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Ambient music was first applied softer, more reflective forms of music in the 1970s, most notably new age genres and the minimalism of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and other classically trained composers. However, the term was also applied to musicians experimenting with subtler tonal pallets in a wide array of genres embracing the avant garde, progressive rock, psychedelia, Euro-rock, free-form jazz, the postpunk styles of the 1980s, and various world music strains.

In his landmark book, The Ambient Century, Mark Prendergast identified two twentieth century music developments at the core of ambience:

Firstly, music was deconstructed. Before, Western music was quite rigid.

The sonata form of the Classical period had specific rules which had to

be adhered to. Of course there were exceptional talents but they were

constrained within a chosen form. Then the Romantics started to loosen

things. Wagner’s grandiose operatic orchestration and Bruckner and

Mahler pushed the symphony to its limits so that by the end of the

nineteenth century it began to creak under its own weight. Then along

came Satie, Debussy and Ravel with a lighter touch. They wrote more

accessible melodies in shorter forms which openly embraced modernity

and the need to look beyond parochialism to the riches to be found in

other cultures such as the Orient….As old musical ideas began to be

supplanted by new, a second readical change occurred – and this was

in the very way music was generated. Composers and musicians began

to be fascinated by the nature of individual tones. Serialism, in its

dislocative way, had thrown up an interest in the essence of a single

sound. The leaders of the post-Second World War avant-garde in

Europe, such as Stockhausen, Schaeffer and Varese, seized on new

electronic equipment and began to experiment with tape recorders.

New qualities in sound were perceived, new tonalities divorced from

any traditional acoustic instruments were realized. De Forest’s invention

of the valve in the 190s had made amplification possible. This, coupled

with the concept of the sound environment, made for some spectacular



In short, the story of ambience is reflected by the interaction of innovative musical ideas and technological changes. Technological advances tended to focus on musical instruments and the recording studio. The most notable included computer synthesizers capable of mimicking virtually any natural sounds, digital sound storage and manipulation, and audio multi-tracking.

Following decades of evolution from the classical music experiments of the early twentieth century to the progressive rock releases of the Beatles and other cutting edge pop artists of the 1960s, ambience seemed to retreat to the aesthetic and commercial fringes of the music industry. With the exception of left field hits such as Michael Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973) and Enya’s Watermark (1988), ambience – dominated by Eno, Bill Nelson, and other cult artists – exerted little influence on the pop music mainstream in the 1970s and 1980s. This situation changed dramatically with the rise of House and Techno, considered by some to be the most significant development in popular music since the heydey of progressive rock in the late sixties. Prendergast has provided the following summary of the ascendancy of these styles:

The combination of [the hallucinogenic drug Ecstasy] with the kinetic

rhythms of the new dance music exploded into a phenomenon that seemed

to have no end. As the music mutated, new forms were thrown up by the

year. Ambient House and Ambient Techno were mind-balming responses

to the intensity of club culture. Trip-Hop and Drum and Bass [or Jungle]

were UK black variations of what was originally as innovation by black

Americans. Rock music absorbed House and Techno, and DJs and

electronicists began to tour and act like rock stars. As one century tipped

into another, dance music was still a primary source of interest and

creativity as Trance, a futuristic blend of technology and House and

Techno, became a chart-topping, globe-girdling sensation.


The migration of these styles from dance clubs to other mass media venues (e.g., the cinema, radio, record industry) and cross-fertilization with mainstream rhythm and blues, jazz, and rock genres has further guaranteed their long-term viability.


Top Artists and Their Recordings (listed in chronological order)

Popol Vuh—Aguirre, Wrath Of God (1976)

Klaus Schulze—Mirage (1977)

This Mortal Coil—It’ll End In Tears (1984)

Michael Brook—Hybrid (1985)

Spacemen 3—The Perfect Prescription (1987)

Bill Nelson—Chance Encounters In The Garden Of Lights (1988)

David Sylvian (with Holgar Czukay)—Plight & Premonition (1988)

Ryuichi Sakamoto—The Sheltering Sky (1990)

KLF—Chill Out (1990)

Enigma—MCMXC A.D. (1990)

The Orb—Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld (1991)

Mixmaster Morris—Flying High (1992)

Pete Namlook—Air (1993)

The Future Sound Of London—Lifeforms (1994)

Aphex Twin—Selected Ambient Works, Vol. 2 (1994)

Massive Attack—Protection (1994)

Goldie—Timeless (1995)

DJ Shadow—Endtroducing… (1996)

Paul Oakenfold—Paul Oakenfold – New York (1998)

Paul Van Dyk—Vorsprung Dyk Technik (1998)

Air—Premiers Symptomes (1999)