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  • What defines ambient music?

    Going back to something we were talking about on podcast #13 (https://soundcloud.com/s1gnsofl1fe/a...ine-podcast-13)

    If you fast forward and start at around 42:00 we start to discuss what actually defines the genre. Is it the instruments? The atmosphere? The drones? Where do you guys draw the line?

    I'll leave it up to you. I tend not to go by any sort of definition other than my ears. When I hear something, I know what it is...at least in my mind.

    Cheers,
    -S1gns
    Synphaera Records
    Space | Time | Matter

  • #2
    For me, ambient music should take you on a journey in your mind. Whether it's to a deserted space station, an abandoned factory, dark cave, 35,000 ft in the air, or in a dark wood, the mental journey is the important part. The journey could also be a journey in time, to a time in your past, or a time you desire to be. I really don't think there is one acceptable technical definition of ambient. I do think the journey must be created with sound, not words, so I don't consider any song that relies on vocals to tell a story to be ambient. I know other genres can have the same effect, i.e. dark metal, trance, etc., but this genres have more of an active emotive feel to me, where ambient is more passive.

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    • #3
      That's exactly it. And we touched up this also two podcasts later on the Simon Lomax episode about how ambient can evoke certain things inside the listener without saying any words. That's another key point is for the most part, ambient music is without words and only a song title left as it's only source of description from the artists who created it. An environment, an imaginary world, a feeling, anything...

      Although songs that do have vocals can still be ambient (in my opinion) which brings us further to making it difficult to defining the genre. An open space? An "ambience" created by the voice if you will.

      It gets crazy...but it really all comes back to how you hear it and what it does for you. That's the most defining quality of all.
      Synphaera Records
      Space | Time | Matter

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      • #4
        An interesting question; one which of course has no definitive answer, only personal opinion. For me, ambient means any music which focusses primarily on texture, tone and use of space. I understand that people feel the need to subdivide genres ("that's not ambient, it's post-rock/Berlin school/shoegaze/etc") and such definitions can be useful, but for me everything from Eno to My Bloody Valentine to Boards of Canada to Mogwai ultimately falls under the Ambient umbrella. I think this may just show in my musical output! :biggrin:

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        • #5
          For a long time I held to Brian Eno's definition '..music as ignorable as it is listenable...' and from time to time I'll try to make a piece of music that stays within that definition, and call it 'old school' ambient. But like all genres, not only within music, what starts out as easily defined simply because it's groundbreaking gradually takes in other influences and the genre becomes more of an umbrella heading, covering several sub-genres. I think the dictionary definition of ambient (adjective: relating to the surroundings) is a fair definition of contemporary ambient music - it's music that evokes a mood, a feeling, in other words it creates an environment of some kind.

          But I draw the line at lyrics...:uhuh:
          My new album is available now, here: https://thoughtexperiment.bandcamp.c.../supersymmetry
          Check out my (hopelessly out-of-date) SoundCloud page: https://soundcloud.com/thought_experiment

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          • #6
            Some really good attempts at clarification posted here..and I tend to agree with all of them, more or less.

            To me, ambient is mostly about trying to capture a mood / feeling / theme musically and expressing it without the use of words. I used the term "words" here to mean a spoken dialog or narrative, as in somebody speaking or saying something that can be understood to mean something to others when they hear it..be they lyrics or recorded quotes. That, to my mind, leaves the door open for artists to use such things as individual words or short phrases, found sounds and recording of nondescript conversations.

            To be honest, I've listened to some tracks produced by people both online and offline, that they referred to as "ambient", but were nothing more than "normal" music without words..and, even though they are well within their right to call it ambient if they want to..to me tracks like that are not. The BEST ambient..for me, personally..has always been and always will be, slow in nature..the kind of track that melts over your ears and caresses your brain into this other world envisioned by the artist who produced the track..it's a shared experience, one between artist and listener. Having said that, it often seems to be more the case these days that it's just a one-sided thing..where the music is produced and then the listen uses it as a springboard into their own dreams and thoughts..a mere background noise..a psychological kind of "supermarket music" that plays in the background, while you "shop".

            And that's cool, too..I mean, whatever works for a person is fine..but for me the best ambient music is the kind where the artist knows where they are going and then takes you along with them for the ride. We all know tunes / tracks / albums that do this for and to us..the ones that have that certain "something" that we, as artists, try to capture and reproduce in our own way in our own music. The "greats" that make our own playlists of ambient all time greats. One such track for me is "Spiritual" by Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny, which is simply one of the most beautiful tunes I have personally ever heard..and which does it for me.



            I know the above is not what everyone might consider "ambient", but that's the thing..in the end, ambient music is music that moves the individual without the use of words..and what and how we are moved depends on who we are and where we are coming from in live..hence the many different views on just what is ambient music.
            Last edited by Ambient Mechanics; 09-26-2013, 09:00 AM.

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            • #7
              To me one of the biggest defining things is that in tends to have a non-traditional "narrative", in that instead of telling a linear story, as most music is set up, it conveys an atmosphere, or is more stream of consciousness, and conveys abstract ideas/feelings/whatever. Other than that I think it's mainly become a convenient term for a wide variety of instrumental music which is no derived (usually) from ideas of western harmony, rhythm, etc...but rather from musique concrete and similar ideas that began with the advent of recording media.

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              • #8
                Uhmmm... from my point of view, ambient shouldn't recreate anything material. That's why anything with drums as one of the main features becomes, in my opinion, lounge or something like that. Drums are too material. Ambient could represent the outside (air, aether, space) or the inside (dark drones etc), but it should in no way be a photo of the material. Anything that makes you move your body is not ambient (yes, that includes Berlin School sequences ;-) ), anything that tells you what to think (lyrics) is not ambient.
                There, that's my definition: no representation of the material world, only ethereal, abstract environments.
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                • #9
                  I'm not so sure about the material consideration. A piano is, after all, no less material than a drum and is also a percussive instrument. Maybe I'm not understanding the differentiation here, or maybe I'm deliberately choosing not to

                  A lot of ambient music seems to exclusively feature sounds containing a very slow attack envelope, but I don't think it is a pre-requisite.

                  I'm not even sure about the argument that you can't dance to ambient music. A lot of the pads and sounds used in ambient pieces feature rhythms generated by swells designed into the sounds, and interactions between the different sounds used. Oh yeah, I've been to some strange parties in my time.

                  I may be guilty of subverting the use of this music to my own ends. If I like an "ambient" piece of music, I will actively listen to it, usually at a fairly high volume through a decent system. If it contains some powerful LF, so much the better. I like to feel those frequencies. I rarely listen with headphones. I like those sound waves to travel through the air before I hear them.

                  I do agree that it is about the atmosphere. If I hear a track that I really like, I love to immerse myself in it.

                  I admit that this behaviour may seem strange to some, but that's the way I roll.

                  Oh, lyrics. If you're listening to music in an unknown foreign language does that count? Heck, I listened to Yes albums for many years and still have no idea what they were on about. They could be selling double-glazing for all I know.

                  I guess for me ambient means something other that Eno's original definition (or maybe ambient music has moved on in the intervening 40 years).

                  $0.02
                  Last edited by seismic1; 11-11-2013, 03:49 PM. Reason: clarification
                  Whatsisname's Little Fluffy Clouds | Campsite | Hearthis | Orfium | SeismicTC | Twitter | Ello

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                  • #10
                    Words are always a tricky instrument, let me see if I can make what I intended to say clearer ;-)

                    Originally posted by seismic1 View Post
                    I'm not so sure about the material consideration. A piano is, after all, no less material than a drum and is also a percussive instrument
                    By "material" I didn't mean made of wood and that can be touched, I was referring to material and immaterial, physical and spiritual (not exactly what I mean, just to give a vague idea), touchable and untouchable, definable and undefinable. A piece by mozart on the piano is clearly identifiable as made by man in a physical environment, a synthetic drone drowned in reverb is not.


                    Originally posted by seismic1 View Post
                    I'm not even sure about the argument that you can't dance to ambient music. A lot of the pads and sounds used in ambient pieces feature rhythms generated by swells designed into the sounds, and interactions between the different sounds used.
                    Anything has a rhythm, of course, even a sine-wave drone, and you can dance to that, too, if you really want to ;-) Drums - well, that's a different matter... and they just do not fit in my personal idea of ambient, when they are the main or one of the main elements (with all due exceptions).

                    Mostly, what I found that I disagree with is the tendency to call just about anything "ambient". It's as if heavy metal fans called heavy metal everything that has an electric guitar in it, from rockabilly to surf music. I feel it would perhaps be just as important to establish what is not ambient as it is to say what is ambient.

                    (please note: I do find labels are not of uttermost importance and can definitely be limiting, but they are useful when talking in broad terms)
                    ----
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                    • #11
                      By your definition then much contemporary classical music is actually ambient, with composers like Penderecki, Xaankis and others, the instruments are often not remotely identifiable as what they are, they often have no discernible time signature or rhythm..etc. There is also history in classical music much prior to even the existence of recordable media of people making sounds like weren't "meant to sound like a piano", but rather were people attempting to sound like natural environments etc. Debatable how successful they were, but even music from primitive cultures involves ideas like this.

                      I guess it's fine to disagree with people calling something ambient, especially when it involves crass attempts as marketing;) personally what bugs me more though is these constant, silly sub-genres people come up with precisely because it bothers them that they can't categorize something, to me that's more creativity-killing than just lumping everything into "ambient", which truthfully is simply a broad category at this point in history I think. The only consistent thing I see is lack of a tonal narrative, other than that it's a large category for unclassifiable, often experimental instrumental music, usually with an atmospheric or toned-down bent...you could argue that "intensity" in terms of demanding focus is something that most ambient music is not.
                      Last edited by Zach Zinn; 11-11-2013, 06:05 PM.

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                      • #12
                        Ambient is like porn. I can't describe it, but boy do I know it when I see it.

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Zach Zinn View Post
                          but even music from primitive cultures involves ideas like this.
                          Very true - didjeridoo (or whatever the spelling is) music, for example.
                          ----
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                          facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mac-o...22749251262946

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                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Toaster View Post
                            Ambient is like porn. I can't describe it, but boy do I know it when I see it.
                            That's a good point. Hence my (well known by now, I guess) mild irritation when people call ambient what is actually Berlin School - it's like calling porn a subtly erotic movie...
                            ----
                            website: www.macvibes.com
                            facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mac-o...22749251262946

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                            • #15
                              I agree that ambient music shouldn't be a photo of what you're trying to communicate, but at the same time I think that synthetic textures are a wonderous way of going about creating deeper and more intricate soundscapes which, if you're a soundscape designer, is practically the most important thing you could attempt. There's so much you can do with various textures and while people often confuse genres I don't honestly find it that irritating.
                              If you ask me we're just blurring the line between genres, which imo is a good thing. :D

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