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A Guide To Ambient Music
A Brief History and Description
The roots of ambient music lie not in a musical movement but that of early 20th century art movements such as Dadaism and Futurism. Eccentric French composer, Erik Satie, borrowed elements of this movement to create an early form of ambient music that he called "Furniture Music" to be listened to in the background during dinner or other such gatherings. In the mid-70's Brian Eno first coined the phrase "Ambient" as a genre and has acknowledged Satie as an influence. Included in the liner notes of Eno's 1978 release Ambient 1: Music for Airports is the statement: "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."
Ambient music places more of a focus on sounds, feeling and atmosphere in a free form than it does on a traditional song structure or rigid time signature. It is often used in movie scores. Tangerine Dream is a popular band in the genre that has done a lot of work on movies. There are many subgenres of ambient music including Minimal Ambient, Dark Ambient, Black Ambient, Noise Ambient, Isolationist and Chillout to name a few. It has been fused into other styles of music such as Dub, Metal, Industrial and Electronica.
If you are unfamiliar with the genre a great starting point would be the aforementioned Ambient 1: Music For Airports by Brian Eno.
One of my personal favorite albums is 1990s Chill Out by The KLF. It tells the story of a nighttime road trip from Texas to Louisiana along the Gulf of Mexico. The interesting thing about this 44 minute album is that it was recorded in one take through the use of samples, recordings and original composition on instruments and synthesizer.
I recently bought a used Klaus Schulze album called Dune on a whim. I think this album is a great example of experimental / ambient music from the mid-70's.
A great way to familiarize yourself with ambient music would be one of the many radio shows available. Echoes is a daily 2 hour syndicated radio program that has been on the air for over two decades now.
My first attempt at creating ambient music came about when I received a DVD full of captured 8mm film footage from my childhood. A few of the reels were extremely water damaged. Ironically this water damaged footage was taken during a family trip to the beach.
As soon as I saw the footage I knew that I wanted to create some sort of soundscape over it. I edited the film footage to 4 minutes and slowed it down with Windows Live Movie Maker software. Before I even began writing music I was sure that I wanted it to sound dark and ominous with feelings of despair and helplessness. I also wanted it to have a fluid, water like sound and feel. It seemed fitting for the footage and the way it struck me the first time I saw it.
I used Image Line FL Studio (Fruity Loops) software to create the sound of waves and a few birds at the beginning. On top of this backbone I added some effects and melodies using a Yamaha DGX500 88 key keyboard and Virtual Minimoog software controlled by a Korg Nanokey Midi Controller on my laptop. All editing was done with the free, cross-platform sound editing software Audacity. Regardless of musical ability, I think that I accomplished my goals as far as the feelings that I wanted to convey. The whole process was very therapeutic for me.
Ambient music can offer a wide range of emotions and sounds. It is the perfect background noise while working or cleaning. It can help clear the mind when trying to concentrate or perfectly accentuate a scene in a movie. Grab a glass of wine, turn up the chill, turn down the lights and get rid of all that clutter in your head.
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