Insight Focus: An Introduction to Ambient Music

Listening to music on headphones, looking outside

Explore the intriguing evolution of ambient music, tracing its origins and exploring its diverse sub-genres.

Embark on a journey through time and sound as we delve into the captivating realm of ambient music’s evolution.

The Origin of Ambient Music

Ambient music, with its atmospheric and enveloping qualities, has captivated listeners for decades. British musician Brian Eno, often dubbed the “father of ambient,” is credited with pioneering today’s ambient music foundations in the early 1970s. Eno coined “ambient music” to create a tranquil, versatile sonic environment for passive listening and diverse activities.

Eno’s seminal ambient works include albums like ‘Ambient 1: Music for Airports‘ (1978) and ‘Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks‘ (1983). These albums showcased his approach to creating spacious and ethereal soundscapes using synthesizers, tape loops, and subtle musical motifs. Eno’s philosophy was to create music that could be both ignorable and interesting, providing an atmospheric backdrop that could enhance different moods or environments.

“My interest in making music has been to create something that does not exist that I would like to listen to. I wanted to hear music that had not yet happened, by putting together things that suggested a new thing which did not yet exist.” – Brian Eno

Eno’s use of the term ‘ambient’ was intended to describe music that could create a surrounding atmosphere or environment, something that was intended to be both unobtrusive and immersive. It was a departure from conventional music forms and aimed to provide a sonic backdrop or presence that could influence the mood and atmosphere of a space.

But what about pre 1970’s? Was the term ‘ambient’ used widely, or not at all?

Early Experimental Ambient

Before Brian Eno popularised the term ‘ambient’ and helped establish it as a genre, there were several artists and musical movements that explored similar ideas and laid the foundation for ambient music. While the term itself may not have been widely used, there were notable precursors to the ambient sound.

In the mid-20th century, the musique concrète movement emerged, which focused on manipulating and recontextualizing recorded sounds to create new musical compositions. Artists such as Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry pioneered this approach, exploring the possibilities of ambient-like textures and atmospheric soundscapes.

One of the very first pieces of musique concrète was composed by Pierre Schaeffer in 1948 out of sounds produced by trains. You can listen to the extraordinary composition here.

Although not as calming or relaxing as the ambient music we know of today, the composition above is a fine example of the very early stages of ambient music being born and the foundations of experimental electronica.

The Birth of New Age Ambient Music

In the 1980s and 1990s, several forms of ambient music gained popularity, showcasing the genre’s diverse and evolving nature. Many producers, artists, and bands experimented with emerging technology in the pro-audio space, contributing to the rise of ambient electronica. Below we’ve highlighted just a few of the many influential ambient genres to emerge from this era:

New Age Ambient

New Age music experienced a surge in popularity during the 1980s. It often incorporated ambient elements, focusing on serene and soothing compositions. Artists such as Enya, Kitaro, and Vangelis explored ethereal soundscapes, gentle melodies, and spiritual themes, creating a meditative and introspective atmosphere.

Chillout and Downtempo

In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the emergence of electronic dance music genres led to the development of chillout and downtempo sub-genres. These styles incorporated ambient elements into slower, relaxed electronic tracks. Artists like The Orb, Aphex Twin, and Future Sound of London produced ambient-infused tracks that provided a laid-back and atmospheric counterpoint to the energetic dance music of the time.

The Orb – Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (Released 1991)

Ambient House

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a sub-genre known as ‘ambient house’ emerged. Artists like The KLF, The Orb, and Orbital combined ambient textures with dance and electronic music, creating a hypnotic and atmospheric blend. Ambient house tracks often featured repetitive beats, samples, and ethereal synthesizer layers, providing a more accessible and rhythmic take on ambient music.

Experimental Ambient

The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of experimental ambient music that pushed the boundaries of the genre. Artists like Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, Biosphere, and Autechre created complex and unconventional ambient compositions. Their works often featured abstract soundscapes, intricate programming, and unconventional sound design, challenging traditional notions of melody and structure.

Who can remember the beautifully melodic ‘Xtal‘ from Aphex Twin taken from their iconic ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92‘ album? Although it didn’t make significant chart impact, it received critical acclaim and is highly regarded in the ambient music community.

Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (Released 1992)

Dark Ambient

Dark ambient music gained popularity during the 1990s. Artists such as Lustmord, Robert Rich, and Vidna Obmana explored eerie and haunting sonic landscapes. Dark ambient blends industrial, drone, and atmospheric elements, crafting darkness, introspection, and occasionally a touch of the macabre.

“Ambient music moves beyond the traditional structure of melody and rhythm, delving into the experience of sound itself.” – Robert Rich

It was in 1990 that Ambient Music finally achieved chart success with Enigma’s debut album ‘MCMXC a.D.’ combining elements of ambient, new age, and electronic music. It achieved considerable commercial success, topping charts in multiple countries and selling millions of copies worldwide. While not strictly categorised as ambient, it incorporated ambient textures and atmospheric elements into its sound and brought mainstream attention to a young and emerging genre.

Present-day Ambient Music

After the 2000s, ambient music continued to evolve and diversify, incorporating new influences, technologies, and sub-genres. Here, my personal journey into ambient music began, and I’m certain many readers share this experience.

From the beautifully captured ambient soundscapes by Sigur Rós to the Neo-classical sounds of Ólafur Arnalds. We have experienced many captivating ambient works from musicians worldwide.

Some years ago, Insight Music curated four Spotify playlists that were to help enhance certain feelings and moods. As an ambient music enthusiast, I sought a playlist encapsulating immersive soundscapes from inspiring artists and producers. ‘Awaken‘ is our go-to Spotify playlist, featuring calming ethereal sounds ideal for meditation, studying, and yoga.

Insight Music – Awaken

My Personal Picks

For times requiring deep focus, I return to a few of my favourite singles. Here are some cherished ambient pieces to soothe your mind and boost focus.

Italian ambient pioneer Gigi Masin‘s ‘Clouds‘ stands as an enduring favourite to me, capturing a delicate essence through its enchanting piano melody. The looped arpeggiated motif that graces the entire track is instantly recognisable, evoking a sense of mesmerising tranquility. Additionally, this captivating synthesizer has left an indelible mark, finding its way into the works of renowned artists such as Nujabes, Bjork, and Post Malone, enriching their singles with its distinctive presence.

Certainly a piece that has graced the lives of many in the world of ambient music. ‘#3‘ from Ireland-born producer Aphex Twin is a beautifully poetic piece of soothing ambient that instantly brings peace. One YouTuber said it best with – “Pure distillation of life expressed in ambient waves“.

Skipping ahead to recent times and where Insight was well and truly underway, along comes relatively unknown Swedish producer TYMELAPSE. Their magical ambient composition ‘We Became Strangers‘ was something that captured and inspired the imagination of many within the community. Ambient music serves as a ‘gateway’ to an alternate dimension, an escape from reality, for many. This is certainly one of those tracks.

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