What Is Techno?

Now I don’t mind a bit of techno, and in my clubbing days, I’ve enjoyed more than a few full-throttle Carl Cox sets.

But we’re not here to reminisce about all of that.

We’re here to ask and answer the question: ‘What is techno?’

Well, techno music is a broad term that can be quite difficult to define.

If you’re exploring the world of EDM, it’s almost certain you’ll find yourself delving into techno at some point.

The world of techno is vast and complex, but there is some sense to be made of it, if you look closely enough.

It has deep roots in several countries and has influenced the music world since its inception.

Let’s identify exactly what techno is, and learn a little more about this highly influential genre.

what is techno music in black text in green and yellow diagonally split background

What Is Techno Music?

Techno music is a defined form of Electronic Dance Music (EDM) developed in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.

The genre came from the massive advancement of electronic music created by way of processors, synthesizers, bassline generators, and other digital instruments.

TL;DR Summary: 

Techno is a type of EDM that was developed in the mid-80s. This genre is defined by driving deep bass, continuous rhythms, timbral manipulation, and chord changes that replace traditional melodies. This music has several sub-genres and continues to be widely popular in the electronic music space. 

The term ‘techno’ is used to describe a wide range of sub-genres, but they are all made in a similar way and bear similar characteristics.

Techno music is exclusively made with digital and electronic instruments and sound generators.

It is not focused on melody and rather concentrates on rhythm, repetition, and developing musical themes.

Techno tracks are usually very long and designed to be more like a driving soundscape than a traditional song.

These tracks are void of most traditional musical structures, only feature basic lyrics, and try to tell a story with sound rather than words.

Techno first came to the fore in Germany in the mid-80s but became popularised and further refined in Detroit, USA, in the early ‘90s.

The genre has influenced all forms of electronic music and continues to develop today with multiple sub-genres.

Techno is the language of machines speaking to each other, the vocabulary of shiny circuitry, the sound of the future in the here-and-now“.

Bruce Tantum

Typical Characteristics of Techno Music?

Every music genre has it’s very own characteristics that come together to complete the sound.

And techno is no different.

Techno is the quintessential sound of digital music and sounds like contained rhythmic chaos with beautiful bright elements, deep driving sounds, with an intense feel.

Techno typically comprises of a driving undertone that consists of deep bass and vivid spatial audio.

This is layered with bright-sounding elements of bursting beats and ethereal sounds.

Techno music is defined by a heavy feel but demonstrates excellent use of dynamics, contrast, and sonic development.

The music sounds very different depending on the artist, but there are some common themes.

Here are a few of techno’s key elements:

#1. Repetitive Beats

Techno music is pretty much always produced with a repetitive 4/4 rhythm with a bass-drum on the quarter note. 

It is usually played at a tempo anywhere between 120 beats per minute (BPM) and 150 BPM.

#2. Driving, Looping Basslines 

You’ll not often find a techno track with a weak bassline.

It’s usually strong, driving, and looped throughout the track.

Oh, and it’s often pretty dirty.

#3. Big Breaks, Deep Drops, Extended Climax Sections

Not always, as there are plenty of techno tracks that move along without too many breaks and drops etc.

But certainly on the club scene, these elements are usually part of the techno sound.

#4. Layered Synths, Melodies and Samples

Techno music is created with electronic instruments.

These usually include such classics as the Roland TR-808 drum machine.

The Yamaha DX7 keyboard, Roland TB-303 bassline generator, and the small but perfectly formed Korg SQD1 sequencer.

Examples of Techno Music

Some examples of techno music include:

#1. Autobahn by Kraftwerk

I believe the brilliant Kraftwerk knocked this one out in 1974.

At the time it was labelled as Synth/Electro-Pop, but maybe it’s actually the first techno track ever?

Strong looped beats, heavy synths, driving bassline…

…it’s pretty much all there.

#2. E-Dancer by Kevin Saunderson

Originally released in 1997 this is a great example of Detroit Techno.

A techno tune with a dark rolling bassline, super-strong rhythm, plus a hypnotic looped vocal sample.

If you don’t like this, you don’t like techno. 

#3. Phylyps Trak by Basic Channel

Intense. Menacing. Melodic, Chaotic. 

Brimming with anticipation…so, so much anticipation.

The best music makes you feel something…I think this track does that and some. 

#4. Future by Model 500

Inspired by Kraftwerk…and why not?

If you enjoy a quality synth stab, you will absolutely love this.

#5. Underworld by Born Slippy

One of the best intros ever created.

An absolute gift to DJ’s because it was so strong and recognisable, you could drop samples of the opening bars into tracks for ages before you dropped the tune…

…excitement levels through the roof by the time you let the vocals run and played the tune in full.

#6. Aphex Twin by Windowlicker

Oh Aphex Twin…you are one weird fella…

…and this tune, and video is just about as weird as it gets.

You’ll need to hop over to YouTube if you want to watch it because it’s restricted access.

A Very Brief History of Early Techno

Did techno start in Detroit, or did it start in Germany?

Germany…no question!

Mores specifically, techno was first created, maybe inadvertently at the time, by Kraftwerk, and  Tangerine Dream, with the sounds they were creating way back in the ’70s.

It was referred to as Synth/Electro-Pop at the time, but during the early ’80s, the term ‘Techno’ began being used in Germany, to describe their style of music.

But while Germany birthed the Techno sound…

…Detroit nurtured it, and made sure it grew up to fulfil its early potential.

It was in Detroit that the Synth-Pop sound began to be melded with African-American House, and the genre became fully established in it’s own right.

Detroit’s ‘The Belleville Three’, made up of Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson were at the forefront of this.

The Belleville Three started creating tracks using the same electronic instruments being used by Europes Synth-Pop groups.

They married their new raw sound with Detroit’s fledgling House music, and the sound of Techno as we now know it was here.

This new sound became absolutely massive across Europe and the U.S. 

Techno grew up to become parent to further new genres of it’s own (I need to stop using this birth/child/ parent analogy), with Trance, Tech-House, and Techstep to name just a few.   

Wrapping it Up!

Techno music continues to develop in sub-genres such as ambient techno, bleep techno, industrial techno, acid techno…

…and of course tech-house and techstep.

This genre is what put electronic music into the mainstream for most people, and techno remains among the most popular forms of EDM.

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