A Short History of Ambient & Downtempo Music

by Mike G

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” – Aldous Huxley

Sitting, listening, chilling.

Music for background or foreground.

Music for tripping, for relaxing, or challenging us with a new perspective.

At the start of the third millennium, ambient and downtempo music makes perfect sense. As the Western world becomes faster, more complex, more rife with nervous energy, the joy of listening to instrumental music that expresses both our external environment (both man-made and natural) and our inner spaces (both emotional and mental) is now more popular than at any other time in the history of recorded sound.

“Ambient” as a signpost

Such music has many names: ambient, new age, contemporary instrumental, experimental, spacerock, chillout, ambient techno, ambient trance, mood music, world music, new acoustic music. The protests of some musicians and A&R people notwithstanding, I believe one of these names in particular – ambient – is a perfectly useful signpost for the phenomenon. It points to atmospheric music across a hugely diverse spectrum: from the gorgeous solo guitar of John Fahey to the environmental techno of Biosphere; from the minimal avant-pop-folk of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra to the lush ambient trance of Ultimae Records.

It was English musician, sound designer and conceptualist Brian Eno who first officially coined the phrase “ambient”. In the sleeve notes to his 1978 opus Ambient 1: Music For Airports he defines it as music “designed to induce calm and space to think”. Eno’s concept of ambience is music that can be either actively listened to or used as background, depending on whether the listener chooses to pay attention or not. It’s been a highly influential if not entirely original idea; at best informing the resurgence of electronic ambient via the dance world, at worst being taken to its passive extreme by many creators of “relaxation” music.

Still, ambient is perhaps the slipperiest of all musical genres. Certainly instrumental music to chill-out to had been around for a long time before Eno chose to define it, in forms as diverse as Gregorian chants from the middle ages to certain forms of psychedelic rock from the late 60’s. Some people complain that any definition is limiting, and beyond a point I would have to agree.

So Ambient Music Guide does not devote much time to drawing lines in the sand and saying: “This is ambient and this is not”. I do believe, however, it is worth spending some time giving the music some context by tracing a number of the sources that have informed these eclectic sounds in the second half of the 20th Century and beyond.

The classical avant-garde

One of ambient music’s prime sources is the 20th century classical avant-garde. Among the pioneers were two late-19th Century composers, Claude Debussy and Erik Satie.

Satie’s concept of “furniture music” for solo piano or small ensembles now seems surprisingly congruous with Eno’s concept of ambience: creating a sound environment that complimented the surrounds rather than intruded upon it. More musically direct but just as subtle and suggestive was the work of Debussy, who’s wandering, impressionistic tone poems like “Prelude To The Afternoon Of The Fawn” (1894) heralded a new openness in Western music and broke all kinds of rules in structure and linear composition.

By the middle of the 20th Century the American composer John Cage had blown stuffy notions of “proper” music right out of the water. He pre-empted world music with pieces that evoked the sounds of Africa, India and Indonesia; he invented and composed for the ‘prepared piano’ with objects stuck in piano wires to create Asian-like tones and percussive textures; and he outraged and perplexed his audiences with collisions of randomly created noise and, most infamously, his piece “4’33” which challenged listeners to consider silence as a perfectly valid form of musical expression.

The 1960’s

After Cage, the floodgates opened. The 1960’s saw the rise of a school of American composers with classical backgrounds who became known as the minimalists. They took the idea of repetition and explored it over long distances, whether with orchestras, organs, electric instruments or non-Western instrumental combinations. In turn minimalism was to inform music as diverse as Krautrock, techno and new age and relaxation music. It was also during the 60’s that non-Western sounds and modes of composition seeped into classical, jazz and popular music to an unprecedented degree. And German composer Karl Stockhausen further explored Cage’s tape experiments with his radical tape collages, a precursor to modern digital sampling.

This was also a time of absorption of avant-garde ideas into rock music. In the late 1960’s rock was enriched enormously by a combination of electronic music technology, psychedelic drugs, ideas from the classical avant-garde and the innovations of jazzmen like Miles Davis. The classical music of India also made an significant impact on Western musicians for the first time, initially championed by minimalists from the classical world such as Terry Riley and La Monte Young and then absorbed by rock acts as diverse as The Beatles and The Incredible String Band.

The Beatles showed what could be done in recording studio within a pop framework; art rock bands like Pink Floyd and the Krautrock pioneers such as Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and Cluster then took the next step by downplaying or abandoning pop’s emphasis on lyrics and taking audiences into totally new spaces. The tracks were instrumental, often improvised, spacey and long. Rock was undergoing its own avant-garde and the open-ended sound of one instrument in particular – the analogue synthesiser and its digital successors – has become such an important tool of expression that much dance, ambient and experimental music that’s been released since simply wouldn’t exist without it.

Synthesisers & art rock

In popular music one of the names most crucial to the evolution of synthesiser technology – and thus to most of the electronic pop and rock music that followed – is German band Kraftwerk.

Kraftwerk developed drum pads and used synthesiers in an explicitly rhythmic way to create a minimal style of pop that was purely electronic in origin. Consequently they shook the rock world out of its mid-1970’s complacency and set music off in all kinds of unexpected directions. As Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hutter told Billboard Magazine in a 1977 interview: “Electronics is beyond nations and colours…with electronics everything is possible. The only limit is with the composer”.

We nowadays take synthesiers for granted, but to challenge such a guitar-dominated culture at the time was revolutionary. Kraftwerk’s vision was urban, technological, post-industrial. Their futurist ideas combined with their equally futuristic sound was enormously influential, particularly on UK synth pop and on the black musicians of Detroit USA from whom modern techno emerged in the 1980’s. And in turn, that legacy reaches into the various downtempo spin-offs of electronic dance music that have emerged since.

Another pivotal figure in experimental sounds is Brian Eno, who expanded the notion of synthesiser as a keyboard or patch bay and used the entire recording studio has his synthesising instrument. In the 70’s people were calling it art rock – and some of Eno’s pop albums were certainly that – but his breakthrough ambient works such as Discreet Music (1975) and Music For Airports (1978) bore no resemblance to rock and were much more influenced by the ideas of the American minimalists composers.

The rear cover of the latter album contained Eno’s famous ambient manifesto, quoted here in full:

“The concept of music designed specifically as a background feature in the environment was pioneered by Muzak Inc. in the fifties, and has since come to be known generically by the term Muzak. The connotations that this term carries are those particularly associated with the kind of material that Muzak Inc. produces – familiar tunes arranged and orchestrated in a lightweight and derivative manner. Understandably, this has led most discerning listeners (and most composers) to dismiss entirely the concept of environmental music as an idea worthy of attention.

“Over the past three years, I have become interested in the use of music as ambience, and have come to believe that it is possible to produce material that can be used thus without being in any way compromised. To create a distinction between my own experiments in this area and the products of the various purveyors of canned music, I have begun using the term Ambient Music. An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres.

“Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to `brighten’ the environment by adding stimulus to it (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and leveling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

While it could be argued that Eno’s definition of ambient is somewhat limiting, his basic ideas about the music have still been enormously influential. He opened doors for many recording artists who until then had not considered such music worthy of serious attention, or who felt drawn to explore such sounds as themselves musicians but were unsure about what audiences might think. Eno was clever in distilling and adapting ideas from the classical avant-garde. As he told he told Vox Magazine in 1998. “I think I’ve imported a few quite simple ideas from fine art music into popular music and I think they’ve made a difference”.

More recently, in an interview with The Guardian in 2013, Eno also said something remarkably penetrating about the synthesiser:

“One of the important things about the synthesiser was that it came without any baggage. A piano comes with a whole history of music. There are all sorts of cultural conventions built into traditional instruments that tell you where and when that instrument comes from. When you play an instrument that does not have any such historical background you are designing sound basically. You’re designing a new instrument. That’s what a synthesiser is essentially. It’s a constantly unfinished instrument. You finish it when you tweak it, and play around with it, and decide how to use it. You can combine a number of cultural references into one new thing.”


The concept of spacemusic is one tied up inexorably with the synthesiser.

In the late 1960’s terms like spacerock and cosmic rock were coined by listeners and reviewers to describe the atmospheric, electronic-laden music of progressive rock bands like Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream, the latter being one of the great “kosmiche” Berlin-school bands. The music was psychedelic, but it was also something bigger than head trips. It is no coincidence that at the time of the first moon landing, the Floyd was transfixing audiences with pieces like “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun”. These bands were playing the soundtrack to a new era and the spacious, cosmic feel that purveyed much of their early work continues to inform a significant amount of ambient music to this day.

In fact, I find spacemusic – in the literal and more narrow sense of the word – the most fascinating of all ambient sub-genres. Its a style of music that was first made possible in the 1960’s by a new music technology that appeared at exactly the right historical moment: the decade that human beings first left the Earth. Somehow, electronic sound can evoke a cosmic mood with a depth rarely achieved in an acoustic setting. The late 60’s music of Pink Floyd, for instance, achieves that mood far better than a weighty classical work like Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”, a symphony which isn’t really about space at all. With the advent of the space age, it seems, has simultaneously come the perfect technology – synthesisers and electronics – for musicians to express their feelings about it.

The implications of this have not been lost on Brian Eno. In the sleeve notes to his sublime album of electronic tone poems Apollo (1983), he writes of his fascination with producing film music expressing a mixture of feelings that, until recently, had never before been experienced by humans.

New age & relaxation music

Certainly, much new age music would be unthinkable without the synthesiser. The origins of new age date back to the 1970’s on America’s west coast where there arose a kind of cottage industry supported by lifestyle fairs and alternative bookshops. New age music, including the lightweight “healing” music of composers like Steve Halpern, soon became hugely popular.

But new age is as much a religious movement as it is a musical style, and therein lies its Achilles heel – a pot porri of folk psychology, theology and astrology; of enlightened thinkers and shameless hypocrites; of sincere intentions and outright charlatans. For every genuine talent from the early days of American new age music – Don Robertson, Upper Astral, Iasos, J.D. Emmanuel, Deuter, Don Slepian – there were a dozen more hacks making very bad music with nothing but unproven therapeutic or spiritual claims to prop it up. Such examples sullied the entire genre. One series of meditation albums by Americans Rudy Helm and David Kessner went so far as to claim that “music has real therapeutic value…you’re purchases as such are tax deductible”, prompting New York radio broadcaster John Schaefer in his book New Sounds to quip: “Wonder what the IRS thinks of that?”

The gifted American musician and music historian Don Robertson is especially interesting, because he produced some of the genre’s greatest recordings like Resurrection (1980) and Spring (1984) despite having already seen through the bullshit that so often permeated the scene. He was an evangelist for what he called “positive music” and was fascinated by the return to tonality in classical music that began in the late 50’s with the rise of the minimalist composers like Terry Riley and the discovery by Westerners of the rich drones of Indian music. This eventually led him to the new age genre, but he soon found that all was not as it seemed.

In his book Music Through The Centuries, Robertson tells a revealing story about his one and only meeting with “The King Of Healing Music” Steven Halpern at a new age music seminar in the late 1970’s:

“At the end of the seminar, I invited him to dinner at my home, which was nearby. During dinner we talked about new music and issues such as the use of a drone in place of chordal harmony. As he was leaving, I asked him about his album Spectrum Suite (1975). The liner notes claimed that the series of seven pieces, each in a different key, could be used in meditation to attune the seven chakras. I wanted to know how he knew which chord matched a particular chakra. I pressed him because I though maybe he had found some mystical gold mine. He finally laughed and said it was just a gimmick. Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed and our relationship ended there.”

After the mid 1980’s the big money moved in and new age started to become a mass marketing tool for all kinds of bland instrumental music, regardless of whether or not it was associated with the underground movement that spawned new age in its original form. New age music continues today in various forms, some worthy, others terrible. There’s the lightweight, commercial instrumental pop and jazz confections (witness the Grammy Awards New Age category); an excellent and genuinely underground private label scene which has re-emerged in recent years; and the numbing void of relaxation music.

Although “relaxation” was a new age music buzzword already common in the 70’s, relaxation music later emerged as a kind of sub-genre in its own right. This insidious marketing ploy usually took the dregs of new age and repackaged it – without the spiritual overtones – for unsuspecting mainstream buyers. In the 1990’s it was particularly prevalent, for some reason, in Australia. Fans of ambient were no doubt aghast as, via post offices and bookshops, the market was flooded with extremely suspect nature-themed recordings. These sold very well and made some very mediocre musicians lots of money. Tourists loved it, with the slickly packaged images of Australia’s natural heritage proving very attractive. But far from Eno’s vision of ambient, this music was not “simultaneously relaxing and engaging”. Most of it was just plain awful. Perhaps knowing this fact all along, many of the perpetrators simply took the money and ran as the music’s popularity inevitably waned. Others survived by flogging their wares overseas.

Around the world such relaxation drivel still sells today in bookshops, markets and online. If you’re at all serious about digging for good new age music then it’s to be avoided at all costs.

New age music and health

The health and spiritual claims made by many purveyors of new age and relaxation music are worth addressing further. New age as a label has come to be commonly associated with ambient music and, due to the genre’s sometimes outlandish and unproven claims, it’s given ambient a tarnished image that is largely undeserved. Therefore, a debunking of some myths about “healing music” are necessary.

At its worst, the underlying priorities of music loudly proclaimed to be “healing” are suspect: therapy before music, function before substance. Unsurprisingly, its intrinsic qualities as music often suffer badly. Whatever its benefits to our health – often misrepresented anyway – much of it simply borrows gestures from more substantial sources and waters them down into musical equivalent an anesthetic: all senses numbed, all real engagement removed. As Tangerine Dream biographer Paul Stump so succinctly observed, such music has “…hemoginised and homogenized the nice bits of Rubycon [a TD album]”. And in his book New Sounds, John Schaefer argues that “commercially marketed recordings of ‘healing music’ are yet to prove that their over-reliance on echo, reverb and electronic gadgetry is any more calming than other music.”

Now, some new age music – especially some early American private issue new age from the 70’s and 80’s – is of outstanding quality and musically as interesting and powerful as any other music. As reviewer and music archivist Douglas Mcgowan wrote in the album notes for his new age music retrospective I Am The Center (2013): “New age, at its best, is a reverberation of psychedelic music and great by any standard.” Such music is generally relaxing, too, and therein lies part of its appeal for a substantial number of people. Obviously, we are are all free to use music however and whenever we want.

But whether we “use” such music for healing disease or aligning imaginary chakras is irrelevant. This is where I draw the line. Every album recommended by Ambient Music Guide is music that can be enjoyed for music’s sake. Whatever else its uses, at least it’s multi-functional. Good ambient and downtempo invites listeners to take a journey through some of modern music’s subtler, stranger or less-chartered waters, a journey that can be euphoric and beautiful, or somewhat uneasy and disturbing. It’s also a journey in which the listener can choose to be an active participant, not simply the passive recipient of medicine.

John Schaefer again: “The best new age music is that which concerns itself with music, and just allows people to do with it as they see fit.”

Hearts Of Space & the rise of West Coast ambient

Concurrent with the rise of new age music on America’s West Coast during the 1970’s – and at first intermingling with it – were other strands of contemplative instrumental ambient music that often had no overt spiritual or healing purpose.

Initially the focus for these sounds was neither an artist nor a record label, but a radio show: Music From The Hearts Of Space. This groundbreaking public radio program in San Francisco was founded in 1973 by sound designer, producer and former architect Stephen Hill and the late Anna Turner. Still running today, its influence and importance cannot be overstated, both its role in the development of American-based ambient music artists and the part it played in bringing ambient styles of music to a wider audience.

In the 1970’s Music From The Hearts Of Space was mixing sounds from established European acts like Tangerine Dream with emerging new age, electro-acoustic and electronic electronic music by artists based in or near California such as Deuter, Iasos, Michael Stearns and Kevin Braheny. By the mid 1980’s the show was syndicated to over 200 public radio stations around the USA and Stephen Hill and Anna Turner had also launched Hearts of Space Records, one of the most musically rich and influential ambient labels of its time. By this stage other local artists who had nothing to do with new age such as Robert Rich and Steve Roach were becoming known. While the original new age music scene turned into big label blandness, the output of artists like Rich, Roach and Stearns became major currents in American ambient and electronic music. Many more labels and artists followed in their wake, and over the decades much of the music has been played on Music From The Hearts Of Space, exposing it to a national audience.

Stephen Hill never bought into the new age tag, a subject which I asked him about in a 1997 interview. “Let’s face it: all music is addressed to the human spirit. So why make it a selling point?” In other words, if you’re a musician then why not accept the transcendental power of music as a given and just let it flow?

He also gave the music a name: spacemusic. He means it in a broader sense than just music about the cosmos. He writes:

“Any music with a generally slow pace and space-creating sound image can be called spacemusic. Generally quiet, consonant, ethereal, often without conventional rhythmic and dynamic contrasts, contemplative music is found within many historical, ethnic, and contemporary genres. Spacemusic can relax the body while stimulating the imagination. Restorative powers are often claimed for it, and at its best it can create an effective environment to balance some of the stress, noise, and complexity of everyday life. Unlike conventional background music, spacemusic does not depend on simple nostalgia (in the words of Brian Eno) “to induce calm and a space to think.” Rather, it builds expansive sound images from refined timbres and offers subtle psychological resonances. From abstract electronic soundworlds to the romantic grandeur of orchestral soundtracks, from classical adagios to delicate jazz improvisations, Hearts of Space ranges across the music of hundreds of artists to create experiences of quality and depth.”

Ambient dance music

If new age nearly killed ambient – the efforts of the Hearts of Space crew in America notwithstanding – it wouldn’t be too far fetched to suggest that electronic dance music rescued it.

The extraordinary confluence of events and people that gave rise to modern house, progressive, techno, trance, psytrance, hip hop, lounge, breakbeat and electronic dub music makes for a complicated history, far beyond the scope of this article, But from all those genres, ambient sounds emerged.

Looking back now, it’s pretty extraordinary just how open-minded audiences were to the innovations and mutations of early house and techno, at least in England. The early club records coming out of Chicago and Detroit offered little in the way of obviously contemplative sounds, even though the spacey atmospherics of Detroit techno would prove crucial for early IDM (intelligent dance music). The focus was solely on the cathartic release of the dancefloor and the culture and communities that formed around them. It was in the UK, starting around 1989, that more overtly ambient elements started to appear.

In the beginning, there were two fairly distinct strands of ambient dance.

One was problematically tagged ambient house and was birthed from the free-form DJing and releases of The Orb, The KLF and Mixmaster Morris. It sometimes had the simple beat structures of house slowed down, sometimes the stoned grooves of dub, sometimes no beats at all. It pulled in sounds and samples from Krautrock, jazz, art rock, prog rock, new age, soul and more.

The other strand was a form of British techno that came to be called IDM, as defined by The Black Dog’s e.p. Virtual (1989), and it was also cosmic and often sample-based. But it was rhythmically more complex, funkier and machine-like, and its otherworldly atmospherics and sci-fi themes were drawn more directly from Detroit. Some of it was eminently danceable, but even when the tempos were fast it seduced the mind as much as it moved the body.

Soon Britain’s music scene was a world where The Orb hilariously appeared on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops playing chess as their Top 10 ambient dub hit “Blue Room” warbled into living rooms around the country. Where Aphex Twin’s positively avant-garde ambient techno opus Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994) reached #11 on the mainstream UK album charts. Other notable pioneers from this period included Geir Jensson (aka Biosphere) and Pete Namlook and his label Fax Records.

All these sounds were a fairly explicit antidote – or at least a more subtle reverberation – of the muscular, unrelenting, functional beats of the dancefloor. The artists found a receptive audience, initially in the dance underground, with music that was subtle, intelligent and often produced with the same new sampling and drum machine tech that created the tracks these same audiences were dancing to at early raves and then clubs.

The mid-90’s peak of mainstream interest in ambient dance inevitably receded – for reasons already outlined in plenty of books and articles on dance music history – but many strains of electronic dance music in the world today still have their more contemplative atmospheric offshoots. 90’s dance gave ambient sounds new contexts, and the spirit remains very much alive in the music’s highly diverse descendants.

One persistent tag, ‘chillout’, had by the turn of the millennium come to encompass an extraordinary variety of downtempo music associated with the electronic dance scene – and sometimes even just downtempo vocal pop or rock. Admittedly, much under the chillout tag suffers from lazy music-making and commercial blandness. Major record labels have jumped on and off the bandwagon at different times, trying to emulate the success of iconic album series like DJ Jose Padilla’s peerless Cafe Del Mar collections from the 90’s. In response, many artists associated with dance music who seek cred for their downtempo material have ditched the tag altogether and embraced the all-compassing but somewhat useless alternative, ‘electronica’.

But what’s significant is that downtempo music produced partially or wholly by electronic means, and often never exposed on radio or though other mass media, has now achieved a surprisingly widespread acceptance even if much of it remains outside the actual pop culture mainstream. Thanks to the house and techno generations – from the beaches of Ibiza to the lounge bars of Berlin to outdoor psychedelic trance parties in Israel and Australia – ambient has found a glorious new lease of life.

And it’s here to stay.

Just a taste…

Classical avant-garde…rock music…electronic pop…new age…electronic dance music. Just a few key pieces of the ambient puzzle and, I admit, only the briefest of histories.

For those wanting to dig deeper, there’s plenty of great writing on the web. Seek and ye shall find.

But if you care for books, I recommended the following:

  • How Music Works by David Byrne, McSweeney’s, 2012.
  • The Ambient Century by Mark Prendergast, Bloomsbury, London, 2003.
  • Through Music To The Self by Peter Michael Hamel, 1976.
  • The New Age Music Guide by Patti Jean Birosik, Collier Books, 1989.
  • New Sounds: The Virgin Guide To New Music by John Schaefer, Virgin Books, London, 1987.
  • The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Virgin Books, London.
  • Music For Inner Space by Neville Drury, Unity Press, Lindfield, 1985.
  • Healing Music by Neville Drury and Andrew Watson, Nature & Health Books, Chatswood, 1987.
  • Adventures In Wonderland: A Decade Of Club Culture by Sharon Garret, Headline Books, London 1998.
  • Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy Listening & Other Moodsong by Joseph Lanza, Quartet, London, 1995.
  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Rock, Salamander Books, London, 1982.
  • Art Rock by John Rockwell from The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock And Roll, Random House, 1980.
  • Digital Gothic: A Critical Discography Of Tangerine Dream by Paul Stump, S.A.F. Publishing, London, 1997.
  • The Rough Guide To Rock, Rough Guides Ltd, London, 1999.
  • The Rough Guide To Classical Music, Rough Guides Ltd, London, 2001
  • Ocean Of Sound by David Toop, Serpents Tail, London, 1996.
  • Kraftwerk: From Dusseldorf To The Future by Tim Barr, Ebury Press, London, 1998
  • The Rough Guide To Techno by Tim Barr, Rough Guides Ltd, London, 2000
  • Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide To The Great Kosmische Musik by Julian Cope, Head Heritage, London, 1995.
  • Crossfade: A Big Chill Anthology, Serpents Tail, London, 2004.
  • Klaus Schulze: Electronic Music Legend by Greg Allen, 2008.

Article by Mike Watson aka Mike G, copyright 2001-2019

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