House music is the oldest genre of electronic dance music (EDM) and remains one of EDM’s most important pillars to this day.
This article takes a look at the history and origins of house music, its characteristics, and social and political impact, and also lists the ten best examples of house music.
How Did House Music Start?
A direct descendant of disco music, it gained prominence after the disco era ended in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
After influencing billions of people with dance music, it influenced countless other subgenres of electronic dance music in the decades since.
Almost all subgenres of EDM are indirect descendants of house music, which pioneered electronic music as we know it.
Created in the early/mid-1980s by DJs and music producers from Chicago’s underground club culture, as DJs began altering disco songs to give them a more mechanical beat.
Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy, Jesse Saunders, Chip E., Joe Smooth, Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley, Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk, Marshall Jefferson, Phuture, J, and others established house music in Chicago.
Jackmaster’s cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Love Can’t Turn Around” became the first international house hit.
In house clubs, Ron Hardy mostly played unusual mix tapes by combining different tracks and adding synthesizer and drum machine sounds.
Hardy worked at the Muzic Box, also known as the Music Box, one of the premier house music clubs in the early 1980s.
He was best known for combining skills, from disco tracks to new wave sounds, and for always keeping his music moving with a manic level of energy and little regard for sound quality.
Speed was important to him, and he even maxed out the speed on a Stevie Wonder cut to the delight of his audience.
Marshall Jefferson, whose style later became synonymous with Chicago house, was another figurehead of the first wave of house producers.
He admitted that Ron Hardy inspired him to get into the music style.
He tied the now-signature vocals, thumping piano, and strings to the minimal, energetic rhythms while keeping the beats per minute (bpm) marginally quicker than its New York counterpart.
House music quickly grew in popularity across the United States, especially as the demand for dance-floor-oriented tracks ignited the world of electronic equipment.
By the mid-1980s, the use of drum machines, synthesizers, and samplers had opened up a whole new world of possibilities, and house music thrived greatly in the wake of these technological advancements.
House Music Outside of Chicago
Outside of Chicago, the Detroit music scene was one of the first to embrace house music.
They began developing a new type of electronic dance music in the mid-1980s, centered on The Belleville Three, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May.
They were responsible for fusing house music stylings with current Detroit dance music and adding futuristic sounds to their albums.
Years later, the Detroit house music scene was responsible for the emergence of the techno genre.
Because the term “house” was not as widely used or as significant in Detroit as it was in Chicago, the terminology gradually evolved.
Pop music, particularly dance music, has been significantly influenced by house.
Major international pop artists, such as Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson (“Together Again”), Kylie Minogue, Pet Shop Boys, and Madonna (“Vogue”), have sampled house.
It also produced some mainstream hits on its own, such as “French Kiss” by Lil Louis, “Show Me Love” by Robin S, and “Push the Feeling On” by the Nightcrawlers.
Many house DJs have done and continue to do remixes for pop artists.
House music has remained popular on the radio and in clubs while also maintaining a presence in underground scenes around the world.
It exploded in popularity in the UK during the 1980s dance club scene and eventually made it onto the UK singles charts, thanks to early DJs like Eddie Richards, Jackmaster, and Steve Hurley.
By 1987, many influential Chicago DJs, including Knuckles, Jefferson, and Mr. Fingers, had toured the UK.
House music acts such as the Beatmasters, Krush, Yazz, Bomb the Bass, and S-Express emerged as a result of this influx.
Rap was frequently used for vocal parts in songs, distinguishing British from Chicago house music, and many early hits were based on sample montages rather than mixes.
Characteristics of House Music
In its most popular form, house is recognized by repetitive 4/4 rhythms, off-beat hi-hats, snare drums, claps, and/or snaps.
It plays at a tempo of between 115 and 125 beats per minute (bpm) with deep chord progressions.
Combined with a deep bassline, a synthesizer-generated riff, and the occasional soulful or funk-inspired vocal rounds out a classic house record.
The bass drum is usually played on beats one, two, three, and four, while the snare drum, claps, or other higher-pitched percussion instrument is usually played on beats two and four.
The drum beats are almost always provided by an electronic drum machine, most commonly a Roland TR-808, TR-909, or TR-707.
Syncopation is achieved by using claps, shakers, snare drums, or hi-hat sounds.
The clave pattern is the foundation of one of the signature rhythm riffs, particularly in early (Chicago) house.
Congas or bongos are used to honor African origins, while metallic percussion instruments help create a more Latin feel.
The drum sounds are sometimes saturated by boosting the gain, thus creating a more aggressive edge.
House music could be created using cheap and consumer-friendly electronic and sound equipment, making it easier for independent labels and DJs to create tracks.
Rather than bringing in session musicians, house music producers typically use sampled instruments.
Although layering sounds such as drum machine beats, samples, and synth basslines, are key components of house production, the overall texture is relatively sparse.
Unlike pop songs, which emphasize higher-pitched sounds such as melody, the lower-pitched bass register is the most important in house music.
House songs usually have a set structure, consisting of an intro, a chorus, several verse sections, a midsection, and a brief outro.
Some tracks lack a verse, instead using a vocal part from the chorus and repeating the cycle.
House music tracks are frequently built around eight-bar sections that are repeated.
DJs and producers creating a house track for club play edit a “seven or eight-minute 12-inch mix”; if the track is intended for radio play, a “three-and-a-half-minute” radio edit is used.
House tracks are entirely instrumental, but if they do use vocals, they may be simple repeated words or phrases.
Origins of House Music
According to the book The Dance Music Manual: Tools, Toys, and Techniques – Second Edition, the term “house music” came from a Chicago club called the Warehouse, which operated from 1977 to 1982.
The Warehouse’s patrons were primarily Black, gay men, who came to dance to music played by the club’s resident DJ Frankie Knuckles, later dubbed the “godfather of house” by fans.
When Frankie discovered that the records he had were not long enough to satisfy his dancer audience, he began the trend of splicing them together.
In the Channel 4 documentary Pump Up the Volume, Knuckles mentions seeing “we play house music” on a sign in the window of a bar on Chicago’s South Side for the first time.
In self-published statements, South Side Chicago DJ Leonard “Remix” Rroy claims he put such a sign in a tavern window because it was where he played music that one might find in one’s home; in his case, it referred to his mother’s soul and disco records, which he worked into his sets.
The documentary also looked into how anyone could make house music. The documentary focuses primarily on some of the genre’s DJs and how they got into music.
Chip E.’s 1985 single “It’s House” may also have contributed to the definition of this new genre of electronic music.
Lending credence to the Knuckles association, Chip E. claims that the name “House” came from the time when bins of music that DJ Knuckles played at the Warehouse nightclub were labeled in the music store he worked at as “As Heard at the Warehouse,” which was shortened to simply “House.”
Upon being questioned about the “house” moniker in a 1986 interview, Rocky Jones, the club DJ who ran the D.J. International record label, did not mention Importes, Etc. (the music shop), Frankie Knuckles, or the Warehouse.
However, he agreed that “house” was a regional catch-all term for dance music that was once synonymous with older disco music before it became a way to refer to “new” dance music.
Juan Atkins, the father of Detroit techno, claims the term “house” reflected the association of specific tracks with specific clubs and DJs, who considered their “house” records.
House Music, Dancing, and Its Socio-Political Impact
House music is associated with at least three types of dancing: jacking, footwork, and lofting.
Skating, stomping, vosho, pouting cat, and shuffle steps are among the techniques and sub-styles included in these styles.
House music dancing styles can incorporate movements from a variety of other dance styles, including waacking, voguing, capoeira, jazz dance, Lindy Hop, tap dance, and even modern dance.
Early house lyrics contained positive, uplifting messages for people from all walks of life, but they spoke especially to those who were perceived as outsiders, particularly African-Americans, Latinos, and the gay subculture.
In the 1980s, the house music dance scene was one of the most integrated and progressive; Black and gay populations, as well as other minority groups, were able to dance together in a safe environment.
It’s important to remember that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked the official end of segregation in the US.
However, simply because the federal government repealed all segregation laws did not result in an immediate change in people’s lives.
The country was still adjusting to the new order, and there were widespread prejudices, persecution, and oppression of minorities.
Clubs and other venues were mostly for members only, which meant they could pick and choose who came in.
African Americans, Latinos, and members of the gay community were all considered outcasts.
House music and house music clubs providing a safe space for those individuals were revolutionary and were two of the main reasons for the genre’s success.
House music DJs sought to create a dream world of emotions through stories, keywords, and sounds, which aided in the bonding of communities.
Many house tracks encourage the audience to let go or release themselves, which is aided by the continuous dancing, constant beat, and use of club drugs, which can induce trance-like states in dancers.
Some house lyrics advocated for equality, unity, and freedom of expression regardless of race or sexual orientation (e.g. “Can You Feel It” by Fingers Inc., or “Follow Me” by Aly-Us).
A house DJ’s role has been compared to that of a secular priest.
People went to house clubs to be uplifted and to grow closer as a community, which are similar reasons why people may go to church.
The Warehouse Club in Chicago was described by Knuckles as a “church for people who have fallen from grace,” and Jefferson compared it to old-time religion, saying that people behaved the same way they did back then, “in the way that people just get happy and screamin’.”
It’s worth noting that instead of bringing in other musicians, house music producers typically rely on samples and sampled instruments.
This is because samplers became more affordable in the late 1980s when house music was becoming increasingly popular.
10 Best Examples of House Music
Some of the most popular subgenres within the house music spectrum have become so popular that they’re now considered a full-fledged genre in their own right.
These include acid, afro, bass, big room, ballroom, Chicago, electro, hard, future, Latin, piano, progressive, tech, and tribal house.
Here are 10 of the best examples of house music along with the subgenre they’re considered a part of.
1. “Your Love” by Frankie Knuckles
This song is a classic example of Chicago house, which is the original house music style created and pioneered by Chicago DJs in the early 1980s.
Known for fusing disco, funk, jazz, soul, and R&B elements with electric drum machines, the original house music style maintained an upbeat tone.
Frankie Knuckles was introduced to Jamie Principle, then unknown, in 1982 by mutual friend Jose “Louie” Gomez, who had recorded the original vocal dubbing of “Your Love” to reel-to-reel tape.
Upon meeting Knuckles, Louie handed him a tape copy of the song. Knuckles played the unreleased dub mix in his sets for an entire year, and it quickly became a crowd favorite.
Knuckles later went into the studio with Principle to re-record the track, and in 1987, after these tunes had been regulars on his reel-to-reel player at the Warehouse for about a year, “Your Love” and “Baby Wants to Ride” were both released on vinyl.
DJ Mark “Hot Rod” Trollan later revised the song for the first publicly available release, adding a synthesizer intro and a bassline; this version was first released by Persona Records in 1986.
The lush European feel of the original vocal version is offset by the 11-minute mix (by Mark ‘Hot Rod’ Tollan), which is completely vocal-free and absorbing.
Knuckles, known as the Godfather of House Music, was undeniably one of the best DJs of his generation, winning a Grammy Award for Remixer of the Year in 1997.
From the deep and sultry vocals to the mesmerizing beats, “Your Love” is a dance-floor anthem that has stood the test of time and will continue to influence future generations of aspiring DJs and producers.
2. “Show Me Love” by Robin S
“Show Me Love” is a diva-house/house-pop song written by Allen George and Fred McFarlane and performed by American singer Robin S.
It was released by Champion Records in the United Kingdom in 1990.
It was then re-released in many European countries, as well as the United States and Japan, in 1992, after being remixed by Swedish house music production duo StoneBridge and Nick Nice.
It went on to become one of the most well-known house anthems in the UK, as well as Robin’s biggest hit to date.
Contributing to the mainstreaming of house music, the track was included in Robin S.’s debut album of the same name in 1993.
Robin was initially hesitant to sign on due to the fast tempo given her prior background in solely R&B and pop, and she struggled through the recording process as evidenced by the hoarseness on the final track as she recovered from the flu.
The success of her smooth yet gritty hits such as “Show Me Love” led many to regard Robin as a dance-floor diva.
The song was described as a stomping, bass-driven tune.
Robin’s performance is set against an understated backdrop of icy cool electro beats.
This house classic is infused with a distinct, burbling keyboard pattern and rich singing.
The singer sounds so engrossed in the rhythm that listeners can’t help but join in.
Robin S sounds stunned and devastated as if she’s pleading with her boyfriend to show her love because she doesn’t know if she can take another crushing disappointment.
The track could have been depressing if it weren’t for the snare-and-hi-hat shuffle that keeps the song moving.
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.
The progressive house song is the group’s most successful single to date, as well as the final single released before their breakup in early 2013.
It was released to widespread acclaim and received a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Recording at the 2013 Grammy Awards, as did its predecessor, “Save the World,” the year before.
Swedish House Mafia’s biggest hit began as a post-hangover hangout session between two new friends who were still getting to know each other.
The song peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming their first and only top ten single.
As of March 2014, the song had sold over 3 million copies in the United States and over 5.5 million copies worldwide.
The piano background raises the intensity of the song, while the simple but effective vocals give you chills as you wait for the beat to drop.
It’s a moving track about heartbreak and nostalgia that will stay with you long after it has ended.
4. “You Don’t Know Me” by Armand van Helden
Classed as dance/electronic music, “You Don’t Know Me” (originally titled “U Don’t Know Me”), is a house song written by Armand van Helden and performed by German-American singer Duane Harden.
The song was created after Helden created a looping track composed of several music samples and left Harden alone to write and record the lyrics.
Armand van Helden has been a part of the New York electronic music scene since the 1990s.
He was considered one of the best remixers in the business and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Remixed Recording in 1998.
Van Helden frequently remixes and incorporates samples from funk, soul, R&B, and hip-hop.
He also employs filters and dub progressions, as heard in NYC beat, dancehall, and reggae samples.
Carrie Lucas’ “Dance with You,” which was also used in Phats and Small’s “Music for Pushchairs,” provided the strings for this song.
Jaydee’s “Plastic Dreams” drums are sampled too.
The full version of the track includes dialogue from Cartoon Network’s Dexter’s Laboratory’s Dial M for Monkey segment.
The song was also heavily influenced by Johnick’s “The Captain,” which was released the year before on the Henry Street record label.
5. “Move Your Body” by Marshall Jefferson
“Move Your Body” is a Chicago house song by American musician Marshall Jefferson released in 1986.
Following several earlier tracks under aliases such as Virgo, the track was released by Trax Records.
Jefferson released his first track “Go Wild Rhythm Tracks” on Trax Records after receiving several popular tunes from Chicago-based DJ Ron Trent.
Despite the criticism from his coworkers and Trax owner Larry Sherman, Jefferson’s track “Move Your Body” became popular with Chicago dance music club patrons in 1985 via cassette tapes, leading to the track’s eventual release in August 1986.
The music for the song was originally played much slower during the recording process, and Jefferson sped it up for the final release.
Outside of Jefferson’s involvement, the song includes an uncredited vocal performance from his friend Curtis McClain.
It has the most dominant house piano chord progression, while the lyrics emphasize the ecstasy and physicality of losing oneself in dance.
Its barnstormer key melody has been imitated for decades.
6. “Hey Brother” by Avicii
Avicii’s “Hey Brother” is a progressive house dance song from his debut studio album, True (2013). Dan Tyminski, an American bluegrass singer, provides vocals for the track.
It was written by Avicii, Ash Pournouri, Salem Al Fakir, Vincent Pontare, and Veronica Maggio.
The song is written in the key of G minor, with a common time tempo of 125 beats per minute.
The song is written in a 4-4 time signature, with a 2-4 measure in the chorus.
The music video is loosely based on Ron Franscell’s 1998 literary novel Angel Fire, and it depicts two brothers growing up in wartime middle America.
The video contains images and video clips from the Vietnam War.
At the end of the video, it is revealed that the younger brother saw his brother as a father figure which he lacked.
In the United Kingdom, after climbing for several weeks, “Hey Brother” peaked at No. on the UK Singles Chart on 15 December 2013 ― for the week ending dated 21 December 2013 ― being held off the top spot by Lily Allen’s cover of “Somewhere Only We Know.”
It eventually spent 22 weeks in the top 40, ten of them in the top ten.
In the United States, the song peaked at No. 77 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in December 2013.
It continued to climb, reaching No. 16 in March 2014, with a million total sales that week.
The song would go on to become Avicii’s final top 40 hit before his death in 2018.
7. “Pacific State” by 808 State
“Pacific State” is a 1989 single by the English electronic music group 808 State.
It exists in various mix versions known as “Pacific State” (as featured on the Quadrastate mini-album that year) and “Pacific 202.” (as included on the album Ninety).
The song charted in the United Kingdom for 11 weeks, peaking at No. 10 on the UK Singles Chart.
Tommy Boy Records released the single in the United States on March 15, 1990.
Mellow but with insistent beats, a light sprinkle of wildlife noises and a soprano sax threaded through it, making it sound like having a party inside a massive flotation tank.
The song popularized the recording of a loon, which many other artists used in their songs, its most notable use being in Lady Gaga’s “Babylon.”
8. “Acid Trax” by Phuture
“Acid Tracks” is a Phuture acid house song released in 1987 on Trax Records and produced by Marshall Jefferson.
Nathan Pierre Jones, better known as DJ Pierre, Earl Smith Jr. (aka “Spanky”), and Herbert Jackson made up the band Phuture.
Jones was interested in developing dance music and became interested in house music after Spanky took him to see DJ Ron Hardy perform in Chicago.
In 1985, the band created a song called “In Your Mind,” which they gave to Ron Hardy to listen to.
Although the Muzic Box audience was initially indifferent to the track, the song grew in popularity throughout the night.
“Acid Tracks” was bootlegged as “Ron Hardy’s Acid Track,” prompting Phuture to look for a way to reissue it on vinyl.
Its popularity grew outside of Chicago after its release in 1987, and it became a fundamental acid-house track in the United Kingdom.
9. “Love Can’t Turn Around” by Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk
“Love Can’t Turn Around” is a Chicago house song written in 1986 by Farley Keith Williams a.k.a. Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk and Jesse Saunders, with vocalist Darryl Pandy.
It is significant in the history of house music because it was the first record in that music genre to cross over from the clubs of the United States to the UK Singles Chart.
Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk, who was living with Hurley at the time, collaborated with producer Jesse Saunders to create his version after hearing Steve Hurley’s version.
Farley changed the hook line from “I Can’t Turn Around” to “Love Can’t Turn Around” and dropped the rest of Hayes’ original lyric, substituting new words by Vince Lawrence, while keeping a part of Hurley’s instrumental along with Hayes’ original bassline riff.
In some versions, such as the ‘Vocal Club’ version and the radio edit, he also added a chorus section sung by female vocalists and a piano melody played by a synthesizer.
This Chicago/diva house track is the result of a musical transformation.
“I Can’t Turn Around,” by Isaac Hayes, was the starting point.
Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley re-recorded it as a house song with vocalist Keith Nunnally, but it was this further transposed and reinterpreted version that really took off.
10. “One Kiss” by Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa
Scottish DJ and music producer Calvin Harris and English-Albanian singer Dua Lipa created “One Kiss”, an upbeat song with catchy lyrics.
The song was released as a standalone digital download and streaming single and later included in Dua Lipa: Complete Edition.
Harris and Lipa co-wrote the song with Canadian singer Jessie Reyez, with Harris as the sole producer.
It’s a dance-pop, both diva and tropical house song with influences from the 1990s, electro house, Eurodance, funky disco, funk house, psychedelic electropop, and UK garage.
The song contains horns, organs, and a synth line, as well as house beats. Lyrically, the song is about falling in love with a romantic interest after only one kiss.
The song won the 2019 Brit Award for British Single of the Year.
Numerous publications, including Billboard, The Guardian, and Time Out, included it on their year-end lists.
The song topped the UK Singles Chart for eight weeks, making it both artists’ longest-running number-one single in the country.
It also reached the top of the charts in 32 other countries, including Germany.
Since then, the song has been certified multi-platinum in 13 countries, going diamond in France, Mexico, and Poland, as well as quintuple platinum in the United Kingdom.
In the accompanying music video, Dua Lipa appears in front of a green screen in a variety of settings, including a pool where Harris appears as the singer’s waiter.
Critics praised the visual, highlighting the aesthetics and costumes.
It is classified as a diva house and tropical house song because of its prominent female vocals, breakdowns, and abundance of piano ‘stabs,’ as well as its more uplifting and relaxing sound.
What Is House Music? – Final Thoughts
From its humble beginnings in Chicago to its meteoric rise today, house music has touched lives and provided minority groups with their own community.
Technology is constantly evolving, and so will EDM, but house remains at the core of it all.
It’s not surprising that the current pop music trend was inspired by house.
You may also like: Best EDM Songs