. Website features weekly mp3 programme updates.
  • Goa, Psy Trance, Ambient & Chillout MP3s
  • ( European psytrance and psychedelic ambient website featuring streamed ambient mixes.
  • 25 Years of Ambient Music ( Retrospective on ambient music.
  •  ( electronic music community. news, reviews, forum, links.
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