Ambient music as a concept and a genre, is a response to modern life, where noise is generated by a growing number of sound sources. Consequently, composers within the 20th century started composing music where the soundscape was at the forefront of their aesthetic, that even incorporated extended periods of silence and didn’t adhere to the strict boundaries of traditional classical music. “The importance to twentieth-century music of atmospheric sound, its timbre and personality – indeed it’s ‘Ambience’, is a measure of how much innovative musical ideas intertwined with technological change.” (Prendergast, 2000; p 3) This precept also may be linked to continuing advancements in recording technology that removed music from the performance space and recreated it to became an intrinsic part of the end product, aimed at providing an ambient experience for the listener.
The application of this concept may be found in many different types of music where the notion of creating ‘space’ within a composition, recording or performance is intentional. The ‘sounds’ and ‘tones’ utilised to achieve this sense of space are all part of deliberate design and is an integral part of the music. The intention behind ambient music is creating a mood, a feeling and centres on listener’s experience which offers an ‘invitation into a environment created by sound’. (Prendergast, 2000; pp 1-4). Ambient sounds are everything that occurs whenever instruments of any description, be they acoustic, electric or digital, are not played. For the purposes of this discussion, ambient ‘noise’ or ‘silence’ will be considered a form of ‘music’. This concept was first explored within the work: 4′ 33″, by a master of ambient composition, John Cage. In this ambient composition, performers were assembled for the performance but were required not to play anything for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. This concept illustrates how music exists not just as notes, harmony and percussion to be performed within a pre-arranged structure. Music may also be considered in terms of the social role that it plays in creating an experience for the listener, by creating an immersive space that ‘invites’ the listener to enter. (Prendergast, 2000; p1 – 2)
A thorough understanding of ambient music necessitates an understanding of the concepts that led to a radical re-imagining of what constitutes traditional music and composition. Significant composers from the late 19th and 20th centuries such as “Satie, Debussy and Ravel started to compose music with more accessible melodies in shorter forms” (Pendergast, 2000; p 2). Schoenberg invented ‘Serialsim’, which “dispensed with structured tonality for random key signatures” and gave precedence to the “essence of a single sound.” (Pendergast, 2000; p 2). Serialism allowed new compositions to be created that used all twelve tones of the octave which, could only be utilised once as part of a row or series that could only be transformed in mirrored or inverted form. This led to the abandonment of recognisable melodies and allowed the composer to utilise emotional methods of creating film music” (Prendergast, 2000; p 31) Once again, composers started considering the listener’s experience as motivation for their compositions.
With these progressive thinkers pushing for new compositions and new methods of creating ‘sound’, the next logical step was to experiment with how music was actually generated. The singular fascination with the nature of individual tones, drove the production of progressive new compositions that challenged traditional Western notions of music. This movement also championed new ways of generating music and technology provided the answer for composers who sought new sounds and tonalities that were removed from any traditional acoustic instruments (Prendergast, 2000; p2). From the invention of the Theremin in the 1920s, to the first synthesiser in the 1950s, to the portable moog synthesiser produced in 1964 (Lichter-Marck, 2012) to the advent of digital technology and sampling; immersive music was created that utilised a variety of sounds, tones, textures, simple, emotive melodies and even silence.
Another key movement within modern composition that strived for new and progressive ways of creating an immersive experience for the listener, was minimalism which, is progressive in nature. This was embraced by leading musicians within the ambient genre such as Brian Eno who also places the listener’s experience at the forefront of the creative process. “A leading feature of [this] music is the concern to experiment with the nature of musical experience itself, and to seek alternatives to the subtle, diversified complexities of modernism and modern classicism alike … the principal factor in this alternative music is not so much its ‘minimal’ content as its experimental attitude …”(Whittal, 1999; p325). Ambient music is very closely related to the Minimalist school of composition because, it incorporates interesting sounds, and sonic textures into the music. These sound textures are then allowed to develop within the music, into musical ideas over extended periods of time. Changes that occur within ambient and minimalist works, happen slowly, the processes are noticeable, clear, simple and direct but not dramatic.
The environment within the music or the ‘soundstage’ is also at the forefront of the aesthetic for famous ambient composers such as Brian Eno, who was heavily inspired by master innovators and composers such John Cage. Ambient and Minimalist music styles are designed to produce a ‘trance like’ state for the listener; a result far easier to achieve within this music due to:
- sustained single intervals
- rich multiplicity of overtones and harmonics
- slowly changing structures
- small-scale patterns of notes
Ambient music is more capable of achieving this goal than complex compositions because the music is designed for the listener to appreciate the soundscape, built into it. This allows time for ‘the ear’ to dig deeper into the subtleties and complexities of the music’s sonic textures and draws the listener into a subtle and fascinating world of sound. (Whittal, 1999; p326) All of this is evident with Eno’s work that he did in his ambient masterpieces such as Music For Airports but also with legendary rock musicians such as David Bowie; most notably on his seminal album: Low.
A playlist has been curated to give examples of the work of: Brian Eno, David Bowie, Australia’s own, David Bridie (Not Drowning Waving) and U2 (Unforgettable Fire). Please click on the link. Ambient music playlist
Eno worked on David Bowie’s Albums and helped write and produce the legendary album: Low. I’ve included one of the ambient instrumentals from this album, a personal favourite of mine: Warszawa.
There is a clear link between ambient music and a form of classical music that has been termed ‘minimalism’. This music may be described as containing a lot of repetition, a meditative quality, extended note values within the melody. This music doesn’t incorporate elements of improvisation because the tonal qualities of the music needs to be developed and the nature of the music unfolds and develops over time. This music is usually ‘downtempo’ and there is also plenty of space between each note or musical phrase.
David Bridie is an Australian composer / keyboard player and vocalist who, set a benchmark for presenting ambient instrumentals alongside songs written in a new wave pop with a strong ambient elements in his band: Not Drowning Waving. Songs from the album such as: Making A Desert And Calling It Peace embody many of the elements that are associated with the ambient genre. Bridie’s work still incorporates sonic elements such as: “a children’s choir from the Spensley Street Primary School (featuring his daughter), PNG highland trumpets, garamut drums, the sound of insects, running water, spoken word, real strings, and orchestra samples among the swag of other textures and layers. His work has always been rich with sonic content …” (Phillips, 2008) For an overview of his career and review of his 2008 release: Sucumb, please click on the following link: Australian Musician: Review – David Bridie.
Ambient music is modern music in that it is a response to modern life and is intertwined with modern technology. The concept behind the inception of serialism of deconstructing traditional classical form, harmony, melody and tempo, informed the modernist music makers of the 20th century to create a minimalist approach to music composition. The recording technology that developed throughout the 20th century and became increasingly available to musicians, allowed them to record and highlight, the smallest of sounds and enlarge them. Sounds could be experimented with in order to make them more ‘evocative’. The relationship between the listener and music is explored with ambient music and indeed, silence and space are intrinsic parts of ambient music as are repetition. Modern technology such as sampling has seen even further expansion of these concepts and the breadth that this genre encompasses, including modern ambient masters such as The Orb, is far beyond the scope of this genre analysis but worthy of future explorations into sound and space.
Lichter-Marck, Rose. The History Page: Turned-on tunes | Moog Music Inc. February 10, 2012. Moogmusic.com. Retrieved 17 December 2017, from https://www.moogmusic.com/legacy/history-page-turned-tunes
Phillips,Greg. 2008, September 10. DAVID BRIDIE – Succumb,
Prendergast, M, 2000. The Ambient Century: from Mahler to trance-the evolution of sound in the electronic age. New York: Bloomsbury.
Whittal, A. (1999) Musical Composition In The Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press.