What Is House Music…Exactly?

Love it or hate it (I love it!), house music is an undeniable, god-damn musical phenomenon!

Four decades since it all began, house music now maintains a strong foothold in both the contemporary mainstream music world…

and the far more vibrant and exciting underground scene.

But, it still remains one of the most misunderstood genres, and it can be difficult to precisely explain exactly…’what is house music?’.

There are now several styles / sub-genres, of house music, but they all only have one true origin.

Let’s dive inside!…

What is House Music?

So then, what is house music?..Exactly!

House music is a form of electronic dance music (EDM) that was developed in the 1980s.

This style was developed by DJs using samples and beats from disco music and mixing them together into extended instrumental pieces.

TL;DR Summary: 

House music is a form of EDM that has a specific tone and feel. This music is defined by driving rhythms, strong beats, chiming melodic tones, and high intensity. This music follows a particular form and structure and is intended for dancing and creating musical immersion. It was born out of Chicago in the early 1980’s.

Over time, the genre developed its own voice as DJ’s and producers employed the use of synthesizers, drum machines, samplers…

…and other musical machines and techniques that were brought into the scene by Hip-Hop.

House music is a rhythmic form of music with several characteristics intended to encourage energetic dancing and total immersion in the music.

Solid and powerful four-to-the-floor beats, deep bass-lines, chiming high hats, intense rhythms, subtle soundscapes, and driving melodies define this genre.

House is usually made within a specific tempo range and within specific structure and patterns.

These sections are generally a mix of long builds, sudden drops, stripped-back sections, and motifs intended to build suspense, elevate intensity, and culminate in a release.

This music has developed an entire sub-culture, and the music has evolved into a very specific niche.

House music is only considered authentic ‘House’ if it meets all the characteristics of the music, and these characteristics are now pretty well defined.

Typical Characteristics of House Music

Every music genre has a few pointers within their make-up and structure that help identify them.

Here are just a few of the primary characteristics that help identify house music:

#1. 4/4 Time Signature and Beat

House music has a 4/4 time signature. Four beats in a bar, four bars in a phrase.

A kick-drum is played on each beat.

Whenever new musical elements are introduced, it is typically at the beginning of a phrase.

All this very definite structure is what gives house music its signature sound. 

#2. Dance Tempo

House music tends to move along at a very danceable tempo of somewhere around 125 beats-per-minute (BPM).

Sub-genres of house do stray pretty wildly from this tempo, which you’ll know if you’ve ever found yourself at a Hard-House night. 

#3. Drum Machines and Synthesizers

Synthesizers and drum machines are heavily used in house music.

And much of this electronic music equipment was being developed at exactly the same time as house music was first emerging.

Roland and Nord are two names that are well known to all house music producers as they were both key driving forces behind many key innovations. 

#4. Use of Samples

Sampling took off massively in the 1980’s.

House music producers and DJ’s started using samples pretty heavily because samples were found to be a great match for the repetitive structure of house music.

Using samples was also a much affordable option than purchasing instruments…

…well, as long as you weren’t paying anyone for use of the sample of course!

A Very Brief History of House

The Early ’80s

Chicago, The Warehouse nightclub, Frankie Knuckles…and a lively crowd of open-minded music-lovers.

House music is born!

The late Frankie Knuckles – ‘The Godfather of House’

The Warehouse resident DJ, Frankie Knuckles, dedicated himself to bringing a new evolution of sound to  the faithful crowd The Warehouse.

Through mixing records, and producing some fresh vinyl, all in his uniques style…

…Frankie Knuckles planted the seed, and nurtured the green shoots, until it was ready to be shared with the world.  

The Late ’80s

Summer 1988 saw a group of young Brit’s working the summer in Ibiza.

They loved the acid house nights that the Ibiza clubs were putting on so much, that they brought the sound, and the vibe back with them.

And the The UK acid house seen was with us. 

It took the UK by storm, and it gave house music a strong foothold in Europe.

By 1989, many of the crowd that had been in Ibiza the previous summer, were DJing and producing, adding their own uniqueness to the sound.

The Early ’90s

House music begins to come out of the underground.

Crystal Waters, C&C Music Factory, Black Box, to name just three, were all gaining chart success with a more commercialised house music sound.

More and more clubs, all around the world were adding house nights to their weekly line-ups.

But it was still far from the mainstream.

Mid-to-Late ’90’s

While a disco infused ‘French’ house was filling many club dance-floors, a more minimal, deeper house was moving through the underground scene.

Progressive House, Tech House, Deep House were the sub-geners keeping the dance music clubs filled until six, seven, eight o’ clock in the morning.

The ’00s

The early ’00s saw house music move along in the same way it ended the ’90s. 

But by the mid ’00s, house music had gained widespread, worldwide, mainstream popularity.

House was topping the charts around the world, house was headlining at music festivals.

Your Gran was probably listening to house at this point!

House Music Today

By this point House is here to stay.

Sure, there aren’t the same number of amazing club nights that there used to be…to bad if you missed them!

But the sound of House is a permanent fixture on radio stations and in music charts all over the world.

Why is it Called ‘House’ Music? 

House music evolved from the sounds of disco, funk, and soul. 

One of the first DJ’s/producers to really experiment heavily with the sound was Frankie Knuckles, resident DJ at ‘The Warehouse’ nightclub in Chicago.

Former location of ‘The Warehouse’ – Image: Groupon

The tunes that Frankie Knuckles was playing at The Warehouse became more and more popular.

So much so that record shops in Chicago began labelling records with things like ‘as played at The Warehouse’, and later, simply ‘as played at The House’…

…and from there, it was only a matter of a little time before people would just refer to it as ‘House Music’.

House Music Pioneers

It’s impossible to name everyone that had a hand in shaping the birth and growth of house music…

…but we can definitely identify a few of the most prominent house music pioneers.

People like Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, Marshall Jefferson, Farley JackMaster Funk, Ron Hardy, Mr. Lee, JackMaster Silk, Jesse Saunders…

…to name just a few, can all definitely lay claim to shaping the genre right from the very earliest days.     

House Music Examples

If you’re still not quite sure what house music is, maybe it’s time to listen to a few great examples of house:

#1. ‘Your Love’ – Frankie Knuckles

‘Your Love’ was released in 1986.

A pure house classic served up by the legend that was Frankie Knuckles himself.

Immediately recognisable by any house music fan from the very first beats and bleeps of the intro alone.

#2. ‘Move Your Body’ – Marshall Jefferson

The king of piano-house.

Another 1986 release that has become a house music classic.

Move Your Body delivers one of the most iconic vocals, and piano riffs, of any house track to date.

#3. ‘Acid Tracks’ – Phuture

The dawn of Acid-House.

Thanks in no small part to the Roland TB-303, which could kick out more beats and bleeps than anything seen before.

A sound that was soon adopted by the fast growing UK house scene.

#4. ‘Pacific State’ – 808 State

And before you know it bands were naming themselves after bits of Roland kit.

The UK’s ‘808 State’ were a huge influence on the UK’s fledgling acid-house scene back in 1989.

The pulsating bass-line that rarely quits, the melancholic saxophone hook over ambient sounds from nature…

…surely that will never work!

And yet somehow it does.

#5. ‘Where Love Lives’ – Alison Limerick

A seminal moment in the global growth of house as this beautiful crossover tune achieved massive mainstream success, and was also loved by serious house-heads.

British singer Alison Limerick delivers soulful vocals over house beats that proved to be remix gold for the likes of Frankie Knuckles, amongst many others.

Sub-Genres of House Music

There’s an absolute ton of sub-genres of house music.

Below is a table that illustrates the sub-genres of house music, with estimated years of origin and notable DJs/producers.

Keep in mind that house music’s evolution is fluid, and some sub-genres might overlap or have shared attributes.

Sub-GenreEstimated Year of OriginNotable DJs/Producers
Classic HouseEarly 1980sFrankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, Farley Jackmaster Funk
Deep HouseLate 1980sLarry Heard, Kerri Chandler, St Germain
Acid HouseLate 1980sPhuture, DJ Pierre, A Guy Called Gerald
Progressive HouseEarly 1990sSasha, John Digweed, Deadmau5
Tech HouseLate 1990sCarl Craig, Richie Hawtin, Loco Dice
Tribal House1990sDanny Tenaglia, Junior Vasquez, Robbie Rivera
Funky HouseLate 1990sMasters at Work, Grant Nelson, Joey Negro
Electro HouseEarly 2000sBenny Benassi, Wolfgang Gartner, Zedd
Future House2010sTchami, Oliver Heldens, Don Diablo
French House1990sDaft Punk, Cassius, Stardust
Vocal House1990sBarbara Tucker, Kings of Tomorrow, ATFC
Disco House1990sDimitri from Paris, Armand Van Helden, Joey Negro
Lo-fi House2010sDJ Boring, Ross From Friends, Mall Grab
Tropical House2010sKygo, Thomas Jack, Sam Feldt
Afro House2000sBlack Coffee, Culoe De Song, Osunlade
Bass House2010sJauz, Joyryde, Brohug
Soulful House1990sLouie Vega, Dennis Ferrer, Frankie Feliciano

Now we’re going to take a deeper look at just five.

Not any old five…but five that have shaped the scene in their own way.

Sorry if you’re a massive fan of tropical house, disco house, French house, or any other house sub-genre that I’ve left out of this shortlist.    

Deep House

I love a bit of deep, melodic house.

Deep house is probably my favourite of all the sub-genres of house.

Characterized by its lush, soulful groove, and with a tempo around the 120 BPM mark, for me it’s perfect warm-up music.

Deep, basslines, warm synths, choppy yet subtle vocal samples, it’s a sound that gets pretty much anyone with a love of music and a sense of rhythm heading towards the dance-floor.

Here’s a little bit on of my all-time favourite producers of deep house, the brilliant Inland Knights:  

Tech House

Some people see tech-house as like the bridge between house and techno.

Stripped-back beats, minimalistic, electro-synths, we’re in an all-together more industrial place than we were with deep-house.

We’re till moving along at around the 125 BPM range, but there’s a more direct and urgent feel going on. 

Tech house was a attempt by a handful of enlightened U.K. DJs to cut  through the spinkly-sparkly glam of ‘90s super clubs.

They wanted to recapture the edginess and energy of the acid house scene from just a few years before.

They were mostly successful as they managed to carve out a strong-hold in the club scene that was once again for clubbers who were more interested in the music and dancing, than they were in looking shiny and buff. 

Progressive House

Progressive house got so massive back in the late ’90s.

It first emerged in the U.K. and is known for it’s rhythmic layers that are added throughout the first half of the track, and then individually stripped away again for the remainder.

We’re not talking big climatic peaks and troughs, more a rolling landscape of sound.    

Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I feel like the producer has disappeared up their own arse.

Hard House

Boom boom boom boom, boom boom boom boom, boom boom boom boom, boom boom boom boom, crash! Boom boom boom boom, boom boom boom…

Oh the beautiful sound of hard house.

And I’m not taking the piss by the way, I actually love hard house.

But there’s definitely a time and a place for it.

I’m thinking big club, booming sound-system, 2am, kind of a time and place.

Hard house has its roots in the UK clubbing scene, most notably it was the popular London gay-night ‘Trade’ at Turnmills where it first took hold.

Hard house increased the speed to about the 145 BPM area, added hard bass stabs and chopped-up, trippy vocal samples, for an altogether more frantic sound.

The founding master of hard house is without doubt the enigmatic, late Tony De Vit.  

Here’s a little snippet of Tony De Vit’s work:

Acid House

Don’t like acid house? Blame the Roland TB-303 drum machine!

House music, produced a little bit faster, plus the synth squelches made possible by the TB-303…

…and acid house was born.

Acid house is less clinical and more abstract than straight-up house music.

Acid house  is thought to have begun in 1987 with the release of Phuture’s ‘Acid Tracks’ and the legendary Ron Hardy playing the track at Music Box in Chicago.

The sound took off in the U.S. as it did over in the U.K. with what’s now known as the ‘Second Summer of Love’, back in 1988.

Give acid house a chance:

Is House Music Still Popular?

House music was adopted into popular music in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, made further popular and well-known by commercial artists such as Madonna.

The popularity of house continued to rise into the 2000’s.  

It hasn’t been at the fore quite so much in music production since around 2010, but house music is still very popular?

There are several sub-genres of house music in its modern iteration.

House is still immensely popular in dance clubs, underground nightclubs, and within the specific house community.

There are house music competitions and exhibitions held internationally, and house remains an important part of musical culture.

This music is a perfect example of how a musical style can transcend generations by evolving and adapting within popular musical styles…

…while retaining the characteristics that made it popular at its origin.

Wrapping it Up!

House music is more popular than most people tend to realise, and it is made in many more forms than most people know of.

House is a fluid, ever-changing musical genre that is impossible to define adequately but remains a favourite among those who enjoy EDM.

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