What makes ambient electronica “work?”

I was driving this afternoon listening to the Rain In The Park mix of Mr.Cloudy and asked myself – “What makes this (piece) work?”

After all, ambient electronica can, depending upon the artist, seem random and somewhat repetitive, and admittedly it’s not for everyone.  But if this music makes me happy, there must be something here worth understanding.

If you’ve taken any type of music theory class, you’ll learn that music patterns developed hundreds of years ago can be heard in virtually all types of music today.  A basic example is the use of a repeating chorus – nearly every song on the radio today uses this pattern.  This isn’t true with ambient electronica, but yet it still “works.”

A useful comparison is modern art – i.e. art that isn’t a visual replica of a particular scene or person.

When I was younger I thought modern art was just a random collection of brush strokes and didn’t require a tremendous amount of skill.  I would sometimes go as far to claim “Even I could do that!”  And, of course, some modern art is made out to be more than it really is.  But at its core, this art style encompasses solid design principles and embodies true creativity.  While randomness is an aspect of creativity, they are not one and the same.

So, is ambient electronica random?  For the listener to truly appreciate a piece of music, true randomness doesn’t work; there has to be a true sense of progression and structure for the piece to resonate with the listener.

To elaborate, I believe music embodies three main characteristics: joy, comfort and a sense of forward movement; joy being a natural byproduct of the latter two principles.  So, what is it about these latter two principles that is so important?  And how do these relate to ambient electronica?

One could argue that comfort is synonymous with predictability.  For example, I’m comfortable in my residence because I know that it’s structurally sound, the water and HVAC systems are working properly, and I have electricity to make everything else happen.  My comfort is closely linked to a (safe?) assumption that these core facets of my residence are going to remain intact for the foreseeable future.

Forward progression is another principle that is relevant here.  Even if you are someone who does the same thing day to day, and interacts with the same people, you are still moving forward.  Remember, change is constant regardless of degree.  Thus, forward movement is the undercurrent within us all; we need it to feel “alive.”

While ambient electronica does not have a repeating chorus, the use of repeating textures (e.g. a cymbal crash played in reverse), musical notes and/or sound effects (rain, wind, water, etc.) is its collective replacement.  And it’s this “pattern” replacement that provides the listener with a sense of comfort via a sense of predictability. Thus the use of the “ambient” descriptor is clearly at play here.

Have you ever been in a building when the HVAC system is suddenly turned off?  You quickly realize that the system was operating all along.  This mechanical “ambience” provided you with a subconscious sense of comfort.  It’s only upon its interruption where you feel (strangely enough) a sense of discomfort.  Ambience = comfort.

But a musical composition that embodies feelings of comfort doesn’t mean that it’s musical (or even interesting for that matter).  This is where forward progression comes into play.

Listeners need the piece to take them somewhere they haven’t been before.  Ambient electronica achieves this sense of movement through the careful use of layering and volume.

Layering is essentially the addition and subtraction of sounds and textures over time.  In many pieces, a song’s introduction uses just one or two sounds / textures.  As the piece progresses, additional layers are introduced, ultimately “peaking” at the song’s climax.  Once reached, layers are removed in a similar progression leaving just one (or a select few) at the very end.

This “bell curve” not only introduces yet another layer of familiarity or comfort, it clearly suggests a feeling of forward movement – i.e. “the song is taking me somewhere and I want to experience where it’s taking me …”

While ambient electronica doesn’t follow the standard musical patterns of long ago, it embodies core characteristics that are not only true of music, but of human emotion as well.

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