The Comprehensive Beginners Guide to EDM Genres and Sub-Genres
When you first immerse yourself in electronic music culture, it can be difficult to decipher the difference between styles. I can recall attending my first Paradiso in 2013 on a whim because my friends were going. I didn’t know any of the artists, songs, or anything about EDM in general. My first ever experience with electronic music prior to Diso was Excision’s “The Executioner Tour” earlier that year, so you could say my knowledge of genres was little to none.
Even when I began to attend festivals more regularly, I still had a difficult time deciphering between artistic styles. It took several years and a lot of listening to figure out the subtle differences in genres and sub-genres. This is not an uncommon thing, but it can make things challenging as an EDM novice when learning about the differences in styles.
Following are curated descriptions of some of the most common genres and sub-genres you’ll hear. There are WAY too many to list and it’s growing all of the time, so don’t allow this to limit you to all the other possibilities. Plus, most artists do not want to simply fit in one genre, but knowing their stylistic distinctions can further appreciation for their techniques.
Sub-genres: Drum and Bass (DnB), Future Bass, Bass House, Electro Funk
Notable Artists: Netsky & Andy C (DnB); Illenium & Flume (Future Bass); Ghastly & Jauz (Bass House); The Floozies & Slynk (Electro Funk)
BPM & Style Distinctions: 70 – 180 BPM; dark & heavy; staccato, abrupt drum lines; aesthetic, long synths (sometimes); prominent bass lines
Now, this genre is vast to cover as well. Plus, the sub-genres have evolved to the point that they can certainly be their own category (DnB, Electro, Future). Bass music is a central part of electronic music. Its history draws on rock elements to give listeners a heavy sound.
1990s jungle music paved the way for the West Coast DnB scene. It drew on elements of hip-hop, bass, techno, and reggae to create abrupt, vibrant drum lines. DnB averages about 160 – 180 BPM with a central focus on drum sounds. Its distinguished beat and snares make the quick notes stand out. DnB often includes jazzy breakbeat tempos, deep bass tones, and aggressive instrumentals. When delving into sub-genres of DnB there is a vast variety: drumstep, liquid/liquid jungle, techstep, grime, and more.
Future bass draws on heavy drums and emphasizes on the bass. In contrast though, it includes melodic chord progressions and harmonious synths. There are also mini-sounds and elements of trap, like snares and hi-hats. This sub-genre is often characterized as “pretty bass,” as it focuses more on the melody.
Bass house is one of the common electronic music trends over the last year. This style is considered to have different technical elements based on which part of the world you’re in. In the U.S. Bass house has more heavy influences from dupstep, which is stylistic to tracks by Ephwurd, Jauz, and Ghastly. While in the UK this genre is considerably deeper and darker with UK garage influences, like Chris Lorenzo. All in all, bass house is a melting pot of different styles and sounds related to bass, house, and dubstep.
Electro funk draws on elements of funk, hip-hop, bass, and dubstep to give you the perfect jam session. This sub-genre evolved from the techniques of 60s funk bands. Electro funk developed into its current style from the electro funk movement in the 80s. It has the same 4/4 count as house, with a less syncopated beat. It relies on the repetitive, highly-rhythmic grooves and breakbeats to create an energetic and upbeat style.
Sub-genres: Trap, Trip-Hop, Glitch-Hop
Notable Artists: Truth & Rusko (Dubstep); RL Grime & Baauer (Trap); Bassnectar & Bleep Bloop (Glitch-Hop); Bonobo & RJD2 (Trip-Hop)
BPM & Style Distinctions: 70 – 140 BPM; relies heavily on sub-bass; slower (sometimes); darker; “wubbly”; atmospheric sounds; dissonant harmonies; aggressive scattered rhythms
This genre is categorized by consistent, thumping bass. It’s meant to envelop listeners with overwhelming sub-bass. Dubstep evolved from UK Garage and 90s DnB, also drawing on elements of hip-hop and metal. Americanized dubstep (given the slang name “Brostep”) relies more on mid-range sounds, “robotic fluctuations,” and distorted bass riffs. In comparison, UK dubstep focuses more on sub-bass. The BPM can range depending on artistic style. This music is often something that could “break your neck” and give a dose of “bass to the face.”
Trap originated in the southern U.S. As the name insinuates, this sub-genre draws on rap and hip-hop. It focuses on heavy bass and hard attitude similarly to dubstep. Trap is also characterized by 808 drums, snappy snares, loud kicks, brass, triangles, and trihats. Original pioneers in trap include rappers Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mayne, and Manny Fresh. The genre evolved to center more around electronic sounds by artists like RL Grime and Flosstradammus.
Glitch-hop sits at about 80 – 115 BPM. This sub-genre has a midtempo breakbeat, without the kicks that you see in trap. Its roots begin in 90s hip-hop and glitch music. Earlier glitch-hop was once based on glitchy sounds, heavily distorted and twisted hip-hop beats. Modern glitch-hop strays away from its hip-hop roots. It incorporates elements of dubstep and DnB, making it more aggressive than its earlier counterparts. The sub-genre can also include influences from other genres, such as jazz and future synth.
Lastly, Trip-hop started in 90s England, with groups like Portishead and Massive Attack pioneering the sub-genre. While trip-hop is not necessarily a sub-genre of dubstep, due to it’s stylistic similarities to dubstep and some of the other sub-genres it’s being grouped into the category. It incorporates elements of hip-hop, dubstep, and DnB, but is lyrical in contrast to rapping. Trip-hop is often moody and dark, relying on jazz samples and influences as well. It also has an aura of ambiance to match the downtempo beat.
Sub-genres: Hardstyle, Gabber, Happy Hardcore
Notable Artists: Headhunterz & Coone (Hardstyle); DJ Mad Dog & Neophyte (Gabber); DJ Paul Elstack & Marusha (Happy Hardcore)
BPM Style & Distinctions: 160 – 200+ BPM; rapid, intense bass lines; clear 4/4 kicks; can be happy or cynical and dark; distorted sounds; looping effects; repetitive beats; high energy
The genre of hardcore is reflective of its name. Developed in 90s UK, hardcore is full of rapid hitting bass-lines. It grew from hardcore rock, metal, and hardcore techno. Hardcore later grew to encompass other styles of electronic music. Its metal roots ring true in varying styles, making this a more aggressive genre. Combining these forces together creates an assertive, repetitive beat that will keep you jumping consistently.
Now, before I upset any hardstyle fans: the genre has evolved greatly within the electronic music scene to the point that it is definitely its own genre. But, for reasons of simplicity it’s categorized under hardcore due to its roots (like how we could delve much deeper into Electro, Future, and DnB too, but that’s a lot to cover).
Hardstyle includes elements of hard trance, gabber, hardcore, and occasionally even house to create a raw, uptempo beat. This genre encompasses an emotional vibrate within the melody, and tends to range from 140 – 150 BPM. This does not limit the genre though, as it can go up to as fast as 200 BPM. Its technical styles can consist of compression kicks, punctuated vocals, and reverse bass. When getting technical into its sub-genres, there is a little something for everyone: euphoric, freestyle, hardcore/extra hardcore, or raw/extra raw. Euphoric includes uplifting melodies with a hardstyle pulsating drum line. Freestyle includes elements of funk, techno, and hardstyle to provide the listener with varying layers and sounds. Hardcore is extremely (extremely) intense, like a blend of heavy metal and sharp, staccato beats. Raw centralizes around distorted bass-kicks and abrupt drum lines.
Gabber relies on the heavy, distorted 909 industrial-heavy kick drums. This genre developed in Rotterdam, which is why the Netherlands is linked with some of the earliest hardcore industrial sounds. These kicks are often over-driven to the point that it becomes clipped into a square wave, making a recognizable melodic tone. Gabber often includes varying tempos and synthesized melodies. The tempo can vary from 160 – 220+ BPM. The lyrics are often screamed or distorted, and usually showcase darker themes.
Lastly, there is happy hardcore. The characteristics of happy hardcore are insinuated by the name. This was the original “raverbaby” music of the early 90s. Happy hardcore satirically took the characteristics of gabber, and commercialized it for children’s merchandise. This sub-genre could be considered the “happy” version of hardcore. It includes the same repetitive, aggressive kicks and rhythms as hardcore. In contrast though, happy hardcore incorporates sped up breakbeats and upbeat vocals. Some describe happy hardcore to have “chipmunk vocals” due to its higher pitched sound and anthem style. Happy hardcore tries to give in uplifting feeling, while beats spar at about 160 – 180 BPM.
There are many MANY more genres and sub-genres to get into under the vast umbrella of electronic music. Most artists are also likely to incorporate more than one genres stylistic techniques. We could cover much more, but that would take way to long. Plus, music is subjective, so it can all depend on the listener to categorize a song. Honestly, this is the best way to consider genres.
You like the beat, groove how you want. Music is music, and that’s the beauty of it. But we hope this list gives you a basic intro to the characteristics that define some of the sounds or stages curated at a festival. Now, the next time your friends start describing various trance, house, DnB, dubstep, electro, bass, or hardstyle artists, you’ll be able to tell the difference. What genres are most likely to show up on your playlist? Share your favorite artists and tracks in the comments below!
Sub-genres: Progressive House, Deep House, Tropical House, Tech-House, Future House, Electro-House
Notable Artists: Zedd & Eric Prydz (Progressive House); Lane 8 & Jamie Jones (Deep House); Kygo & Thomas Jack (Tropical House); Claude Vonstroke & Carl Cox (Tech-House); Tchami & EDX (Future House); Black Tiger Sex Machine & Feed Me (Electro-House)
BPM & Style Distinctions: 120 – 130 BPM; percussion driven rhythms, complex melodies, jazz influences, synthesized bass lines, 4/4 beats.
House is constantly evolving since its initial beginnings in the late 70s. House is characterized by four quarter beats per measure (4/4), and often has that “untz”-ing sound. This genre includes a bit of soulful funk, which resonates with the swaying bass beat.
When delving into the different sub-genres of house, that’s when distinctions can be difficult. Progressive house is a common style by mainstream festival headliners. This genre first derived from underground electronic house, but has changed to become more commercialized in recent years (“House Music”; n.p.). Progressive house has a tendency to have more uplifting, lyrical elements, which helped pave the way for the commercialized Big Room genre at mainstream festivals.
Deep house is often the most misunderstood. Many of the more recent deep house releases are by artists that also tend to dabble in tropical or future house, which can make it all sound similar. Deep house has a similar 4/4 structure to house, but with a slower tempo, more complex melodies and jazz influences that stray away from pop techniques. It heavily relies on bass for that smooth “wub” sound. In contrast, tropical house means how it sounds. Its characteristics often consist of tropical, beachy sounds and the drums to match. This style often includes pan flutes, and smooth saxophones. This genre is great for having a drink by the pool, or for cheering up your winter blues.
Tech-house is another sub-genre with a name to match its technical elements. This genre combines techno and house for a more abrupt sound. It has the soul and funk of house, but with the rigidness and sharp percussion of techno. The music in this genre often takes a unique ear. It’s often a little weird, with consistent beats and little to no drops. But honestly, weird music is the best music. The Dirtybird label is a great one to check out if you’re looking for varying forms of tech-house.
Future house is also a difficult sub-genre to decipher. It reflects similarities to deep house, so many typically see both genres as synonymous. This sub-genre is a newer development that Tchami jokingly created, which was then moved forward by the internet. Future house includes elements of electro, along with drops, builds, and reverb synths that are not present in deep or classic house.
Lastly, electro-house brings in elements of electro and bright synths to create prominent, loud, and sometimes distorted bass lines. It tends to have minimal percussion, so the bass lines can carry through the song. For example, Black Tiger Sex Machine’s earlier EPs include more elements of electro-house, but their debut album incorporates harder, dubstep elements (AKA electrostep).
Sub-genres: Experimental, Minimal
Notable Artists: Gesaffelstein & REZZ (Experimental); Richie Hawtin & Deadmau5 (Minimal);
BPM & Style Distinctions: 125 – 150 BPM; often a darker, more futuristic/spacey/mechanical sound; more focused on rhythm; slow, subtle changes; industrial; gritty sounding.
Techno developed during late 1980s Detroit. This gritty, dystopian sounding genre reflects the personal narrative of the recession-dismissed automotive industries during that time. Techno takes influences from house music, but with a faster and darker beat. After house and acid house became more commercialized in the 80s, clubs, labels, and the media tried to find ways to modify the term house until settling on “techno” (64).
This can be a difficult genre to get into with sub-genres as well, so we won’t delve in too deep, but instead consider popular artists within that techno style. Gesaffelstein and REZZ can considerably be described as experimental techno. Meaning, they take the characteristics of other genres or sounds not often used to create something new, or experimental.
Gesaffelstein does have that traditional dark, futuristic sound and fast beats that is traditional with techno, but also includes elements of electro with industrial sounds. This abrasive style is also prominent in the mau5trap protegee REZZ. She even describes deriving some of her influences from Gesaffelstein. Check out his album Aleph if you’re interested in making those stylistic comparisons. REZZ includes elements of techno, but takes the genre in a new direction with her experimental, space-bass incorporation.
In comparison to experimental, the style of minimal techno matches the name. It takes on minimalist ideals in that less is more. This style is characterized by its use of repetition and understated development. In short, this genre is not one where you will hear intense builds and crazy drops (sound familiar AZ Decadence Marshmellow fans?). Minimal techno cherishes the stripped down simple aesthetics to show appreciation for repetitive techniques.
Sub-genres: Progressive Trance, Uplifting Trance, Psytrance, Tech Trance,
Notable Artists: Markus Schulz & BT (Progressive Trance); Above & Beyond & Armin van Buuren (Uplifting Trance); Infected Mushroom & Coming Soon (Psytrance); Marlo & Simon Patterson (Tech Trance);
BPM & Style Distinctions: 125 – 150 BPM; happy, yet emotionally intense; longer, uplifting builds in contrast to drops; focuses on musical progression; melodic, with repetitive synths
Trance got its early developments in 1980. The genre initially formed by combining elements of UK house and 1980s Chicago and Detroit based electronic music (17). The 1990s is when trance gained momentum with artists and crowds in the U.S. Trance drew on West Coast psychedelic culture in the 60s, and started expanding further as technology developed. Originally, trance included fewer lyrics to focus on the melodic synths, but as it commercialized in the mainstream lyrics became inclusive to encompass pop trends.
Since the 2000s, trance is mostly divided into two categories: progressive and uplifting trance. These two are highly similar to one another, as uplifting trance later developed from progressive. Progressive trance includes builds and anthems that incorporate futuristic and fast sounds of harder trance, but makes the breakdowns (instrumental solos) less aggressive. Builds are routinely longer, with the track flowing more from start to finish. In contrast to flipping between the chorus and instrumental breaks. Progressive trance usually sits at about 128 -132 BPM.
Uplifting trance emerged from the expansion of progressive trance in the 90s and 2000s. Its aim is to pull at our emotions and focus on giving listeners feelings of happiness and closeness. Chord progressions are longer than progressive trance, as well as the breakdowns. Uplifting trance is also faster, ranging about 136 – 142 BPM. Above & Beyond is one of the best at this. Their element of love surrounding their music brings people closer together (and honestly I’ve never seen an artist make so many people cry and feel that kind of passion in one space).
Psytrance combines elements of weird, psychedelic technical elements with trance to bring a high-energy beat. A spin-off of Goa-trance, which originated in India, psytrance emerged into what we know today in 90s Isreal. Pummeling, rolling, quick-changing rhythms and basslines will keep you alert. Psytrance changes every eight counts, and often can have an eerie, dark elements to its sound.
Tech trance developed in the electronic music scene as producers tried to move away from poppy, progressive trance. As the name implicates, this sub-genre combines elements of techno and trance to create a diverse style. Tech trance incorporates electronic rhythms, along with rasping, harder synthesized tones than trance. It contains the 4/4 beat that is present in techno, plus minimal vocals, repetition, and more delay.