Ambient music is a style of gentle, largely electronic instrumental music with no persistent beat, used to create or enhance a mood or atmosphere.
It does not contain the formal melodies or steady rhythms found in most popular music, opting instead to craft ambience from waves of aural textures.
Ambient follows in the tradition of musique d’ameublement (furniture music), a genre French classical music composer Erik Satie pioneered in 1917.
In the 1970s, analog synthesizers became available on the retail market. This innovation sparked a generation of ambient music artists who did not come from the world of classical music. The Krautrock scene in Germany, led by Kraftwerk, gave way to a number of ambient or semi-ambient acts such as Tangerine Dream and Popol Vuh.
English musician and producer Brian Eno amplified ambient music to new heights. Famous among pop music audiences for his work in Roxy Music and his late-seventies collaborations with David Bowie, Eno also created the pioneering Ambient Series of albums on the Polydor record label. Famous among these was Ambient 1: Music for Airports and Ambient 4: On Land.
Brian Eno conceived of ambience as a genre during a rainy hospital stay it exploded into the popular consciousness inspiring Aphex Twin, William Basinski, Julianna Barwick, Grouper, and many others.
In the mid-1980s, the possibilities to create a sonic landscape increased through the use of sampling. By the late 1980s, there was a steep increase in the incorporation of the computer in the writing and recording process of records. The sixteen-bit Macintosh platform with built-in sound and comparable IBM models would find themselves in studios and homes of musicians and record makers.
By the early 1990s, artists such as the Orb, Aphex Twin, Seefeel, the Irresistible Force, Biosphere, and the Higher Intelligence Agency gained commercial success and were being referred to by the popular music press as ambient house, ambient techno, IDM or simply “ambient”.
As ambient music became more mainstream, it inspired a legion of indie and alternative ambient artists. Many of these groups embrace the drone sound of 1960s ambient music and intentionally forego the synthesizers of ambient house. Beginning in the 1990s and early 2000s, artists like William Basinski, Stars Of The Lid, and Labradford have brought ambient music to a more iconoclastic audience.
By the late 2000s and 2010s, ambient music also gained widespread recognition on YouTube, with uploaded pieces, usually ranging from 1 to 8 hours long, getting over millions of hits. Such videos are usually titled, or are generally known as, “relaxing music”, and may be influenced by other music genres.
Verified YouTube channels, such as aptly titled Ambient has over 500,000 subscribers. Other verified channels that also publish ambient music include, Meditation Relax Music, which has over two million subscribers, Soothing Relaxation with more than eight million subscribers, and Relaxing White Noise with over 500,000 subscribers, among others. iTunes and Spotify have digital radio stations that feature ambient music, which are mostly produced by independent labels.
According to a 1998 article in The Wire, Blind Willie Johnson’s 1928 single “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” could be filed under ambient music, deeming it “a piece of country gospel improvisation, slide guitar with vocal hums and moans, but no lyrics.”
Ambient dub is a fusion of ambient music with dub. The term was first coined by Birmingham’s now defunct label “Beyond Records” in early 1990s.
Ambient house is a musical category founded in the late 1980s that is used to describe acid house featuring ambient music elements and atmospheres.
Ambient techno is a music category emerging in the late 1980s that is used to describe ambient music atmospheres with the rhythmic and melodic elements of techno.
Brian Eno’s original vision of ambient music as unobtrusive musical wallpaper, later fused with warm house rhythms and given playful qualities by the Orb in the 1990s, found its opposite in the style known as dark ambient.
Space music, also spelled “Spacemusic”, includes music from the ambient genre as well as a broad range of other genres with certain characteristics in common to create the experience of contemplative spaciousness.
Ambient video is a genre of video that puts emphasis on atmosphere over traditional storytelling or news content. Its purpose is to create a soothing, pleasant environment through the use of imagery. A typical video might include footage of waves rolling over the beach accompanied by soft ambient music. Some additional examples might include movement of water, sunrise or sunset, or slow movement such as that of a jellyfish. Ambient video can be the subject of focus or alternatively run unobtrusively in the background.