Electronic music is undeniably popular.
Turn on the radio today and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a track that doesn’t have some elements of electronic music running through it. The electronic music industry is worth over USD$7 billion, with its highest-paid DJs (The Chainsmokers and Marshmello) raking in over USD$40 million per year. A Google search of ‘electronic music’ returns nearly two billion results, and Spotify’s curated electronic playlists have millions of followers. From dance and techno, to hardstyle and trap, there’s pretty much a style of electronic music for everyone. But where did it come from, and why do we like it so much?
Early electronic music began in the 1920s and 1930s, but it wasn’t until around the 1960s that electronic instruments began to be used more frequently. Synthesisers came to the fore as an instrument of choice for ground-breaking artists like Pink Floyd and Genesis. The 70s saw a stronger wave of electronic-tinged tracks, with Depeche Mode and Eurythmics leading the charge. However, it was the invention of MIDI in the 1980s that truly changed the game. As computers became more powerful, people were finding new and exciting ways to twist and bend the traditional boundaries of music.
Dance music broke through into the mainstream in the late 1980s, starting the road to the enormous industry we have today. Raves and electronic club nights became particularly popular in Europe, which still produces some of the biggest electronic acts today. It took the U.S.A a bit longer to catch up, but the industry there began to thrive in the mid-2000s when acts like Diplo and Skrillex found large fan-bases online. Even Australia now has a strong electronic scene, with its own unique sound thanks to acts like Flume, Nina Las Vegas and Flight Facilities. Other markets are also getting involved – China and South Korea are currently the strongest emerging areas for dance music, according to the International Music Summit’s Business Report for 2018.
So why has electronic music become so popular? There’s not really one answer – it’s like trying to figure out why some people like country music and others can’t stand it. In general, music activates a lot of our brain when we listen. Certain parts focus on the rhythm and others interpret the melody, while the auditory cortex helps process the volume of the sound you’re hearing. In 2017, scientists found that music can control the same chemicals in the brain (serotonin and dopamine) as other things like food, drugs and sex. The level of reward given is thought to be linked to the ‘peak emotional moments’ of a track and the anticipation you have for this part of the song. This means that the bigger the build-up to the drop, the more dopamine you’ll get – which might explain why so many people like house and dubstep.
One study also proved the link between electronic dance music and pleasure in a simpler way, by looking at how people expressed their pleasure through dancing. The more the participants enjoyed themselves, the more they danced! They found that the most pleasurable track, and the one people danced the most to even if they had never heard it before, was ‘Icarus’ by Madeon.
Most people also feel an attraction to the repetitive rhythm of electronic music. Certain rhythms in the brain help us match up with the rhythms in music, and the simplicity of the rhythm in electronic music means more people can figure it out. The more complex the rhythm, the more difficult it is for your brain to comprehend it. This could be why techno and ambient music are so popular. It’s also thought that repetitive rhythms can make you more productive, particularly if there are no lyrics.
While there is some science to back up the world’s love of electronic music, we may never fully understand why it’s so appealing to so many people. As one Reddit user put it on r/electronicmusic, “I enjoy all genres of music but electronic music gives me a feeling that none of the others provides, especially in a live setting."