It can be immensely difficult to tell electronic music genres apart. Every day, it seems like there’s some new, nonsensical genre that everyone is talking about. “Yeah dude, you have to start listening to Miami fire-step. It’s the biggest thing since swamp house.”
There will always be new genres emerging from the electronic scene. And it will be impossible to completely keep up with them. That said, it’s important to know the distinctions between the main genres, such as house, dubstep, trance, and so on.
For that reason, I give you a starter pack to help you navigate electronic music genres.
The beginner’s guide to electronic music genres
Notable artists: Deadmau5, Zedd, Tchami, Swedish House Mafia, Jauz, Sasha
House music is generally characterized by a “four-on-the-floor” kick drum beat, a heavy emphasis on off-beat percussion, and a synthesized bass line. While it developed in Chicago’s underground scene in the ’80s, today, it’s undoubtedly the most popular genre within EDM. You’ll hear that 128 BPM thump at nearly any party or club. And it will suck you in, so don’t fight it. There is no genre so naturally and purely infectious. To quote G-house juggernaut Malaa, “House music is a healer when you don’t feel good inside …
and can’t nobody steal your joy on the dance floor once the music takes over.”
Notable artists: Carl Cox, Adam Beyer, Chris Liebing, Stephan Bodzin
First off, “techno” is not an all-encompassing term for electronic music. Techno is a distinct genre that got its start in Detroit in the late ’80s. Its pioneers wanted to mix the soulful sounds of Chicago house, funk, and electro with the electronic sounds of Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra. Like house, techno usually has a four-on-the-floor beat between 120 and 150 BPM. But it distinguishes itself from other electronic music genres with deep, atonal samples and dystopian atmospheres. As a friend once told me, a good techno set features “a complete distortion of time and emotions – ranging from demonic and dark, to uplifting and melodic.”
Notable artists: Above & Beyond, Armin Van Buuren, Dash Berlin, Aly & Fila
Trance is a genre that evolved out of house and techno, mainly in Germany in the ’90s. Like many electronic music genres, trance has a four-on-the-floor beat, although it’s often faster, and has much less emphasis on extra percussion. Trance is a genre to get lost in – its repeating, thumping phrases have the notorious ability to steal souls (at least for a few hours). It does this with dramatic buildups, gorgeous vocals, and euphoric drops. But like any other genre, it has a myriad of subgenres. Psytrance, for instance, ensnares the listener in a dark hypnosis with its rapid, pounding bass lines.
Notable artists: Skrillex, Excision, Zeds Dead, Flux Pavilion, Ganja White Night
Dubstep emerged from London’s garage scene in the ’90s, although today’s dubstep sounds nothing like its roots. Unlike house or trance, the genre has a distinctive two-step rhythm, often around 70 BPM (or 140 BPM, people get in fights about which one it is). It’s that slow, heavy “BOOM … CHA … BOOM … CHA.” On top of that, it has extraordinarily energetic and aggressive bass lines. One could compare these sounds to demon growls, a blender full of pennies, or an alien apocalypse in a Michael Bay Transformers film. But when you put all that together, it achieves an irresistible energy. You’ll have no choice but to head-bang along. Just some advice from prior experiences: don’t play dubstep for your mom, she probably won’t like it.
Notable artists: RL Grime, NGHTMRE, Migos, DJ Snake, Troyboi
This one is an important because it’s a genre that people mislabel surprisingly often. Trap has its roots in the southern United States’ hip-hop scene, where its producers utilized crisp samples from the Roland TR-808 drum machine to make an ominous, gritty atmospheres. Today’s top hip-hop artists, like Migos, Gucci Mane, and Rick Ross, exemplify the classic trap sound. But in the early 2010s, EDM began adopting trap, adding grimy bass lines and enormous, detuned synths into the mix. To identify trap, listen for heavy, tuned kick drums, crisp hip-hop snares, quick and bright hi-hat cymbals, all combined together in a slow, menacing beat.
Notable artists: Flume, Wave Racer, Louis the Child, San Holo, Mura Masa
Future bass has achieved a remarkable popularity in recent years. While the genre owes much to dubstep and trap, future bass is happy and bubbly in contrast to the formers’ intensity and darkness. Flume is often considered to be the pioneer of the genre. His blend of hip-hop samples with buttery, energetic synth progressions amazed listeners. Soon after his 2012 self-titled debut album, the floodgates were opened. Artists like San Holo and Wave Racer began dropping euphoric tracks that built future bass into what it is today. It now stands as one of the more popular genres of EDM. Some of the biggest songs from Marshmello, The Chainsmokers, and Martin Garrix are solid examples of future bass.
Drum and Bass
Notable artists: Noisia, Pendulum, Andy C, Netsky
Like dubstep, drum and bass emerged out of the U.K. in the early ’90s. But unlike dubstep, drum and bass generally features an extremely quick, breakbeat drum pattern. This syncopated rhythm, along with some of the deepest bass you’ll hear anywhere, makes drum and bass one of the more intense genres within EDM. Many people also consider it to be the most complex and difficult genre to produce. Drum and bass borrows from a host of musical influences, and has given way to countless subgenres, granting an incredible diversity. Even if it’s a little intense at points, it’s one of the most well-respected genres among top DJs and producers.
Notable artists: Rezz
Over the last couple of years, the career of producer Rezz has skyrocketed. Known affectionately by her fans as Space Mom, the 22-year-old Canadian has built a reputation for dropping some of the hardest-hitting tracks in the industry. Yet no one had ever been able to properly characterize her sound. That is, until she announced publicly that her genre would henceforth be known as “f***in’ whatever.” And frankly, that title does her music better justice than other labels. No, it’s not techno. No, it’s not dubstep. Her ruthlessly heavy drops and sinister buildups have their own name. Now, go drink some water.
All of that said, there are hundreds of genres and subgenres that I left out. It’d be impossible to include them all. But if there’s something specific that I forgot, or something that I got horribly wrong, please let us know on Twitter or Facebook.