Ambient music is a style that focuses on sound and space rather than melody and form. It is music that is intentionally created to be used as both as background music and as music to listen to. It usually features slowly evolving sounds, repetition, and is relatively static.
In 1978, Brian Eno released Ambient 1: Music for Airports. It came out at the peak of disco, and was largely ignored when it was released. Music for Airports has grown in significance every year since, though. Ambient 1 was a beautiful manifesto. It is a set of intriguing, timeless soundscapes, artfully packaged. It is also the beginning of ambient music.
In his liner notes, Eno places ambient music as an alternative to Muzak. Eno felt that Muzak was so lightweight and derivative that it had effectively eliminated environmental music as a subject for composer’s attention, or for that of serious listeners. His use of the term “ambient music” was to create a distinction between his music and the canned background music that was available at the time.
Most importantly, Eno wanted to make music that would support reflection and space to think. Eno did this by creating music that was beautiful, but did not have a center of focus to demand your attention. In his liner notes, Eno puts it this way: “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.”
Eno’s Ambient series contains a set of four works that cover a lot of territory. Ambient 1: Music for Airports has four pieces that are the aural equivalent of a mobile. Sounds drift by the listener in a seemingly random collage, but combine to make infinite subtle variations. Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror, is a collaboration between Eno and composer Harold Budd. The music is a collection of slow, reflective piano work. Eno treats the piano with a variety of electronic effects, giving it an otherworldly sound. Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, shows another side to Eno’s ambient idea. Day of Radiance is a collaboration with Laraaji, and has two groups of pieces. The first set are dances, and feature hammered-dulcimer playing rhythmic, upbeat music. The remaining pieces are very slow and meditative. Ambient 4: On Land is the darkest of Eno’s ambient works. It is largely electronic, but also includes treated acoustic sounds. The sounds are not easily recognizable – it’s difficult to know if you’re hearing an instrument, electronic sound, or treated recording. Eno’s approach in On Land is the same as Music for Airports, but the results are completely different. On Land is a collage of mysterious, even scary sounds, that create a sense that you’re in an alien landscape.
While Brian Eno has been the most influential composer of ambient music, many other musicians have explored this area, too. Many ambient works aim for a more commercially acceptable take on the style.
There are now many sub-genres of ambient music, including ambient techno, ambient trance, and dark ambient. Active ambient artists include Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, Steve Roach, Robert Rich and the Orb.