Electronic Music Genres Explained

A Roadmap to Dance and Electronic Music from Disco to Today

Joe Rihn · 06/14/24

Thanks to technology, expanding our musical tastes should be easier than ever. Yet somehow the persistent algorithms and endless options at our fingertips can make branching out even more challenging, especially when it comes to electronic music. While the question of how to market DJs and studio projects has puzzled major labels for decades, microscopic subgenres, contested terms, and conflicting histories still confuse even hardcore fans.

Whether you’re looking to broaden your horizons or just jumping in, this article will break popular electronic music down into six core genres—disco, house, techno, trance, drum & bass and UK garage—along with popular sub genres they inspired, including deep house and dubstep. Starting with the birth of modern DJ culture, we will explore where each of these sounds came from and what they led to. Here is your roadmap to popular electronic music.


Origin: New York City, 1970s

Key Styles: Philadelphia Soul, Boogie, Italo, Nu-Disco, Modern Funk

When it comes to dance music as we know it, disco is the blueprint. Forged in the gay clubs of New York City during the 1970s, disco gave rise to the core techniques and tenets of club culture that still drive dance music today. But for disco to take off, there was a paradigm shift needed first.

It happened at a place called The Loft, where a hi-fi aficionado named David Mancuso demonstrated that a good sound system and the right music could make listening to a record as powerful as a live performance. In addition to the music, Mancuso’s vision included a whole ethos. No alcohol was sold, and as a private party, The Loft was open only to invited guests and trusted friends. But as word spread, a community began to form of New Yorkers who were marginalized because of race, gender or sexuality, or simply out of step with mainstream values. With the motto, “Love is the message,” the Loft helped conceptualize the dance club as a refuge from the outside world.

In tandem with early hip-hop DJs, New York disco clubs also popularized the core concepts of modern dance music. Disco DJs such as Nicky Siano were among the first to create a seamless flow of music feeding two turntables through a mixer and using pitch controls to “beatmatch” two records to the same tempo. Disco also introduced 12” singles containing different versions, or “remixes,” optimized for DJ play with extended instrumental sections.

By the late 70s, disco was a cultural phenomenon dominating the charts. But the national trend, and its Black and queer overtones, soon inspired an angry backlash that culminated in a rock radio DJ asking listeners to bring disco records to a Chicago White Sox game to detonate with explosives.

Although disco receded into the underground, it soon took “revenge,” in the words of legendary DJ Frankie Knuckles, with Chicago house. During the 1980s, disco also sprouted a range of new, largely electronic styles, from American, boogie funk, freestyle and electron to the Italo, cosmic and HiNRG sounds coming out of Europe.

It may be the oldest style of club music, but disco still maintains its influence in the worlds of “edits,” creative rearrangements pioneered by cutting and splicing reel-to-reel tape, and nu-disco, an updated take associated with the Scandinavian sounds of Todd Terje. Through these and other active scenes, such as west coast modern funk, producers are blending analog and digital production to make new generations of music that sit comfortably alongside the classics.


Origin: Chicago, 1980s

Key Styles: Chicago House, Jackin’ House, Acid House, Deep House, Garage House, Detroit Beatdown, Disco House

“House is a feeling,” are words that have echoed through house music since the beginning. When the term first appeared, “house” didn’t describe a particular genre, but rather, anything Frankie Knuckles liked to play when he DJed a Chicago club called The Warehouse.

In the early 80s, that could be anything from soul and disco to industrial and synth-pop. But when young Chicagoans began to make dance tracks of their own, house took on a new meaning. Although Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence were still in high school when they self-released their 1984 single “On and On,” the local club hit went down in history as the first original house record.

Using Roland’s new TR-707, 808, and 909 to program rhythms, early house musicians took advantage of sequencers to sync their electronic instruments together. Although most tracks borrowed their “four-to-the-floor” beats from disco, Chicago house didn’t have a strictly unified sound. While “Now Way Back” by Adonis paired a simple bass line with flurries of electronic percussion, Marshall Jefferson’s “Move Your Body” mimicked a live band. Meanwhile, Larry Heard took house in a completely different direction as Mr. Fingers. Using his Roland Juno and Jupiter synths to play the wistful chords and rubbery bass of “Can You Feel It,” Heard inspired the “deep house” sound.

When house touched down in England, the genre suddenly exploded from a small regional scene into an international phenomenon. Hitting clubs like London’s Shoom and the Hacienda in Manchester at precisely the same moment a new party drug known as “ecstasy” appeared, house music caught a cultural wave that dwarfed its popularity in the States.

Although house music had emerged directly from the disco movement, European crowds were drawn to the genre’s experimental side. Manipulating the TB-303 Bass Line Synthesizer’s filter and resonance in a manner surely unrecommended by Roland, Chicago’s DJ Pierre and his group Phuture unearthed the spiky, alien lead of their hit record “Acid Tracks.” While “acid house” originally referred to a subgenre inspired by the song, the British press made the term a catchall for the subculture sweeping Britain’s youth.

By the 1990s, house music was big business. But with the bulk of their audience overseas, many originators were distanced from their success. There were also issues with Trax, a Chicago label synonymous with early house. Although major hits from names like Frankie Knuckles, Larry Heard and Robert Owens bear the Trax name, the label has generated a long list of disputes over royalties, contracts and predatory business practices.

House was born in the Midwest, but the East Coast played a major role in its maturation. Just as the Warehouse club prefigured “house,” “garage” became shorthand for the Paradise Garage, and the array of post-disco sounds DJ Larry Levan brought to the Manhattan club. By the late 80s, Tony Humphries, resident DJ of Newark, NJ’s Zanzibar, was shaping his fresh take on garage into the future of house.

Compared to “jacking” Chicago house, New Jersey garage was smooth and slick, replacing the choppy 707 and 808 patterns with the 909’s wide open swing. Korg’s recent M1 synthesizer also influenced the 90s sound, lending the unmistakable organ patch from its realistic ROM library to countless tracks.

While Kerri Chandler, Mood II Swing and Masters at Work refined the East Coast sound on labels like Strictly Rhythm and King Street, a new crop of Chicago artists began to emerge. While Paul Johnson’s “No Big Thang” and DJ Sneak’s “Wanna Sing” showed the power of disco samples and bumping 909s, DJs like Derrick Carter made the second-wave sound playful and impossibly funky. When a French duo called Daft Punk dropped their 1997 debut, it attracted terms like “filter house” and “French touch.” But as the track “Teachers” explained, the sound was mostly Chicago.

Over the years, house music has continued to evolve into styles from “progressive” to “ghetto house” to “lo-fi.” But all the while, names like Honey Dijon, Moodymann and the late Mike Huckaby have worked to keep house music in touch with the communities it sprouted from. Despite its occasional brush with the pop charts, house music remains an underground ecosystem sustained by the producers, DJs and dancers who love it.


Origin: Detroit, 1980s

Key Styles: Detroit Techno, Electro, Minimal, Dub Techno, Gabber

Europe may have the biggest clubs, but the concept of techno could have only come from one place. As homegrown house music became the pulse of Chicago’s clubs, a trio of young Detroiters started making similar moves with a distinctive style. Collectively dubbed the Belleville Three for the neighborhood they came from, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May are credited with some of the earliest techno records. However, their vision of dance music also included an ethos and a philosophical outlook that distinguished the genre from everything that came before.

Referencing the backdrop of Detroit as both a hub for the Black middle class and a poster child for rust belt industrial decline, techno was designed to probe the relationship between man and machine from an Afrofuturist perspective. As the birthplace of Motown Records, Detroit was a beacon of Black music and culture. However, in the 1980s, Detroit’s radio DJs had the city grooving to a wealth of other genres too. Before he was one of the most esteemed figures in techno, Jeff Mills was known to the airwaves as The Wizard, serving a unique blend of American dance hits and international oddities like Kraftwerk.

Juan Atkins reflected those wide-ranging tastes in the early records that broke ground for a new Detroit style Programming Roland’s TR-808 drum machine with push-pull patterns reminiscent of “Planet Rock,” Atkins steered the “electro” sound emerging from hip-hop toward a sci-fi vision. As half of Cybotron, then solo as Model 500, Atkins’s early works, including 1983’s “Clear” and 1985’s “No UFOs,” gave shape to the techno aesthetic. To record the groundbreaking tracks, Atkins relied on the new functionality of sequencers like the Korg SQD1, which could synchronize the different units providing drums, bass lines and sound effects.

As more dance records came out of Detroit, the sound of techno became more distinct, blending the thump of Chicago house with ethereal strings, jazz-influenced chords and percussive layers from Roland TR-727s. In 1988, when a UK label repackaged 12 tracks into a compilation called “Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit,” the sound quickly spread worldwide.

In newly reunified Germany, techno found an especially eager audience, and in 1991, a new club called Tresor helped to kickstart a European scene. Repurposing the underground vault of a disused East Berlin department store, Tresor took cues from Detroit, showcasing Motor City DJs for the German crowd and helping to form a creative back-and-forth between the two cities. Affiliates of a new project founded by Jeff Mills, Robert Hood and “Mad” Mike Banks, were among the midwesterners represented there. Named Underground Resistance, the label and collective brought their politics of Black liberation and hardcore DIY ethos to the fore.

With the challenging, abstract sounds of “The Bells” and “Museum,” Mills and Hood helped make TR-909s the go-to drums of the new decade. Meanwhile, Drexciya journeyed deep into 808 electro, while Carl Craing, K-Hand and the rest of Detroit’s second wave expanded techno’s sonic range.

The 90s also saw an explosion of new scenes and subgenres outside Detroit. Feeding dense minor chords through analog tape delays, Mark Ernestus and Moritz Von Oswald developed the “dub techno” sound epitomized by their Berlin label Basic Channel’s 1994 release, “Quadrant Dub.” Meanwhile, more abrasive sounds were emerging from the UK’s “hardgroove” DJs and Birmingham’s industrial Downwards Records. However, no one could outrun the Dutch “gabber” DJs driving their distorted 909s upwards of 200 beats per minute.

With the new millennium came new sounds, like the digital ticks and pops flourishing on Cologne’s Kompakt Records, and the skeletal “tech-house” grooves of Ricardo Villalobos and Perlon Records. While global scenes continued to evolve, the decade also marked the rise of Berghain, with the club — and its notoriously strict door policy — cementing Berlin’s central influence. At the same time, early 2010s releases on Berghain’s Ostgut Ton label from artists such as Shed showcased the influence of UK dubstep and other developments beyond the insular scene.

In more recent years, the rise of digital DJing and audio production have opened up access to electronic music. Forming creative communities in New York and elsewhere, young producers are using the flexibility of Ableton Live and other digital audio workstations to make techno tracks infused with flavors from gabber to Top 40. But there is also a renewed interest in techno’s origins, with conversations on social media about the dynamics of race and gender within techno, and the task of building a more inclusive future for the music that also honors its past.


Origin: Germany, UK, Late 1980s

Key Styles: Goa Trance, Psytrance, Progressive Trance, Uplifting Trance, Tech Trance, Hard Trance

When it comes to superstar DJs, trance has likely produced more famous names than any other genre. Defined by its uplifting melodic passages and cascading buildups and breakdowns, it’s no surprise that the music inspires powerful sensory and emotional reactions.

Before it was recognized as a genre, trance was already percolating in the European techno scenes of the early 90s. While The KLF’s 1988 “What Time Is Love (Pure Trance 1)” and Dance 2 Trance’s 1990 “We Came in Peace” provided early inspiration for the sound—and its name—Frankfurt DJ Sven Vath’s “Accident in Paradise” further defined the style. Other records like Hardfloor’s “Acperience 1” and Energy 52’s “Cafe Del Mar” from Vath’s Eye Q and Harthouse labels helped shape the soaring arpeggios and signature snare rolls of trance.

In Europe, Jam & Spoon’s “Stella” and other cathartic tracks set the emotional tone for future trance hits like 1995’s “Children” by Robert Miles. But on the western coast of India, the Goa trance was striving for a more psychedelic experience. A counterculture destination since the 1960s, Goa developed a unique DJ culture around editing and extending obscure electronic records. But as Sven Vath and other visiting DJs introduced dance music to Goa, it quickly produced its own take on raving.

While its European counterpart relied on Western harmony, Goa trance weaved layers of synths into the pulsing waves of The Infinity Project’s “Alien Airport” and The Man With No Name’s “Teleport.” With the proliferation of Goa records providing the ingredients, DJ Laurent and Goa Gil, a Californian who arrived in the aftermath of San Francisco’s hippy heyday, mixed them into immersive soundscapes. Despite Goa’s anti-commercial outlook, Paul Oakenfold’s influential DJ mixes helped feed the sound into the UK club scene, while its “psytrance” spinoff was adopted by the Burning Man set.

While “tech trance” and “hard trance” tracks like Marco V’s “Simulated” brought techno-influenced styles into to the new millennium, it was the “progressive” sound of Sasha and John Digweed and other headliners that took the genre to new heights. Alongside Dutch artists Paul Van Dyke, Armin Van Buurin and Tiesto “uplifting trance” launched a new wave of superstar DJs.

Well suited to the large-scale spectacle, trance artists continued to thrive in the EDM era despite the explosion of newer genres like dubstep. However, early trance sounds have also resurfaced in a more underground capacity as influences on the work of Ciel, Courtesy and other contemporary producers and DJs.

Drum & Bass

Origin: London, Early 1990s

Key Styles: Jungle, Hardcore, Ragga Jungle, Jump Up, “Intelligent,” Liquid Funk, Drumfunk, Neurofunk, Techstep, Half-Time, Breakcore

When American house and techno records first hit the UK, they hit hard. By 1988, legions of young people were gathering in fields to “rave” and the forces of law and order were sounding the alarm about a dangerous, druggy new trend. As British producers began churning out their own dance records, tempos ticked up and sampled drum loops from funk and soul records took center stage.

The result can be heard on the Ragga Twins’s “Spliffhead,” 2 Bad Mice’s “Bombscare” and legions of other “breakbeat hardcore” tracks. But as the sound took on more reggae influence from the UK’s Jamaican community, London DJs Fabio and Grooverider pushed it in a new direction at their legendary club night Rage, foreshadowing the radical innovations of Bizzy B and Equinox’s “7 Minutes of Madness,” DJ Rap’s “Spiritual Aura” and Origin Unknown’s “Valley of the Shadows.”

While these early jungle tracks were primarily composed of samples, newly available PCs allowed producers to control the sounds they gathered on Akai S950s and other rack-mount samplers. Unlike modern digital audio workstations, “tracker” scrolled from top to bottom instead of left to right, and displayed grids of numerical values rather than soundwaves and MIDI notes.

However, trackers still facilitated extremely detailed arrangements, as Remarc’s “RIP” and other jungle tracks demonstrated by repitching and reversing snippets of The Winstons’s “Amen Brother” and other drum breaks beat by beat.

In 1994, the Caribbean flavors of General Levy’s “Incredible” and UK Apache and Shy FX’s “Original Nuttah” ruled UK dancefloors in 1994. But as DJ Kemistry and junglist icon Goldie filled the roster of their Metalheadz label with forward-thinking artists like Dillinja, Peshay and Lemon D, the sound evolved rapidly.

Soon, jungle was attracting more commercial and critical attention, along with the racist undertones of “intelligent” jungle and other adjectives attempting to separate the smooth, jazzy tracks of artists like LTJ Bukem from the ragga-influenced ones.

Another such term was “drum & bass.” Originally met with contention, the name eventually took off, pulling jungle into its orbit. Compared to its predecessor’s head-spinning beats, drum & bass favored faster tempos and simpler two-step patterns. From the cinematic techstep of Ed Rush & Optical’s “Funktion,” to the jump-up bass lines of DJ Zinc’s “Super Sharp Shooter” to the liquid funk of DJ Marky, XRS and Stamina MC’s “LK,” “d’n’b” also moved from mashed-up samples toward more streamlined song structures.

By Y2K, drum & bass was the soundtrack of everything from video games to fast food commercials. But when its brief spotlight shifted, drum & bass returned to the underground, where it maintained a small but dedicated global community. Over time, the genre has incorporated new sounds like footwork, along with inspiration from its own past. Today, the fast-growing modern jungle scene is reviving the golden era of mid-90s jungle with a combination of vintage gear and current software, and recruiting a new generation of junglists.

UK Garage

Origin: New Jersey, London, Mid–Late 1990s

Key Styles: Speed Garage, Two-Step, Dubstep, Grime, Future Garage, NUKG

In the early 1990s, garage was a strain of house music dominating the dance floors of New Jersey. But when American producers such as Todd Edwards began to exaggerate the style’s staccato stabs and wide swing with tracks like “Can’t You Believe,” garage caught on with British DJs and UK gar-ridge was born.

Before it split from its American origins, garage rooms were common in the UK’s drum & bass scene as a reprieve from the high-intensity breakbeats. But naturally, the drum & bass crowd appreciated a brisk tempo, prompting DJs to pitch their US imports up.

In the latter half of the 90s, anthems such as Double 99’s “Ripgroove” and Groove Chronicles’s “Stone Cold” helped the UK establish its own sound. While American tracks rarely strayed from a four-to-the-floor pattern, UK tunes like Jason Kaye and Steve Gurley’s “Baby You Make My Heart Sing” used unconventional patterns with heavy swing, relying on big dubwise bass lines and short, percussive melodic elements to anchor the rhythms.

By the early 2000s, garage was scoring UK hits with MJ Cole’s “Sincere” and Zed Bias’s “Neighborhood.” But as the dominant sound drew increasingly from pop, new underground scenes also took shape.

While MCs had been playing an integral role in UKG, “grime” scene gave them the spotlight. When Dizzy Rascal’s 2003 hit “Boy in Da Corner” drew attention to the scene, grime appeared to Americans like a British answer to rap. But in reality, the genre’s heritage comes from Caribbean sound systems culture and the tradition of “toasting” over rhythms. And unlike hip-hop, the world of grime revolved around improvised sets rather than commercial releases. Grime MCs made their mark on the airwaves over live mixes of the latest instrumentals composed on PCs and Playstations.

At the Big Apple record shop in Croydon, DJ Hatcha specialized in stocking the dark two-step of El-B and Horsepower Productions tunes like “Buck and Bury” and “Gorgon Sound.” But in the early 2000s, a creative community began forming around the bass-heavy beats at a club called FWD, where the sound quickly evolved into a dubby half-time groove called “dubstep.” As the South London style of Skream & Benga’s “Judgement” and Digital Mystikz’s “Haunted” spread stateside, Skrillex and other American artists adapted it into a bigger, brighter sound for EDM stages.

However, the understated UK scene continued to innovate with “UK funky,” the lush “future garage” of Joy’s Orbison’s “Hyph Mngo” and the hybrid rhythms coming from Hessle Audio. In the 2020s, the success of Conducta and other “NUKG” demonstrated a renewed interest in the 90s UKG sound.

Other Influential Genres

The above genres make up the largest high-level categories of popular electronic music, but there are also important outliers. Whether it’s because they fall outside club culture, because they mark such radical departures from the past, or because of the influence of marketing and music journalism, some sounds don’t fit as neatly into the main pillars of dance music. The following styles are among the most influential.


Ambient may have been coined by Brian Eno, but the idea traces back to earlier electronic and avant-garde composers, such as Edgard Varèse, Steve Reich and Terry Riley. The statement Eno made with his landmark Ambient 1: Music for Airports in 1978 was a kind of music that didn’t command attention, but today the term encompasses a wide range of experimental, often beatless approaches.

From the aural grids of Ryoji Ikeda and field recordings of Claire Rousay to William Basinski’s exploration of physical mediums and Oval’s manipulation of digital ones, process can be as important as the product. In recent years, generative software built with platforms like Max/MSP and new age spiritualism in the mode of Laaraji have been especially influential.


Encompassing the Bristol trip-hop of Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack, along with the hazy beats of Boards of Canada and jazz lounge sensibilities of Kruder and Dorfmeister, downtempo took electronic styles to the slower pace of head-nodding hip-hop.

And as DJ Premier and Pete Rock soundtracked a golden age of rap, turntablists like DJ Krush and DJ Shadow organized samples into instrumental opuses for labels like Mo’ Wax. In the 2000s, the SoCal scene that launched Flying Lotus combined the “warping” functions of Ableton Live with the Roland SP-404 sampler’s onboard effects to spark a new era of instrumental beats inspired by lopsided rhythms of the legendary J Dilla.


During the 90s explosion of electronic music, critics labeled some of the more experimental home listening sounds “intelligent dance music.” Derided in dance music circles for its dismissive implications, the name stuck around to describe certain popular but difficult-to-define acts like Aphex Twin and Autechre.

Some say the term is linked to “Artificial Intelligence,” a series of Warp Records compilations that featured both artists. Although Aphex Twin gained notoriety alongside peers The Black Dog and B12 for his murky yet melodic techno pieces, jittery breakbeats and and a perplexing personal lore became his hallmarks. Autechre, along with μ-Ziq, Luke Vibert, Plaid and Squarepusher also explored jungle-influenced “braindance” with a combination of sampled and synthesized drums. However, the sound also extended to a wide range of approaches, ambient-leaning Seefeel and to the dubwise glitch of Pole.


Before it was a global force, footwork was a small Chicago scene based around competitive dancing. While the dancers did their intricate “footworking,” DJs spun “juke” style tracks with sped up elements of Chicago’s earlier ghetto house sound. But as RP Boo and DJ Clent developed its trademark 808s, the music became more widely known as footwork. Despite breakbeat patterns and low-frequency bass drums, footwork was a radical departure from previous styles like drum & bass.

Along with his Teklife crew DJ Rashad helped take the Chicago sound worldwide with a prolific string of releases that culminated with the release of his 2013 full-length “Double Cup.” Despite Rashad’s untimely death soon after, the half-time groove of tracks like “Feelin’” and “Only One” maintain their influence today, while midwestern artists including DJ Manny, Jlin and DJ Earl continue to lead a global footwork scene.

Keep on Digging

One of music’s great paradoxes is that the deeper you dig the more you still haven’t heard. But within the multitude of sounds between disco and drum & bass, the push toward musical progression is a constant, along with a shared past. Whether or not fans and artists know it, the most recent iterations of dance music are still informed by the musical innovations of the Black diaspora.

Although platforms such as Brooklyn-based Dweller are working to illuminate that history, dance music has often been misunderstood or stereotyped as the sole domain of dayglo candy kids and pretentious Europeans. Some critics have even tried to argue that music made for clubs couldn’t possibly have real substance. But the societal reactions it has provoked for almost 50 years say otherwise. From the Disco Demolition Night’s angry backlash against Black and queer expression, to the UK laws targeting raving in the 90s and grime in the 2000s, electronic music and club culture have been met time and again with hostility. Yet their influence has consistently reverberated throughout pop music and culture, and it’s only getting louder.