Unless you haven’t been paying attention to music for the last 15 years, EDM (electronic dance music) is everywhere. But actually what is EDM?
EDM stands for electronic dance music, is one of the defining sounds of music today.
(So no, it’s not ‘EDM music’ – it’s just ‘EDM’).
You’ll hear it on the radio, in the clubs and probably at your aunt’s 50th birthday party.
But what does it actually encompass? How do I know what is and isn’t EDM? And how is it made?
Whether you’re a budding music producer/DJ wanting to make EDM, or are simply interested in the music itself – this article will answer these questions.
In fact, we’ll cover:
- a brief history of EDM and how it became what it is today
- what is and isn’t electronic dance music (and the ongoing debate in the electronic music community)
- how you can get started making EDM (hint: you probably have most of it already)
- the many subgenres of electronic music
- and more!
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s start with what electronic dance music actually is.
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So, What Is Electronic Dance Music?
Electronic Dance Music, while the abbreviated EDM term came much later, is essentially any form of music that is both produced electronically with digital (computers) and analogue equipment, and is designed to be danced to.
You can tell because it normally contains instruments and sounds like synthesizers, drum machines, processed samples and recordings, and normally has an inherent ‘electronic nature’ to the sound of it.
It sounds precise, full and loud.
Especially compared to acoustic genres, which often require a massive amount of audio engineering trickery to get them to sound as clear as an electronic record.
In electronic music, you aren’t limited to a ‘live’ recording situation, so you have complete creative control over every second of a song.
You can place a kick drum exactly on the beat at whatever tempo you want. Synth not ‘fizzy’ enough? You can add something on top. Vocal sample sucks? Just replace it with one of the thousands in your sample library.
As a result, EDM tunes sound inherently bigger and cleaner because there is more control in the process, from the initial idea to the final product.
Dance vs. Electronic
However, it’s worth noting that some people define electronic and dance music as separate genres, because not all electronic music is necessarily made for the clubs.
But anyway, I don’t want to confuse you anymore.
All that aside – it’s exactly these characteristics that define EDM as one of the big umbrella genres, like rock, jazz or hip-hop.
And as we’ll get into, you really don’t need much to make this kind of music. Well, at least not as much as everyone makes out.
But what you will need is to dedicate yourself to the craft and to mastering it, which takes time.
It’s not as simple as ‘pressing a button’ and music is made.
But first, let’s look at how we got here.
A Brief History of Electronic Music
It has its roots in a form of music known as Musique Concrete – a french term for musical collage.
In this form of music, samples of recorded sounds were arranged into a musical piece on primative technology (groundbreaking at the time).
Eventually, early synthesizers were created and these were starting to be used in this form of music.
Over time, the same electronics started to get used both in existing acoustic genres, but also pioneered new ones. House music was one of the first.
Influences by it’s acoustic-driven counterparts like disco, funk, soul and jazz – house music had a distinct electronic sound, driven by dusty drum machines, timeless synth sounds and cut up samples.
This was one of the first forms of ‘danceable’ electronic music, distinct for it’s 4-on-the-floor rhythm. At this point, the term EDM still did not exist, and normally it was called ‘dance music’.
We have thank house for a lot of other subgenres, namely not only the newer forms of house, but also UK garage, trance, techno, and pretty much everything.
Fast forward about 10-20 years and electronic dance music moves from analogue equipment to computers, where it becomes a lot more accessible and doesn’t require you to sell you car to afford to make it.
EDM subgenres are popping up left, right, and centre – jungle, garage, hip-hop, techno, trance, electro house, progressive, eurodance etc.
And in the last 10-15 years, electronic dance music stopped being the weird younger sibling of music, and started to gain notoriety and appreciation by the public en masee – it wasn’t just for the clubs anymore.
This is where the term ‘EDM’ first started circulating, because it was a simple and repeatable term to describe any sort of electronic music that you can dance to.
And now, you’ve probably come home from a rave and typed ‘what is EDM’ into Google, and here you are.
But EDM is a big beast, with many different styles and subgenres. So lets break it down.
The Subgenres of EDM
As you can probably tell, there are tons of different subgenres within electronic dance music.
The most popular ones are probably future bass, big room house, hybrid trap, dubstep, electronic pop, and future house.
These are the ones you’ll hear at most major festivals and clubs, and are pioneered by artists like Hardwell (big room), Skrillex (modern dubstep), Diplo (trap/electro house/other), and other big-name artists.
But there are plenty more down the rabbit hole, like deep house, trance, drum & bass, hardstyle, garage, and many more.
Probably too many to list, especially if you keep subdividing down to ridiculous levels such as ‘hyper jazzstep’ or ‘hardcore breakbeat trance’.
If you’re interested in making a particular style of EDM, it probably helps to figure out a rough genre you want to fit into.
For example, if you’ve been to Tomorrowland, what you’ll be likely hearing is big room house and trap. So make sure you know what you’re making.
But don’t limit yourself too much – you want to have your own imprint on whatever style you choose.
If you do want a brief rundown on 20+ main subgenres of EDM, then check out our A-Z genres guide.
Furthermore, if you’re a supreme subgenre nerd and want a full timeline of over 100 subgenres with examples, check out Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music. Definitely a great resource.
At the end of the day, subgenres come and go, some get big, some dwindle down, and new ones pop up now and then.
Don’t get too caught up in it – just make what you want to make, regardless of the term used.
Does ‘EDM’ Only Mean ‘Commercial’?
One of the modern debates within electronic music communities is to what EDM means in terms of the music it encompasses.
Does EDM mean all electronic dance music, or does it just describe the popular variety we hear on the radio and top Spotify playlists?
Can we class artists that are miles apart – Martin Garrix, Carl Cox & Goldie – all in the same box?
My thoughts are that actually, yes you can!
Because while subgenre purists might argue that ‘real deep house’ or ‘old school jungle’ is not EDM, the fact of the matter is that it is literally electronic, dance music.
It’s both electronically produced with computers and or hardware synths/drum machines, and made for the dancefloor.
In fact, before the term EDM was used, the umbrella term for electronic dance music was any of the following:
- electronic music
- dance music
Around 2010-2011, EDM just became both a handy and marketable term for it, as genres like big room, trap and future bass took off.
As this happened, the producers and DJs who had been there for a while didn’t want anything to do with the term – because this new breed of electronic music differed so much to what they were used to.
But the reality is, genres were evolving and creating new sounds. Whether you liked the old school or new school didn’t matter what it sounded like exactly – it was all EDM – electronic dance music.
It’s kind of like metal and punk music – they have very different aesthetics, but the umbrella term for both would still be considered ‘rock’ (don’t tell any metal fans I said that).
And while more and more musical genres adopt electronic technology, the defining factor of EDM is that it is primarily electronic sounds, and made for the dancefloor.
This encompasses everything, from chicago house to tearout dubstep.
Aesthetically different? Yes.
Still EDM? I think so.
How Is EDM Made?
These days, electronic dance music is primarily made on a computer by an electronic music producer.
(Sometimes these people are also DJs, but you don’t have to be a DJ to be a producer, and vice versa).
The reason for this is that computers are super flexible tools, allowing us to make and manipulate pretty much any recorded or created sound.
This is great news if you want to get started, because you probably already have a somewhat okay computer for music production.
Can it help to have a fancy computer with high specs? Of course! But to get started? Nah.
But while a computer in itself is the centerpiece of the studio, you may need a couple more things…
Recommended: How To Make Electronic Music
The Minimum Viable Studio
In another article I wrote on setting up your studio, I mentioned this concept of a ‘minimum viable studio’.
Essentially, with this setup, all you need to make music is a laptop/desktop, headphones and a DAW (digital audio workstation).
Yes, you’ll need to load up your DAW with good samples and maybe a few plugins and resources, but that’s it.
So yes, that song your friend absolutely loves after hearing it at Coachella last year, was probably produced by some mid-20’s hipster in their parents’ basement. Not in some fancy studio with millions of dollars of gear.
But apart from these tools, there is the flip side of the coin – learning resources.
If you want to learn electronic music production effectively, you need good education.
And no, I’m not talking about hacking it together with tutorials alone (as valuable as they can be).
For some, this might mean heading to a college or school to study music production (overrated), for others, this might mean taking an online course.
We’re biased, of course, but courses tend to be more effective because the information is:
- structured (you learn in the right order)
- comprehensive (no knowledge gaps)
- helpful (people actually answer your questions)
Whatever you do, make sure that the education you receive is valuable, relevant, and structured well.
It’ll save you time, headaches and disappointment.
Want To Get Started?
If you are interested in learning electronic music production, then you’ve come to the right place.
Except we do things differently around here.
For that reason, we put together a free video training to start you on the right path as a new producer. This will teach you:
- how to overcome mistakes that new producers make
- what you need to learn first
- why fundamentals are more important to learn than shiny techniques
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Anything I missed? Let’s chat over at [email protected].