What Makes Ambient?

According to Wikipedia, Ambient Music is a musical genre that focuses largely on the timbral characteristics of sounds, often organized or performed to evoke an “atmospheric”, “visual” or “unobtrusive” quality. But what makes Ambient?

Ambient Music is defined by Wikepedia as:

Ambient music is a musical genre that focuses largely on the timbral characteristics of sounds, often organized or performed to evoke an “atmospheric”, “visual” or “unobtrusive” quality.

From Deepintense:

Atmospheric – Environmental – Mood Inducing – Music. This style of music is characteristically undefinable because it incorporates so many different styles, sounds, and moods. However it can be recognized as being atmospheric in nature. The sounds work together to create a space where sound becomes the encompassing theme, mood and character of the immediate environment. According to many sources: the term ambient music was first used by the ambient music legend Brian Eno.

I would also highly recommend reading the Wikepedia article and perusing the Deepintense site, as they go through the History of Ambient music from the early 20th Century to the present, and provide several examples along the way, as well as further reading.

Aside from that, there are a few characteristics with Ambient music that I have found:

  1. Heavy usage of Pad sounds and progressive modulation.
  2. Ambient attempts to create a mood, rather than create something purely pumping or hard or even rhythmic.
  3. Ambient encourages experimenting with sound, and in that, it is experimental.
  4. Ambient focusses the listener away from the music, instead of inward toward the music. The ideas behind ambient are to create a background, or create something that can be passively perceived. The focus is not squarely centered, but rather, it is diffuse and best listened to at the edges or periphery. Taking this thought into the visual. An image of a car crash will focus the viewer straight at the crash scene, while an image of a vast impressionist landscape will focus the viewer toward the edges on the visual periphery, without any focused location.
  5. Ambient music provides a texture, and is more concerned with melody than beat. Whereas Pop music is the opposite. It is more concerned with the beat of the music than the melody. Though both still do play a part in each genre.
  6. Ambient music is also not the same as muzak or elevator music. While elevator music attempts to rehash traditional songs into a mindless subtle background, I think Ambient tends to contain more exploration and depth. Elevator music tranquilizes you. Ambient music surrounds you and takes you in for a soft and subtle journey that can be admired and thought about. It’s intelligent and takes some thought. While muzak takes no thought at all.

And one other note about genres. If you’re interested in looking closer at various Electronic genres, there’s a great site with lots of sound examples which attempts to categorize all that is considered “Electronic.” Visit Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music if you’re interested.

What are your thoughts on Ambient Music?

4 thoughts on “What Makes Ambient?”

    1. Iceman,
      I really like this article. I also like how the difference between Ambient Music and Muzak is described. Ambient Music enhancing the aural space, and Muzak regularizing the aural space. I think that’s what I was trying to express in my posting. But I think it’s much more lucid in this article you’ve suggested. A great read so far. Thanks for sharing!

  1. Nice article, that really summed up my original thoughts on ambient music, you can either concentrate on specific elements or transitions, or leave it in the background, and go to sleep!

    1. Thanks Liam. It’s interesting to dissect different genres. I don’t know exactly what it is about Ambient that makes me come back to it all the time. Currently I’m listening to Tim Hecker’s work, which is an interesting twist on Ambient. Giant reverbs and big spaces. I highly suggest giving him a spin. All my best,

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