What “Ambient” Music Means to Me

Alex Bainter
Apr 14 · 7 min read

Ambient music is described on Wikipedia as “a genre of music that emphasizes tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure or rhythm.” The music was both popularized and named by Brian Eno beginning in the 1970’s with albums like Discreet Music and Ambient 1: Music for Airports.

Discreet Music — Brian Eno, 1975

Eno included an essay titled “Ambient Music” in the back of his book A Year With Swollen Appendicies in which he describes the event which inspired him to record Discreet Music. After an accident, Eno was immobilized in a hospital bed where a friend brought him a record of 17th-century harp music.

“I asked her to put it on as she left, which she did, but it wasn’t until after she’d gone that I realized the hi-fi was much too quiet and one of the speakers had given up anyway. It was raining hard outside, and I could hardly hear the music above the rain — just the loudest notes, like little crystals, sonic icebergs rising out of the storm. I couldn’t get up and change it, so I just lay there waiting for my next visitor to come and sort it out, and gradually I was seduced by this listening experience. I realized that this was what I wanted music to be — a place, a feeling, an all-around tint to my sonic environment.” — Brian Eno, “Ambient Music” from A Year With Swollen Appendicies

Shortly after, Eno released Discreet Music, which he describes as “really [his] first Ambient record,” though it wasn’t until 1978’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports that Eno actually used the word “ambient” to describe the music. Today, “ambient” is used to describe not only much of Eno’s work, but a whole genre originating from before Eno coined the term to music released by other contemporary artists.

While Brian Eno alone can’t be credited with creating the genre (even if he did name it), he is perhaps the most significant pioneer of it. As such, his contributions to the genre warrant special attention. Specifically, an examination of the methods Eno used to create ambient records leads to an important revelation about the music.

Generated Ambience

In addition to his work with ambient music, Brian Eno significantly influenced the generative art scene, especially generative music. I have a full explanation of generative music available, but the brief definition is “music created by a system which neither ends nor repeats.” While Eno didn’t use this term until around 1995, it describes techniques which he had been using as early as the 1970's.

In an essay titled “Generative Music” also from A Year With Swollen Appendices, Eno lists several albums on which he used generative techniques: Discreet Music (1975), Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978), Ambient 4: On Land (1982), Thursday Afternoon (1985), and Neroli (1993). Were the essay written today and not in 1995, this list would probably also include Reflection (2017), and Music for Installations (2018).

To those familiar with Eno’s discography, there is a striking commonality between these albums: they’re all ambient. In fact, all of Eno’s ambient records appear to generative. And no, I didn’t forget 2012’s LUX; according to Mother Jones, Eno doesn’t use “ambient” to describe it, and even so, I’m quite confident generative techniques were used on LUX anyway.

It’s possible that using endless musical systems just happens to be Eno’s method of choice for recording ambient albums. However, I believe there’s greater significance. Consider that 2017’s Reflection was simultaneously released as both a traditional album and an iOS app. The app is actually the same generative system Eno recorded to create the album, released to the public. This means that anyone who owns the app can simply turn the system on to hear an endless supply of Reflection-esque music. In 1995, Eno indicated that selling generative systems such as the Reflection app was always his true desire:

“My records, however, were always recordings of the output of one or another of these [generative] systems: though it could produce original music forever, what went on the record was a 30-minute section of its output, which would then be identical each time you played it. However, what I always wanted to do was to sell the system itself, so that a listener would know that the music was always unique.” — Brian Eno, “Generative Music” in A Year With Swollen Appendices

If releasing generative systems was feasible prior to 2017, it’s likely Eno would have done so for all of his ambient albums, rather than simply releasing recordings of the output.

“Ambient”

Why is releasing ambient music as generative systems important to Brian Eno when so many other ambient artists are satisfied releasing traditional recorded albums? In a short post about Reflection on his site, Eno offers an explanation (emphasis mine):

“I don’t think I understand what [the term ‘ambient’] stands for anymore — it seems to have swollen to accommodate some quite unexpected bedfellows — but I still use it to distinguish it from pieces of music that have fixed duration and rhythmically connected, locked together elements.”

To put it another way, the person who coined the term “ambient” music only uses that word to describe works which are generative. While Eno has described his own fixed-length albums as ambient, we can assume what he really means is the source system is the real piece of ambient music.

Personally, I agree with Eno’s definition. I find that for music to be truly ambient, it must also be generative. I didn’t come to this realization until I started making and listening to generative music systems myself.

When I think about which aspects of an environment are considered part of the ambience, I think about those which persist in my senses for a long time while I’m in that environment. As I currently sit in my living room typing this, the ambience of the room consists of:

  • Sight: The colors of the walls, floor, ceiling, and furniture. The aesthetics of things like the sofa, the coffee table, and the TV stand. The morning sunlight from the windows, and the light from fixtures.
  • Smell: The breakfast I cooked and ate in the nearby kitchen. My cup of tea.
  • Sound: My house’s HVAC system blowing air through the vents. The patter of my keyboard. The humming fans in my laptop and other electronics. The wind pushing on the walls of my house. Birds singing outside. The occasional car driving through the nearby park.
  • Touch: The temperature and humidity of the room.

None of things which I consider part of the ambience of my environment change very quickly or often; they’re constant and persistent. They are general qualities of the environment which will probably last longer than I’ll be sitting here typing this (except maybe the smell of my tea, since I’ll eventually drink all of it), and they’re present regardless of whether I’m actually here to observe them.

For music to be truly ambient, I believe it should behave similar to other elements which are considered ambient. Specifically, it should change very slowly, if at all, and it should last as long as a listener wants to listen in order to integrate with the environment. Of course, the latter requirement is different from person to person and place to place, which is precisely why music without a fixed length is required.

Traditional recorded music ceases to be part of the environment as soon as it ends. This would be like the sunlight from my window suddenly disappearing. While you could string together an endless playlist of music, the frequency with which it changes also prevents the music from becoming part of the ambience, like if sunlight abruptly changed color every few minutes. Compare this to generative music, which is uniquely capable of being “an all-around tint to [the] sonic environment” for as long as you’d like to listen. This became clear to me when I would play generative music in my office, leave for several hours while the music played, and later return to the same lingering musical mood. I’m not sure this experience could be adequately replicated with non-generative music.

I love listening to non-generative, so-called “ambient” artists and I find their music supremely inspiring. Specifically, stuff like Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works series, William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops series, Chihei Hatakeyama, Andy Othling/Lowercase Noises, and many more continue to take up massive amounts of my music consumption. I’m not nearly audacious enough to express negative judgments about this music simply because it’s not generative, nor do I have any. I’m not even suggesting that everyone else is using the term “ambient” wrong as that’s not how language works. To be honest, I’m a bit turned off by the obsession to try and label every inch of music. However, I personally don’t find this kind of music fits my own definition of “ambient,” which is really just indicative of my own stubborn contrarianism.

I think the best way to illustrate why I believe ambient music is necessarily created by a generative system is to compare the music to wallpaper. If you put up wallpaper in your bedroom, it will remain part of the room’s general ambience until someone decides to take it down or cover it up; the wallpaper never disappears on its own. I feel ambient music should be the same way, and I think the guy who came up with the name might agree. Only a generative system can provide that experience.

I make generative ambient music on Generative.fm. I tweet and email paywall-free links to all of my articles, as well as updates about my projects.

Alex Bainter

Written by

A web developer creating audio/visual experiences both digital and not. Currently making generative music at generative.fm.

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