Electronic dance music (EDM) is a broad category used to describe percussive electronic music intended for use in nightclubs, raves, and festivals.
It is typically created for playback by DJs who transition from one recording to another to create DJ mixes, which are, in their ideal form, seamless selections of tracks.
EDM producers may also perform their music live at a concert or festival using a live PA system.
Named the third most popular music genre in the world, it continues to be the most prominent genre played at the biggest electronic music festivals.
These festivals include Tomorrowland, Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas, and Ultra Music Festival Miami, accounting for more than 20% of their festival lineups coming up in 2023.
This article looks at the characteristics of electronic dance music, its historical development, subgenres, and social impact.
Table of Contents
- The Sound of EDM
- History of EDM
- The 1970s Disco Era
- The 1980s House, Techno, Acid House & New Subgenres
- The 1990s: The Resonance of the Fall of the Berlin Wall & the Debut of Trance Music
- The Early 2000s: EDM Becomes Popular
- The 2010s & Today
- Genres of EDM
- Social Impact of EDM
- Is EDM a Commercial Genre?
- Electronic Dance Music Characteristics
- 10 Best Examples of EDM
- 1. “Levels” by Avicii
- 2. “Animals” by Martin Garrix
- 3. “Don’t You Worry Child” by Swedish House Mafia
- 4. “Sweet & Sour” by Mike Williams
- 5. “I’m Not Alone” by Calvin Harris
- 6. “Bangarang” by Skrillex
- 7. “Strobe” by deadmau5
- 8. “Titanium” by David Guetta ft. Sia
- 9. “Digital Love” by Daft Punk
- 10. “Wake Me Up” by Avicii
- What Is EDM Music – Final Thoughts
The Sound of EDM
While the abbreviated EDM term was coined much later, Electronic Dance Music is essentially any form of music that is produced electronically with both digital (computers) and analog equipment and is intended to be danced to.
It is distinguishable by the presence of instruments and sounds like synthesizers, drum machines, processed samples, and recordings, as well as an inherent ‘electronic nature’ to its sound.
A clear, full, and loud sound is produced especially when compared to acoustic genres, which frequently require significant audio engineering trickery to sound as clear as an electronic record.
Because you are not limited to a ‘live’ recording environment, electronic music allows you complete creative control over every aspect of a song.
As a result, because there is more control over the creation process, from the initial idea to the finished product, EDM tunes sound bigger and cleaner inherently.
History of EDM
Over the last 40 years, various EDM genres like house, techno, drum and bass, dance-pop, and so on have emerged.
Hybridization, in which elements from two or more genres are combined, can culminate in the emergence of a completely new EDM genre.
Therefore, electronic dance music is considered an umbrella term under which all sorts of genres are included.
Silver Apples and other dance bands created electronic music in the late 1960s and are one of the earliest cited examples of EDM.
Other early examples of music that influenced later electronic dance music include:
1. Jamaican dub music from the late 1960s to the 1970s
2. Italian producer Giorgio Moroder’s synthesizer-based disco music from the late 1970s
3. Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra’s electropop from the mid-to-late 1970s.
The 1970s Disco Era
Electronic dance music originated in New York, USA, in the early 1970s, when disco music became extremely popular among people of all social classes and communities.
Particular disco producers, such as Giorgio Moroder, or synth-pop and ‘Krautrock’ artists, like the German band Kraftwerk, influenced the evolution of EDM as a whole.
The synthesized disco song “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer and the 1974 hit “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae were two popular disco tracks that are attributed to the creation of the EDM scene.
The latter track was distinguished by the use of a drum machine and an early Roland rhythm machine.
Although disco was the first genre to popularize going to clubs and dancing, the general public lost interest in disco by the end of the 1970s.
Nonetheless, many EDM subgenres arose later using disco as a foundation.
The 1980s House, Techno, Acid House & New Subgenres
House music was born in the early 1980s at Warehouse, an African-American gay nightclub in Chicago, under the direction of a resident DJ, Frankie Knuckles.
Knuckles, like other Chicago-based DJs such as Ron Hardy, Steve Hurley, and Farley Funk, would make his edits of the cult disco songs he played on reel-to-reel tape, adding drum machines to his sets.
At the same time, techno music was being created in Detroit, with many early pioneers like Juan Atkins, Rick Davis, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May helping to shape the genre.
When Atkins released the song “Techno Music” in 1988, the genre was officially formalized as a style.
After being introduced to the UK music scene in the mid-1980s, both house and techno music became widely popular.
They promptly became the most popular form of club music throughout Europe, with another EDM subgenre, acid house, emerging as a favored style in the United Kingdom and Germany.
EDM gained a reputation as ‘drug music’ in the late 1980s.
Several British DJs visited the popular Spanish island of Ibiza in the summer of 1987 and spent a week enjoying the heavy Chicago house and Detroit techno music.
Visitors first learned about MDMA, or Ecstasy, the mood-altering drug, at an outdoor venue called Amnesia, where the music seemed zanier and more revelatory.
By the end of the year, one of the DJs, Danny Rampling, had started Shoom, a weekly party in a London fitness center that mostly featured acid house tracks.
Acid house had become England’s biggest youth-culture musical phenomenon since punk within a year of its emergence.
The 1990s: The Resonance of the Fall of the Berlin Wall & the Debut of Trance Music
Germany played a significant role in the development of the electronic dance music scene, notably following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Kraftwerk, the previously mentioned synth-pop quartet, was one of the most influential acts of the time.
The newly independent city became a popular destination for raves and rebel parties that were previously popular throughout England.
During that time, the legendary techno club ‘Tresor’ was founded underground in the vaults of the former department store.
By the early 2000s, the metropole had established itself as the epicenter of techno music, attracting DJs, techno producers, and fans from around the world.
German cities, particularly Frankfurt, were also the birthplace of trance music in the late 1980s/early 1990s.
It was characterized by repeating melodic phrases and gradually building tension, often culminating in 1 to 2 ‘peaks’ or ‘drops.’
A mid-song peak was usually followed by a gentle melody breakdown, with no percussion or beats, before deliberately building up again.
The ‘rave’ scene evolved throughout the 1990s into what it is today, with many nightclubs playing both popular and underground EDM music.
EDM gradually advanced as a result of the formation and inclusion of new subgenres, becoming a part of the mainstream music industry like never before.
Many notable exponents of the genre have come from the United Kingdom, which includes:
1. The Prodigy (big beat, electropunk)
2. Depeche Mode (synth-pop and dance rock)
3. The Chemical Brothers (techno, big beat)
4. Goldie (jungle, drum, and bass)
5. Fatboy Slim (acid house)
The Early 2000s: EDM Becomes Popular
Electronic dance music, like the general musical landscape of the early 2000s, was heavily influenced by technological advancements.
While most music was stored on vinyl records before the twenty-first century, and club and rave DJing was done primarily with turntables, the new millennium has brought many technological innovations, including the birth and rise of CDs and DVDs.
In addition, Ableton Live, a digital audio workstation developed by the Berlin-based company Ableton, debuted in 2001.
Unlike other computer software, Ableton Live has been designed to function as both an instrument for live shows and performances and a tool for composing, recording, arranging, mixing, and mastering a record.
The software was one of the first to automatically beat-match a song, and it received two DJ awards for its technological advancement and contribution to the music industry.
EDM finally gained popularity in its birthplace, the United States, during the second half of the 2000s.
This was chiefly due to the rise of the internet, international DJs and producers bringing attention to the genre, and the release of Madonna’s techno-pop album, Ray of Light, in 1998.
From there, the international music scene witnessed the rise of producers and artists such as Tiësto, Daft Punk, and David Guetta, who are still internationally acclaimed EDM musicians today.
With their 2006-07 worldwide tour, which kicked off at the Coachella Festival, Daft Punk influenced the global perception of electronic dance music and introduced the genre to other music audiences and communities.
DJs were regularly performing at the largest stadiums in Los Angeles by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, which had by then become the greatest electronic dance scene in the United States.
Furthermore, in the early 2000s, another popular EDM subgenre, dubstep, was introduced to the American music spotlight, most notably by Grammy-winning EDM artist Skrillex.
The 2010s & Today
EDM is now frequently distinguished by original sound mixes as well as remixes produced by internationally renowned DJs such as Steve Aoki, Zedd, The Chainsmokers, Martin Garrix, and others.
Furthermore, elements of EDM have gained popularity among today’s biggest pop and mainstream musicians, including Ellie Goulding, Justin Bieber, Coldplay, Katy Perry, and others.
The rise and development of some previously formed subgenres. For example:
1. Progressive house (Swedish House Mafia)
2. Electro house (Steve Aoki, Benny Benassi)
3. Dutch house, which occurred in the 2000s and 2010s (Afrojack, DJ Chuckle)
As of today, electro-dance music can be considered a catch-all term for over 300 distinct subgenres.
Genres of EDM
EDM derives from a type of music known as Musique Concrete, which is a French term for musical collage.
In this type of music, recorded sound samples were arranged into a musical piece by primitive technology, which was groundbreaking at the time.
Early synthesizers were eventually developed and began to be used in this style of music.
Over time, the same electronics were used not only in existing acoustic genres but also in pioneering new ones.
One of the first such genres was house music.
Influenced by acoustic counterparts such as disco, funk, soul, and jazz, house music had a distinct electronic sound, driven by dusty drum machines, timeless synth sounds, and cut-up samples.
Big room house, dubstep, hybrid trap, future bass, future house, and electronic pop are probably the most popular.
These are the ones heard at most major festivals and clubs, and they have been pioneered by artists such as Skrillex (modern dubstep), Hardwell (big room), Diplo (trap/electro house/other), and others.
But there are a lot more genres to explore down the rabbit hole, including deep house, garage, drum & bass, hardstyle, trance, emo rap, acid house, industrial techno, and many others.
There are probably too many to name, especially if subdivided down to more extreme levels and stricter definitions like ‘hyper jazz step,’ ‘hardcore breakbeat trance,’ or ‘Nintendocore.’
Social Impact of EDM
Electronic dance music was frequently played at illegal underground rave parties held in secret locations like warehouses, abandoned aircraft hangars, fields, and any other large, open areas in the 1980s.
Aspects of the underground rave culture of the 1980s and early 1990s started to transform into official, structured EDM concerts and festivals in the 1990s and 2000s.
Multiple stages at major festivals frequently host a large number of performers from different EDM subgenres.
Festivals have placed a greater emphasis on visual spectacles as part of their overall experiences.
These include elaborate stage designs with underlying themes, complex lighting systems, laser shows, and pyrotechnics.
These events differed from underground raves in that they were more organized, often held in large venues, and included safeguards to ensure the health and safety of attendees.
Festival organizers have also done an excellent job with branding.
Larger festivals have been shown to have a positive economic impact on the cities where they are held.
Because of the popularity of EDM and festival culture, some multi-genre festivals, such as Coachella and Lollapalooza, have added more electronic acts to their lineups.
They frequently host EDM-specific stages, with notable performers like Calvin Harris and Deadmau5 having headlined the main stages of Coachella and Lollapalooza—positions more commonly reserved for rock and alternative acts.
Dance music has a long association with recreational drug use, particularly with a wide array of drugs that have been categorized under the name ‘club drugs.’
The association of drugs and music subcultures was not limited to electronic music.
Previous examples of music genres associated with specific drugs included psychedelic rock and LSD, disco music and cocaine, and punk music and heroin.
Ecstasy, also known as ‘E’ or ‘Molly,’ is frequently regarded as the drug of choice within the rave culture and is also used at clubs, festivals, and house parties.
The sensory effects of the music and lighting are often highly synergistic with the drug in the rave environment.
Some users enjoy the feeling of mass communion caused by the drug’s inhibition-reducing effects, while others use it as party fuel due to the drug’s stimulatory effects.
Is EDM a Commercial Genre?
One of the current debates within electronic music communities is what EDM entails in terms of music.
Is EDM used to describe all electronic dance music or just the popular variety heard on the radio and top Spotify playlists?
Can we put artists like Martin Garrix, Carl Cox, Bro Safari, DJ Fresh, and Goldie in the same category?
While purists may argue that ‘real deep house’ or ‘old school jungle’ is not EDM, the fact is that it meets the literal definition of electronic dance music.
All these artists’ songs are made for the dancefloor and are produced electronically with computers and/or with the use of hardware synths or drum machines.
Before the use of the term EDM, the umbrella term for electronic dance music was anything from ‘dance music’ to ‘electronica’ or ‘electronic music.’
EDM only became a useful and marketable term for it around 2010-2011, as genres like big room, trap, and future bass took off.
The producers and DJs who had been there for a while refused to use the term because this new breed of electronic music was so different from what they were used to.
New sounds were being created as genres evolved.
It didn’t matter whether you liked the old school or the new school – it was all EDM – electronic dance music.
And, while more musical genres are incorporating electronic technology, the defining feature of EDM is that it is primarily electronic sounds designed for the dancefloor.
This category includes everything from Chicago house to tear-out dubstep.
These are all aesthetically distinct, but they are still a part of the electronic dance music genre.
Electronic Dance Music Characteristics
Electronic Dance Music is a compilation of a wide range of electronic music subgenres designed specifically for dancing crowds to party to all night.
This includes house, synthpop, techno, disco, trance, dubstep, drum and bass, trap, and many other styles.
EDM is recognized by several distinguishing characteristics.
While vocals are rarely heard in EDM music, the style is characterized by deliberately synthetic sounds and timbres, a rhythmic pulse, and a high and steady tempo of 129-150 beats per minute (BPM).
However, some EDM subgenres have tempos that reach and even exceed 180 BPM.
Another unique characteristic of the style is the clear distinction between various layers of a song, which adds to the loud and highly repetitive nature of its sound.
The type of musical equipment used for the composition, creation, and production of individual music pieces is another distinguishing feature.
While traditional instruments are used in rock, pop, jazz, and other styles, they are replaced in EDM by a variety of electronic gear such as a sampler-sequencer, bass line generator, and drum machine.
In the past, DJs frequently used relatively inexpensive early-1980s equipment, such as the Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer and the Roland TR-808 drum machine.
Furthermore, EDM tracks were frequently composed and constructed from samples of previously made recordings.
Nowadays, DJs can create music using a wide range of technology.
These include computer software, synthesizer programs, or digital audio workstations (DAWs) with features like beat matching, crossfading, and tempo adjustment.
10 Best Examples of EDM
1. “Levels” by Avicii
“Levels” is a progressive house/electronic dance song by the late Swedish DJ Avicii, released on October 28, 2011.
It includes a vocal sample from the 1962 gospel-inspired song “Something’s Got a Hold of Me” by Etta James and is regarded as one of Avicii’s most popular songs.
Other of Avicii’s hits include, “Wake Me Up,” “Hey Brother,” “Waiting For Love,” and “Sunshine,” the latter of which was nominated for a Grammy Award.
For its catchy and recognizable synth riff, “Levels” has received very positive reviews from music critics.
By helping the mainstream progressive house achieve its peak in 2011/2012, it has become known as one of the greatest songs of all time, both in EDM spaces and outside of it.
“Levels” is a great song to listen to at musical festivals, nightclubs, while driving a car, or at home, proving it’s a versatile song for all occasions.
2. “Animals” by Martin Garrix
Martin Garrix is the quintessential embodiment of the electronic dance music fantasy.
“Animals” was the tough Dutch house hit that the world craved, and Garrix rose to international dance stardom at the age of seventeen because of it.
He carried stardom well, and his poise and professionalism impressed senior collaborators and peers in the studio, and his fame only grew.
Fans have named him the world’s number-one DJ twice in a row.
What makes it even more exciting is how much fun he appears to have with everything he does.
Martin Garrix’s 2013 track is one of the most well-known songs in the EDM genre.
Martin Garrix’s “Animals” is a big-room house instrumental that was released as a digital download on iTunes on June 17, 2013.
Garrix became the youngest producer to ever have a song reach number one on the electronic music store Beatport after the song quickly became popular within the EDM culture.
“Animals” was a commercial success, topping or appearing in the top ten on several electronic music charts as well as some more mainstream ones.
The song was described by Billboard as ‘big, brash, and infectious,’ which is exactly what a festival anthem should be.
3. “Don’t You Worry Child” by Swedish House Mafia
“Don’t You Worry Child” is the sixth single released by Swedish House Mafia, a Swedish house music supergroup.
It is the final single from their second compilation album, Until Now, and features Swedish singer John Martin on vocals.
At the 2013 Grammy Awards, it was nominated for Best Dance Recording.
The chorus of the song was taken word for word from composer Zitron’s father, while the pre-chorus is inspired by the songwriters’ discovery of young love, as expressed in the lyrics: “Upon a hill across the blue lake/ That’s where I had my first heartbreak.”
It is a song that will never fail to make people nostalgic for the past, particularly in a romantic sense, while also instilling in them hope for the future.
4. “Sweet & Sour” by Mike Williams
Mike Williams’s music career began at the age of 12 when he first developed a dance track on his laptop.
He began getting gigs after he performed as a DJ in front of 500 people at the age of 14, and soon, his incredible melodies, club bangers, and radio hits were taking the world by storm.
“Sweet and Sour,” released by Musical Freedom, was initially thought to be a Tiësto single.
Nonetheless, the sounds, which featured a chromatic melody and a dissipating drop, introduced a new talent, Dutch DJ Mike Williams, to the EDM industry.
With upbeat, swinging, almost marching band-like melodies he first crafts on piano, Williams has gone on to become one of the definitive future bounce producers.
5. “I’m Not Alone” by Calvin Harris
Before Calvin Harris’ massive collaboration with Rihanna on “We Found Love,” Harris released two albums on which he completely produced and sang, blending synthpop, trance, and house elements.
With soaring synthesizers, a nearly drop-less structure, and a trance-like repetition that engages rather than lulls the listener into a hypnotic state, “I’m Not Alone” represents this early apex of his career.
Debuting on the UK Singles Chart at number one, the song became Harris’s first solo number-one single and second overall after he collaborated with Dizzee Rascal and Chrome, “Dance wiv Me,” in 2008.
6. “Bangarang” by Skrillex
DJ Skrillex, an electronic music producer, released “Bangarang” as a single from his EP of the same name.
It is one of Skrillex’s most commercially successful EDM songs.
Although the emo guitarist-turned-producer has since demonstrated his versatility with his more recent work, “Bangarang” maintains the slow, syrupy tempo disrupted by the cacophony and deliberate unevenness that we associate with American dubstep.
Sirah, an American hip-hop recording artist, provides rap vocals over a vibrant mix of electronic elements and dubstep.
The title and lyrics of the song are based on the battle cry of the Lost Boys in the 1991 film Hook.
The music video includes references to Captain Hook in the ice-cream truck driver’s mustache, his right hand’s tattoo of a crocodile, and after the children’s heist causes the loss of his hand, after which he replaces it with a hook.
7. “Strobe” by deadmau5
“Strobe” is perfection at the crossroads of trance and tech house and is possibly Deadmau5’s best song to date.
This song demonstrates that not every EDM track requires a drop, nor does it have to rely on the underground’s neverending, pendulum-like groove and handclaps.
Rather, “Strobe” embodies mastery of the slow build that captures and holds the listener’s attention.
Instrumental EDM tracks became more popular as the 2000s progressed into the 2010s. Deadmau5’s “Strobe,” released in 2009, was one of these.
The 10-minute original, a six-minute club version, and a three-minute radio edit of the progressive house/ambient track were all released.
Dancers could lose themselves in the music with these longer, wordless trance songs.
8. “Titanium” by David Guetta ft. Sia
The song “Titanium” is by French DJ and music producer David Guetta and features vocals by Australian recording artist Sia.
Nothing But the Beat is Sia’s fifth studio album and was written by Sia, David Guetta, Giorgio Tuinfort, and Afrojack.
It peaked at number one in the United Kingdom, becoming Guetta’s fifth number-one single and Sia’s first.
“Titanium” is frequently credited with reintroducing EDM into the mainstream, launching a trend that would last for the rest of the decade.
9. “Digital Love” by Daft Punk
The French duo Daft Punk, whose music was featured in clubs all over the world, was one of the most well-known EDM groups of the early 2000s.
Released in 2001, “Digital Love” was one of their most iconic songs at the time.
It sampled George Duke’s “I Love You More” and used elements from retro EDM songs in a mix of old and new sounds.
“Digital Love” is the third song on the album Discovery.
It is filled with a classic vocoder (a synthesizer that produces sounds from an analysis of speech input), guitar riffs, and beautiful lyrics that will remind you of all the dreams that were cut short.
10. “Wake Me Up” by Avicii
Avicii is on this list of best EDM songs twice for two different reasons.
In a relatively short period, he was able to vary his creative output.
If the listener compares “My Feelings for You” and “Levels” to the rest of his debut album True, they would think they were listening to a completely different producer.
Back at Ultra 2013, “Wake Me Up” stunned listeners by combining country-folk elements with progressive house.
It felt sincere and new, ushering in a period of genre mashups that hasn’t stopped.
Avicii, Aloe Blacc, and Incubus multi-instrumentalist Mike Einziger are all credited with writing the song, “Wake Me Up,” in Einziger’s Malibu, California home studio.
“Wake me up when it’s all over” and “All this time I was finding myself, I didn’t know I was lost” were both lyrics from the collection Blacc had on hand.
Blacc felt the first lyric was the most powerful message to accompany the song, and its cadence corresponded to the chord progression as well.
Although Blacc was worried that the two lines would clash in the same song, Einziger assured him otherwise, so they went with it.
It was a wonderful decision because imagining this great track without these two lyrics sounds virtually impossible.
What Is EDM Music – Final Thoughts
Thanks to powerful rhythms that emphasize the ecstatic side of dance, electronic dance music, or EDM, has risen from the clubs to the pop charts.
EDM is exciting and interesting for both the audience and the musician; the musician has full control over the elements of the song, while the audience gets to dance to an exciting, upbeat tune.
The wave of electronic dance culture has swept all continents since it was developed.
More than ever, people from all backgrounds and cultures come together to enjoy electronic music in all its splendor and genre subdivisions.