Following from my last essay ‘The Role of Music in a Range of Cultures‘ I will be discussing and contrasting the music features, characteristics, composition and important elements relating to the zeitgeist of the UK rave culture, the American EDM scene and Berlin’s Techno domination.
Techno is characterised by its cold, distorted synths, minimalism, and powerful beats. It is a repetitive style of music which features emphasised build-ups and drops for maximum impact on the dance floor. Its mainly electronic instrumental music and can feature the odd vocal. Techno is based upon experimentation with sounds, using effects such as reverb, distortion and delay, whether it be via a software and digital audio workstation (such as Ableton or Logic) to sculpt the un-natural noises, or having the sounds routed through (or sourced from) external hardware, such as synthesisers, distortion pedals and drum machines. A lot of artists prefer to use hardware as it gives a more authentic sound but it can be very expensive. The Roland TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines define the sound of Techno and House music, but buying one now will set you back more than £3000. This is the cost of keeping the authentic sound alive.
After the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989, free underground techno parties sprung up in East Berlin, and a rave scene comparable to that in the UK was established. Berlin’s Techno scene is heavily influenced by the house/techno sounds that came out of Detroit in the late 80’s, which in turn was influenced by the Chicago house movement about 10 years prior. It comes in the form of the familiar 4/4 kick with a backbeat snare and/or clap on the second and fourth beats of the bar and an open hi-hat sounding every second eighth note. Techno is normally played at around 125-140bpm but sub genres such as Hardcore Techno that spawned in the early 90’s can even be played up to around 200bpm, still with the 4/4 kick, snare and hats. It is usually structured by splitting it into bars of 16, with a fill after every 8 bars. There will normally be a distinguishable change or addition after each one, for example bringing the bass or hi-hats in. This is to make it easier for DJs to mix as its easy to count and the audience is subconsciously expecting a change
As the German Democratic Republic’s left behind derelict bunkers, ex-army warehouses, unused factories and closed-down supermarkets, they offered the perfect locations for an up and coming dance scene. The sounds of atmospheric synthesisers and crunchy raw drums filled the desolate warehouses and dis-used spaces. This is a great example of how the characteristics of the music reflect the feel of the city. The same I think could be said about EDM in America, with their plastic, fake sounding screechy synths reflecting a demanding money orientated society. Of course, its a complete contrast comparing an underground scene 30 years ago to a current hyper-mainstream $7 billion industry but I cant help but see the similarities.
The EDM scene has a lot of the same characteristics as Techno (and Acid House). Such as structure, the use of synths and electronic devices, time signature and tempo. This is because they all stem from the same source – Chicago House. There is a huge difference in the quality of the music, as you would expect with the advances in technology (and amount of money pumped into the industry). Earlier techno sounds raw and gritty which I believe is one of its defining attributes, modern techno can sound very clean and polished, as does EDM, although there are sub-genres today that still feature heavily processed crunchy sounding kicks and synths such as Industrial Techno and Power Noise.
EDM is characterised by bright layered synths, smooth vocals and a heavily side-chained kick. A lot of EDM is uplifting, as major scales and chord progressions are used. This is not as common in Techno as it is more serous and hard sounding. It is typical to see minor and major keys used in Acid House which gives it its unique funky/weird sound. A lot of electronic music is sample based, meaning that pre-recorded sounds are used and processed to make them sound original.
Electronic Dance Music goes hand in hand with DJing, when performing to a crowd at a festival or gig, the artist will blend a mixture of their songs with other similar songs to create one continuous mix. This keeps the energy levels up and the audience interested. So artists these days must learn to DJ in order to get booked. This has an effect on the structure and sometimes components of a track. Similar to Techno and House, the introduction will usually start with a simple drum beat to help beat match and fade the next track in, as the outro will be the a stripped down version of the main groove to give space in the mix for the next track to come in. Component wise, there are certain synths, drum machines, presets, and even chords, scales and progressions that are used more often than others which define the genre.
Artists such as David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Martin Garrix, Steve Aoki and Avicii pretty much dominate the EDM scene, they earn an unprecedented amount of money and put on shows to millions. Promoters and venues realised that DJs could generate larger profits than traditional musicians, Diplo himself said, “A band plays, it’s 45 minutes; DJs can play for four hours. Rock bands — there’s a few headliner dudes that can play 3,000 – 4,000 capacity venues, but DJs play the same venues, they turn the crowd over two times, people buy drinks all night long at higher prices — it’s a win-win.” It is a mainstream genre and popular among the younger generation. As it is so big, its hard to breakthrough and make a name for yourself. This means that the Artists at the top sculpt the genre with their sounds.
The UK rave culture features many of the characteristics as Techno and EDM. It follows the same time signature, structure and instrumentation, but also contains the same raw emotion and energy as Berlin’s Techno scene, that can only grow organically with the culture. Music that accompanied the UK rave scene had deep grooves, heartfelt vocals, techno synths and entrancing drum loops. The release of the Roland TB-303 in 1982 opened the gates to a whole new sound that was Acid House. The squelchy acidic like melodies and bass lines created a popular sub-genre that went hand in hand with the consumption of narcotics.
The composition and layering of House normally consists of: drums (kick, snare/clap, hi-hats, toms, cymbals), bass line (synth), melody (synth)/chords (piano) and a pads/strings. As well as Techno, it is a repetitive form of music and is based around the same structure that originated in Chicago. Acid House was a small movement that started in Chicago and found its way to the UK in the late 80’s where it grew exponentially. DJ Danny Rampling opened a club mainly for Acid House which introduced it to the British public and formed what some call the ‘second summer of love’, in which football hooligans stopped fighting, listened to music and took ecstasy.
In conclusion, the three musical styles have their similarities and differences that come with advancements in technology, injection of money, and responses to cultural events. Its clear that House and electronic music started in America, but my research shows that other countries can take influence and make it part of their own history by putting their stamp on it. I think the future for electronic dance music will be when developing countries take hold of it and it grows with their ideas taking influence from their musical and cultural background.