Ambient Music — A Very Brief Primer

People might find you a bit eccentric for listening to vinyl records, or if you read sites like the Random Life Music. More so if you make guitar effects in a home recording studio, in an attempt to make what is called ambient music. But what exactly is ambient music, and how would anyone explain it adequately? Below, we make a “sound check” of what ambient music might be or might be not.

Ambient Music Defined

Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, or simply Brian Eno, is an English musician credited for coining the phrase “ambient music.” He describes it as music made to bring about calm and space to ponder with (as inscribed in the sleeve of Ambient 1: Music For Airports, his 1978 creation). Eno’s idea of ambience is music that can either be listened to intently or passively in the background.

But of course, even before Eno defined it as ambient music, chill-out instrumental sounds have long existed (e.g. in some 1960’s psychedelic rock to as far back as the middle ages’ Gregorian chants). And so, some pundits argue that defining such sounds into a genre might be somewhat limiting. Indeed, it is more fun to trace the sources that have influenced such eclectic sounds, instead of saying which is ambient or not.

Some of the Flavors of Ambient

Dark ambient

Dark ambient is characterized by toned-down or completely absent beats with adulterated guitar effects, agitated keyboard excerpts and otherworldly samples. Other musical styles associated with it are isolationist ambient and ambient industrial. But like the entirety of ambient music itself, such “dark” iteration is just as vague — many of its artists seemingly slip in and out of the style with their successive releases. Notable artists include Mick Harris, Kim Cascone, Merzbow and Bark Psychosis.

Space Music

Space music (or spacemusic, ironically without the “space” between the words), is a broader genre including ambient and similar others. It encompasses basic to complex sound textures, occasionally bereft of traditional rhythmic, melodic or vocal elements. Space music is said to induce a sense of continuous spatial freedom and emotion, or the feeling of levitation. As such, it is often used in movie soundtracks, planetariums and as aid to meditation and relaxation. Its notable artists are often associated with the Berlin School of electronic music.

Ambient Dub

Ambient dub is the genre fusing of styles of dub. It was developed by Jamaican sound artists (notably King Tubby), who were fond of DJ-inspired ambient electronica (which is replete with effects like psychedelic, echo and drop-outs, among other things). It is often characterized as a smorgasbord of world music elements, harmonic sounds and deep bass lines. Some of ambient dub’s notable artists are: The Orb, Loop Guru and Higher Intelligence Agency.

Ambient Music and its Charm

Ambient music is nothing like pop or any other mainstream genre. It doesn’t yearn for the spotlight, but it also shines when the listener appropriates it with more interest and attention. Ambient music frames the other sounds you hear or make — like your subtle breathing, or your boisterous environment. It’s a catalyst for self-awareness, while also being a glass through which you could see a more fascinating world.

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