To the not-yet-fully-initiated, sure, electronic music can sound at first like a bunch of bleeps and bloops over a repetitive beat. How do you tell the songs apart? How do you even know if they’re good or not? What genre are you even listening to?
These are eternal questions, perhaps, for outsiders looking into the wilds of dance music. And if you’re hitting up Ultra Music Festival this weekend—or any of the surrounding Miami Music Week parties—for the first time, it all can seem bewildering.
So, here’s a super-basic guide to sounding like you kinda, sorta, maybe know what you’re talking about among the major genres, and to finding more of what you instinctively like.
EDM: Haha! This is kind of a trick entry ‘cause, despite what a lot of people may seem to imply, EDM is not an actual genre. Nope, nope, nope. It’s just an abbreviation for “electronic dance music,” though these days the term is mostly used to describe a super-mainstream strain of house music that’s sometimes also called “big-room house” or “confetti house.” (The latter term refers to the rains of confetti that always shoot out at like every venue where this music is played.)
You will recognize mainstream “EDM” by the fast, usually relentlessly pounding, one-two-three-four beat that sounds extremely fist-pumpy, complete with dramatic build-ups, breakdowns, and drops. If you think you dislike all electronic music, it’s probably because this is all you’re familiar with —so keep looking around, maybe you’ll find something else among the genres below.
HOUSE: House music is pretty much the granddaddy of all electronic dance music genres today. And it’s important to note it started out as a gay, black, minority thing. Early house music was the people’s thing – underground vibes for all kinds of people, united by the four-four beat on the dance floor.
House started based on the rhythms of disco—that one-two-three-four pulsing dance beat—laced with the influence of late-‘70s and early ‘80s synth pop. Those together make up the major elements of what’s considered the first house record ever, “On and On,” a 1984 club hit by Chicago producer Jesse Saunders.
It’s in the Windy City that house was truly born. In fact, the name of the genre comes from a popular club there at the time—the Warehouse.
In the ensuing three decades house has exploded into any number of crazy subgenres – funky house, tribal house, electro-house, tech-house, deep house, and so on. But the one thing that holds it all together is that one main recognizable beat. Even commercial “EDM” is, for the most part, at its core based on house music.
Putting up any one song as an example of house music would fail, because there are so many splinter genres with their own flourishes on top of the beat. But here’s an oldie but goodie from 1993 which shows the basic, classic house beat:
TECHNO: Alright, so here’s where things get murky. Techno is based on the same kind of one-two-three-four rhythm as house, but there’s a little more of a kick snare and some other small drum flourishes going on. The thing with techno, though, is that, as the name implies, it’s kinda robotic-sounding and pretty stripped down, compared to most subgenres of house.
It’s also kinda funky, too, though, in its swing; the original techno artists hailed from Detroit and were mostly black. (See this interview we did with second-wave Detroit techno artist Stacey Pullen for more background on that!) Here's Derrick May's 1987 classic "Strings of Life":
Techno locks into a groove and stays there for a long time – you won’t hear huge, dramatic build-ups and breakdowns most of the time.
Here’s a 1993 classic by Richie Hawtin under his Plastikman pseudonym:
However, because the drum patterns are kind of similar, techno and house often overlap into all kinds of sub-subgenres, and it’s often hard to really say what makes a record a “tech-house” track rather than just a “techno” track. You just have to kind of figure it out by feel after a while.
But here’s some tech-house goodness, anyways, from Jamie Jones. It's pretty grown-up and classy and sex-ay:
TRANCE: Trance also hinges on the basic four-to-the-floor drum pattern as house, but it’s sometimes a bit slower, and often way more dressed up. Trance, as the name implies, is all about psychedelic effects – dramatic, flourishing strings, angelic vocals, and layers upon layers of production tracks. Here’s an early classic trance track from Paul Van Dyk:
These days it’s become a lot more dramatic and even more complex. But trance, above all, likes to play on feelings of exhilaration, romantic longing, and so on. Here’s a handy video we made to explain it for you:
DUBSTEP (kinda): “Real” dubstep was born in England, and sounded like experimental, almost reggae-tinged (hence the “dub” part), low-end reverberations. Like so, in this example by Kode9:
It pretty much died though and you will never hear it anywhere because in the U.S. the term got bastardized to become a caricature of a few exaggerated elements from the real thing. What random people consider “dubstep” to be is more likely what is often derisively referred to as “brostep” – super loud, aggressive, full of those wub-wub noises and screeches that are so easy to make fun of. Some of Skrillex’s old stuff was the mainstream peak of brostep, for instance:
Even Skrilly has moved on, though (check his new album for forays into drum’n’bass, acid house, and more) – but brostep won’t die and someone, somewhere will play it at the festival. You’ll be able to recognize it from far away actually because all of its fans will be wearing tank tops with large printed sayings on them. And also the ground will vibrate.
TRAP: Most of the former dubstep bros wandered over into this arena now. Check out our handy video below for an explanation on the genre. But think lots of bass and stuttering beats interlaced with rap samples and aggression.
DRUM ‘N’ BASS: It’s somewhat unlikely you will randomly stumble across any pure drum’n’bass DJ sets unless someone takes you to a specialized party or performance. However, it will never quite die, and plenty of DJs along the bass-heavy spectrum of things like to spice up their sets with a little d’n’b for excitement.
Here’s one way to recognize it: It is super fast and based on a completely different rhythm than house, techno, or trance. Instead of going one-two-three-four, it’s based on an almost reggae-style rhythm on the off-beat. Much of it is built on drum patterns like the “amen,” and it usually lacks a lot of the synthesizer and production flourishes seen in other genres. Here’s a sample:
Arielle Castillo is Fusion's culture editor, reporting on arts, music, culture, and subcultures from the streets on up. She's also a connoisseur of weird Florida, weightlifting, and cats.