IDM Music: What is it? A Brief History - 2022



Apr 15, 2022

IDM stands for ‘Intelligent Dance Music’, a type of electronic music born from the marriage of techno, ambient and club music in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

IDM music is known for sounding 'cerebral', atmospheric and textural, favouring individualistic experimentation in music production, rather than relying on dance genre conventions.

As a result of IDM music's more experimental sounds, it is often considered more suitable for home listening rather than nightclubs or raves.

This makes danceability less of an emphasis in IDM music production.

What is IDM?

IDM is a subgenre of electronic music. IDM combines elements of techno, electronic dance music, ambient, acid house, Chicago house, and breakbeat genres.

IDM can therefore be seen as a broader umbrella term for a wide range of electronic music genres.

The definitive element of IDM music is that the genre emphasises individualistic experimentation from artists, relying on more experimental sound design elements to create distinctive melodies and textures. 

Other IDM subgenres include: house, techno, experimental, experimental techno, IDM electronica, experimental electronica, ambient electronica, chillwave electronica and more.

How did IDM music originate?

The term ‘Intelligent Dance Music’ was coined as a result of the 1992 Warp Records compilation Artificial Intelligence.

In 1993, discussion of the compilation album resulted in the creation of the "IDM mailing list", which aimed to further facilitate the discussion of IDM music amongst its fans.

The term IDM music became even more popular when DJs and record store owners alike began referencing the popularity of Techno and House music in their stores.

Notable artists associated with IDM music include Aphex Twin, Four Tet, the Black Dog, Autechre, Boards of Canada, and many more. Several of these IDM artists appeared on the Warp Records Artificial Intelligence compilation album. 

Marketing and PR terminology

IDM started in the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s. DJs at record stores were able to easily recognize the popularity of House and Techno music among their customers and they began referencing this in their stores. 

Like Techno, IDM is also known for its use of synthesisers and digital sampling and it is often associated with the post-rock genre. 

In the late 1980s, techno and house music were becoming increasingly popular among club DJs.

DJs were looking for ways to give their sets a unique edge and this is how the term ‘IDM’ was popularised. 

Unlike Techno, IDM was a more refined and less driving form of house and techno music that focused more on the melody and experimental sound design aspects. Techno was faster, more danceable music that contrasted with the slow, pulsing rhythms of House music. Techno was also more electronic, while IDM was more acoustic sounding.

IDM is often associated with post-rock because of the often melodic and textural nature of the music, but that is only a small part of the story.

While Techno and IDM were similar musically, they were different in other ways as well - and this differentiation needed a term to define the IDM genre.

By the mid-1990s, record labels and independent DJs were starting to release IDM albums and singles. These releases were typically digital only and were sold in small “Internet Direct” stores.

It was not until the late 1990s and early 2000s that IDM started to receive major airplay on radio stations. IDM was already very popular in nightclubs, but now it was also starting to garner a lot of attention from the mainstream media.

Criticism of the term

From the very beginning of IDM music's roots, the term 'intelligent dance music' received criticism, mostly from British electronic music and techno artists. 

Much of the term's criticism was issued by 'IDM artists' themselves, such as Aphex Twin, Cylob and μ-Ziq. 

The criticism was mostly centred around the use of the term 'intelligent' in the genre name. This implied that there was an assumed musical sophistication with the music, giving a somewhat pretentious impression of the genre.

Artists have also criticised the term for suggesting that the music they produce is not easy to dance to.

Aphex Twin, 1997, made the following comment on the IDM music term: 

"I just think it's really funny to have terms like that. It's basically saying 'this is intelligent and everything else is stupid.' It's really nasty to everyone else's music. (laughs) It makes me laugh, things like that. I don't use names. I just say that I like something or I don't."

Aphex Twin have since gone on to create their own record label, Rephlex Records. The label overarched the term by introducing 'Braindance', a reclamation of the IDM term that avoided the use of the word 'intelligent'.

Characteristics of Intelligent Dance Music

1. Electronic sounds - As an electronic music genre, IDM music most often incorporates elements of electronic music production, such as synthesisers, electronic drums, and pads.

2. Ambient elements - IDM music focuses on ambient elements, such as textured soundscapes. This is often much more emphasised than propulsive beats for the dancefloor.

3. Emphasis on texture - As well as ambient soundscapes, IDM music often incorporates creative sound design textures. Such textures can be used to enhance the aural aesthetics of the track, as well as rhythm and percussive aspects. 

4. Individual experimentation - IDM music encourages more creative production techniques. Artists often combine elements from different electronic music genres, as well as create sounds that don't fit with genre conventions in order to experiment with new musical styles. 

5. Close listening - As a result of ambient elements, combined with textures and experimental aspects, IDM music is better suited to close listening (such as with headphones). This is because artists often include subtle sound design elements that can best be heard when listening closely.

Notable IDM artists

There are many prominent artists in the IDM scene, many of which are still making music today. Some of the most notable IDM music artists include:

  • Aphex Twin
  • Boards of Canada
  • Autechre
  • μ-Ziq
  • Four Tet
  • Ulvo
  • Flying Lotus
  • Clark
  • Black Dog
  • Andy Stott
  • Matmos
  • Carl Craig
  • Seefeel
  • Caribou
  • Squarepusher
  • Jan Jelinek
  • Luke Vibert
  • Bogdan Raczynski

Notable IDM albums

Selected Ambient Works 85-92 by Aphex Twin (1992) - This is the debut album from Aphex Twin (Richard D. James), released in 1992. This album is well-cited as one of the defining records in intelligent dance music.

Artificial Intelligence by Various Artists (1992 - Warp Records release) - Artificial Intelligence is often referred to as the very starting point of IDM music. This compilation album was released by Sheffield's Warp Records (1992), promising 'electronic listening music'. Before the release of Artificial Intelligence, electronic music generally came with the assumption that it was there to get up and dance so, and so the revelation of 'electronic listening music' to sit down and closely listen to was a novel concept at the time.

Monstera Country Cyborg by Ulvo - Inspired by themes of escapism, this album creates a whole new sonic world with blends of texture, ambiance and energy.

LP5 by Autechre (1998) - LP5 contains a combination of everything that sonically defines the IDM genre. From a mix of complex percussive elements, combination of electronic music genres, ambient textures and more. 

Music Has the Right to Children by Boards of Canada (1998) - Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, better known as Boards of Canada are prominent names in the IDM music scene. Their debut album 'Music Has the Right to Children' has grown to be one of the most well known IDM albums on this list. 

Geogaddi by Boards of Canada (2002)- Geogaddi's 1998 predecessor, Music Has the Right to Children, was hailed as one of IDM's greatest albums, setting a challenging stage for 2002's Geogaddi. Although, the album delivered a triumphant return for Boards of Canada.

Rounds by Four Tet (2003) - Rounds pulls inspiration from a collection of different genres, blending hip-hop and jazz elements with electronic sounds to create seamless IDM sonic worlds. That, juxtaposed with jagged electronics and world sounds, makes Rounds a well-loved IDM classic.

View our complete list of the top 40 IDM albums.

IDM essentials playlist

How does IDM music differ from Techno?

IDM is a more texturally refined and less driving form of House and Techno music. IDM also tends to encompass more experimental music and sound design elements.

Techno is much faster than IDM, often with speeds approaching 140 BPM; whereas House is often around the 110-130 BPM range, often with a slower, more relaxed tone. 

IDM is also more likely to include atmospheric and textural sound features, as opposed to the more minimal sounds of Techno. 

For instance, IDM may have clicking, beeping, whirring and bleeping sounds, but Techno music is much less likely to make use of sounds like this.

How does IDM music differ from House music?

IDM is much more melodic and is often associated with the post-rock genre. House music is more likely to have a faster, driving beat, often around 120-130 BPM, although slower tempos are also used.  

The difference in the beats in Techno and House music is often referred to as the ‘BPM’ or beats per minute difference. BPM is a very important concept in the study of electronic music genres.

Is IDM still popular?

IDM is still popular among DJs and electronic music fans. The most popular subgenres of IDM are Techno and House.

Popular styles of Techno include: Minimal Techno, Deep Techno and Hi-Tech Techno. Popular styles of House music are: Tech-House, Deep House and Hi-Tech House.

Popular styles of IDM music, like Ambient Electronica and Chillwave Electronica, are also very popular among IDM fans.

IDM shows no signs of slowing down and will likely remain popular as long as DJs continue to create new sounds and fans continue to enjoy listening to new music.

Final Words: Is IDM Still Relevant?

IDM is still as relevant today as it was in the 1990s. DJs are still referencing the popularity of Techno and House music in their sets and fans are still enjoying the music. IDM artists are still creating melodic and unique sounds that are worth listening to. 

IDM will likely continue to be popular as long as people are looking for quality electronic music that doesn’t sound like everything else on the radio.

There are so many subgenres of electronic music, such as House, Techno, Experimental, Experimental Techno, IDM Electronica, Experimental Electronica, Ambient Electronica, and more, that IDM fans have plenty to enjoy. 

IDM is still a growing genre and it is certain to continue to be popular for years to come.

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