The Complete Guide to EDM (or Electronic Dance Music)

This is as good a time as any to get one of the biggest misconceptions out of the way. EDM is NOT the electronically produced equivalent of pop music. It’s not big room house either. It’s not even a genre.

EDM (or electronic dance music) is the combined term for all genres within the dance music space. This includes genres such as ambient, drum and bass, house, electro, techno, trance, hardstyle and many more. To put it bluntly, the term "EDM" has been misused for years; it is much more than just a certain style of music. Grab yourself a pen and a piece of paper, because you ought to be taking notes throughout this thorough run-down of electronic dance music.


Table of Contents
The Definition of EDM
A Brief History Of Electronic Dance Music
The Most Popular EDM Genres
Big Room

Chill-Out

Deep House

House

Progressive House

Techno

Trance

Examples Of Big EDM Events And Festivals

THE DEFINITION OF EDM

As you may have concluded from the article intro, the definition of electronic dance music is a simple one. Often abbreviated to EDM, electronic dance music boils down to "all music produced electronically for people to dance to". See what we did there? Electronic(ally produced) dance(able) music. That's all. It’s that simple!

A (BRIEF) HISTORY OF ELECTRONIC DANCE MUSIC

Keeping the above definition in mind, we can trace the origin of electronic dance music back to Jamaica in the 1960s. The artists there tried to create new forms of music by overlapping multiple tracks on reel-to-reel audio tape recorders. This certain style of music, which was called dub music, became popular in night clubs and bars and was essentially the first form of electronic dance music, even preceding disco.

In the 1970s, when the disco era started coming to an end, a similar thing occurred. A man called Frankie Knuckles tried to recreate tracks and sounds by fusing various genres, adjusting the tempo and adding percussion. House music was born, a style of music so infectious it soon spread to the rest of the world. Within a next few decades, countless new genres popped up within the electronic dance music spectrum. And now, EDM is one of the most thriving and popular entities in the entire music landscape.


A great way to measure the popularity of genres within electronic dance music throughout the years is to run through the results of all annual DJ Mag Top 100 polls. You’ll notice that the popularity gradually shifted from credible (now old-skool) house to the more hands-up, festival-oriented sound (progressive house/big room) once EDM started crossing over into pop culture more.

For a more detailed look into the history of electronic dance music, feel free to read our article titled ‘The History of Dance Music’.

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THE MOST POPULAR EDM GENRES

Since EDM is the umbrella term for everything produced electronically or mainly consisting of electronic components, there are many different genres within EDM that each hold their own spot on the dance music spectrum. Below, we break down the most popular genres within electronic dance music and offer a few examples of what these styles of music sound like.

Do keep in mind that the line between genres can be very thin and blurry, mostly because a lot of artists love to innovate and combine elements from different genres. The names we give to certain genres are also quite subjective. Where some might feel that a certain sound fits genre one, others from a different musical territory could place that same sound into genre two. Even the genres on Beatport change every now and then, especially when certain genre terms get out of fashion. Food for thought.

Ambient
Ambient music focuses on the atmosphere and tonal textures of music as opposed to rhythm and structure. Ambient surfaced in the 1970s when synthesizers were used to create experimental music. The term “ambient music” was reportedly coined by English producer Brian Eno, who is widely regarded as a legend within the genre.

Big room

Big room (or big room house) is one of the newer genres in this list. Initially a subgenre of electro house, big room started its meteoric rise around the early 2010s through now-renowned acts such as Swedish House Mafia and Martin Garrix. Its bombastic character, minimal melodies and electro-house-style drops lend themselves particularly well to peak-time event slots, which is why it soon became one of the go-to sounds at the mainstages of many of the world’s biggest dance music festivals.

Chill-out

Where exactly chill-out begins and other, more downtempo genres end, is a bit vague. Generally speaking though, the kind of music that is often referred to as chill-out can be characterized by slow rhythms, relaxed moods (so no overly suspenseful chord progressions or complex melodies), and sometimes even jazzy or classical influences. In any case, chill-out stands for easy listening and winding down from the stress of everyday life rather than causing a spike of adrenaline.

Deep house
What actually classifies as deep house is up for debate. In the left corner, the purists swear by the more ahead-of-the-curve House tracks of artists like Marshall Jefferson and Larry Heard from back in the ‘80s. That style of house music adopted a lower tempo (bpm) and a more soulful feel through gospel-like vocals or Jazzy vibes in comparison to “regular” house.

In the opposite corner stand the ones who connect the term ‘deep house’ to the commercialized form of house music of recent times. That form of ‘deep house’, which is often upbeat, radio-friendly and very summer-like, leans more toward pop-dance or electro pop due to its frequent application in the pop music realm. You can also think about popular tracks from artists such as Lost Frequencies and Felon, or many of the tracks featured in our Deep House Hits playlist on Spotify.

Whichever form of deep house you feel is the true form is entirely up to you. But as with all styles of music, it continues to evolve, sometimes to the point where it is no longer so strongly connected to its original sound. So why not embrace that fact and root for both?

Disco
Disco is where more traditional music styles such as rhythm & blues, funk, soul and pop music collide. It was very popular in the 1970s and 1980s, and one of the very first genres of electronic dance music to gain such a huge following. In truth, disco largely featured more acoustic instruments than electronically produced elements, but it was also one of the main influences for house music, which is we just had to include it.

Drum and bass

Commonly abbreviated to DnB, drum and bass found its origin in the U.K. in the 1990s. It is built on fast-paced breakbeats in non-standard rhythms and may feature raw and heavy bass rips to achieve its aggressive sound, though this depends on the sub genre. Liquid drum and bass, for instance, is a lot gentler and melodically oriented.

Dubstep

Although often confused with drum and bass by those who don’t know what’s what, dubstep is not as fast-paced and generally not as break-beat like. It does however featured unconventional rhythms and is widely known for a specific sound element: the wobble bass (the 'wub').

Electro house
Electro house surfaced when electro, originally a fusion of funk, early hip-hop, and New York boogie, met the house scene of the late 1990s. Generally speaking, electro house is driven by a raw, prominent bassline and powerful kick drums, making it somewhat of a pumped-up version of 'regular' house music.

Hardcore

Hardcore, supposedly going by the name of hardcore techno once, originated in the Netherlands in the 1990s and is arguably the hardest style in this list. It is incredibly fast-paced (160 to 200 beats per minute) and often described as violent by those who favor more delicate music. The true signature of hardcore lies in the kick drums, which are unrivalled in both intensity and the application of distortion effects.

Hardstyle

Hardstyle is – as its name implies – also one of the harder styles in this list. It is more melodically oriented than hardcore though, and certainly not as noise-heavy (sorry, hardcore fans). Its place in the electronic music spectrum is somewhere in between hard techno and hardcore, but it also draws from trance music on occasion.

House
House is arguably the genre where it all began if we cut disco out of the equation. It began in Chicago through seminal artists such as Frankie Knuckles, took over other great cities in the United States (such as Detroit and New York) through the visionary ideas of other like-minded individuals, and soon crossed over into Europe and the rest of the world. There, it rose above underground status and became one of the most prominent and popular genres within the dance music space. House music is the godfather of countless other genres such as techno and trance, and has come in many shapes and forms throughout the years.

Progressive house
Progressive house is subject to the same issues as deep house in the sense that there are two different camps with opposing views on what classifies as progressive house. Again, the purists and long-time listeners associate this style of music with the sound of early adopters such as Sasha and John Digweed, and Eric Prydz and maybe even Deadmau5 a bit further down the line. That kind of progressive house stays closest to the “progressive” theme, slowly building layer after layer. It also draws from the sound of early trance tracks quite a bit.

The other (and more commercially popular) form of progressive house is what comes closest to the style of music that many wrongly refer to as EDM music. Often accompanied by radio-friendly vocals, simple song structures and catchy, easy-to-listen-to melodies, it shares traits with big room, but is generally more melodically outspoken. This form of progressive house was the first to cross over into the pop realm, even before the more commercialized form of deep house took over.

Some of the first examples of pop-meets-progressive-house tracks are songs like ‘Clarity’ from Zedd feat. Foxes, ‘Take Over Control’ from Afrojack feat. Eva Simons, and Avicii’s 'Wake Me Up'. For this kind of music without such evident nods to pop music, artists like Hardwell (to some extent) and DubVision would fit the bill.

Techno
If house music had a dark side, it would be techno. The foundations of the genre were largely laid by Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, jointly known as the Belleville Three. With additional emphasis on the atmosphere of the track and an often extended build-up, techno music hammers out a steady four-to-the-floor rhythm whilst spotlighting a rawer, less polished sound set than house music.

Trance
Trance music is all about entrancing people with awe-inspiring atmospheres, epic breakdowns and breathtaking melodies. It started off as a minor sub genre within the house spectrum and shared traits with house, techno, new age and synthesizer pop, of which the latter two gave it most of its dreamy ambience. The first tracks that could be classified as trance music emerged in the late 1980s, although the early 1990s are often touted as the period in which the genre truly began to flourish.

Spearheaded by now-legendary artists such as Armin van Buuren, Chicane, DJ Tiësto and Ferry Corsten, trance music grew into one of the most popular genres within the dance music realm. The same can be said for vocal trance, a vocal-led sub genre of trance music.

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A LIST OF THE BIGGEST ELECTRONIC DANCE MUSIC EVENTS AND FESTIVALS

In the past ten to twenty years or so, electronic dance music saw a huge increase in popularity.
Though reluctant at first, the global music industry finally began to embrace EDM, after which massive events started to emerge. Now, there are so many massive electronic dance music festivals out there it’s hard to keep track. But just for the sake of it, we’ve listed five of the biggest EDM events/festivals of the moment.

ULTRA MUSIC FESTIVAL (UMF)

Starting off as a sick party at the annual Winter Music Conference in Miami in 1999, Ultra Music Festival has since spread to all corners of the world. Ultra Music Festival has been held internationally in countries such as Japan, Croatia (Ultra Europe) and South Africa, making it one of the most widespread EDM festivals in this list. Due to the many different stages, the three-day event is able to represent almost every style of electronic music.

ELECTRIC DAISY CARNIVAL (EDC)

Touted as the largest electronic music festival outside of Europe, Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) has been around since 1997. Having seen most of its editions across the United States, EDC became a two-day event in 2009 and went on to become a three-day event in 2011. The carnival-meets-music-festival has ventured beyond the U.S. several times, touching down in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Japan and the United Kingdom. Attracting an average of over 100.000 visitors per day, EDC may just be the biggest festival in North America.

TOMORROWLAND

Yesterday is history, today is a gift, tomorrow is mystery... Who hasn't heard of Tomorrowland or its slogan? The first edition of the Belgian festival was held on August 14, 2005, and it has been one of the most magically decorated festivals ever since. Belgian brothers Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike are considered the resident DJs of the long-running festival, but they aren’t the only big names in the always star-studded line-up. Expect to see Armin van Buuren, Hardwell, Lost Frequencies, Martin Garrix, W&W and more of the world's leading DJs and producers in Belgium (or previously in other countries through the discontinued Tomorrowworld and Tomorrowland Brazil spin-offs).

CREAMFIELDS

Traditionally held during the August Bank Holiday weekend in the U.K., Creamfields is one of the biggest British EDM festivals. It began as an offshoot from Liverpool's Cream nightclub and has since won the award for Best Dance Event at the U.K. Festival Awards for an unprecedented eight times. The festival now spans four days and the amount of stages runs in the double digits. Creamfields has had offshoots in lots of other countries as well, including Australia, Brazil, Chile, Czech Republic, Ireland, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Portugal, UAE (United Arabian Emirates) and Uruguay.

AMSTERDAM DANCE EVENT (ADE)

Amsterdam Dance Event represents an entire mid-October week of round-the-clock parties, insightful panels and seminars, label showcases and more, ending with the highly anticipated Amsterdam Music Festival and the results of the annual DJ Mag Top 100 DJs Poll. That's not the only unique selling point of the festival though. As the Dutch equivalent of the Winter Music Conference in Miami, Amsterdam Dance Event features a truckload of parties that each represent their own part of the electronic dance music spectrum. The nighttime line-up features more than 2000 DJs in 450 events and attracts over 350.000 visitors from all over the world, whereas the daytime conferences are what any music professional would drool over.

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Want to hear what cool electronic dance music is out there? Listen to the Armada Music Top 100, press play on the playlists featured in this article, or hit the button below to browse all of our music, filtered per genre.

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