As one of the broadest and most popular genres of music today, many songs are called “techno” without any clear indication of why. It’s easy to get confused when looking at techno as a genre and figuring out what actually fits in the given definition. Luckily, that’s what guides are for.
What Is Techno Music?
Techno is a subgenre of electronic dance music–or EDM, it uses only electronic instruments. From synthesizers, sampling, drum machines, or any other electronic distortion. A lot of instruments fit under the techno umbrella.
Characteristics of Techno Music
Techno is usually repetitive, 4/4 instrumental music with heavy percussion–a bass drum on each quarter note pulse, plus a backbeat played by a snare or equivalent–and little to no lyrics. The tempo also tends to range between 120 and 150 beats per minute. Any rule can be broken individually, but break too many, and it stops being techno.
Overlap exists with other sub genres of electronica, such as house, synthpop, and disco. However, the latter two tend to be more lyrically oriented and mellow than techno. House music, meanwhile, is much more complex and more reliant on distortion and clipping (the effect created when an electronic sound is overdriven).
As with any genre of music, the lines are more blurred than one might think, and hybrid sounds definitely exist. Techno is an incredibly diverse genre with many influences, born in the melting pot of underground dance clubs with live DJs doing long, unbroken sets. If an electronica album lends itself well to a long car ride, it tends to have techno influences.
7 Examples of Techno Music
With close to 40 years of history to draw from, narrowing down what techno was, is, and will be is no small feat. But for those who want to keep their fingers on the pulse of the music scene as it grows and evolves, there’s very little that’s more influential or far-reaching than techno.
“Autobahn” by Kraftwerk
From a time when official videos were few and far between, Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” is one of the earliest examples of what we know today as a techno sound. With heavy synths, simple lyrics, and a steady driving beat, the bones of the genre are all there. It’s easy to see–or hear–the influences that other artists would later take from songs like this one.
This being an early track, the more analog sounds are still there. A soaring flute and meandering electric guitar accompany the keyboard synth and drum machine, but if anything their presence lends more emphasis to the electronic elements. Later artists would push the genre much farther than this, but early pioneers are still worth remembering.
“Future” by Model 500
It wasn’t just Europeans that were making waves in the early club scene with the beginnings of what would become today’s techno. Long before music videos were ubiquitous, Model 500 hit Detroit with a bright, snappy new synth sound that quickly took underground music venues by storm.
A track like this might be jarring to today’s listeners, but that’s on purpose; it’s heavily influenced by the city that created it, dirty and real and all the more lively and vibrant for it. Like a grungy old sci-fi flick, this kind of early techno has a phonaesthetic quality that evokes rusty chain-link fences and busted neon lights shining on rainy streets.
“Back to Life” by Love Inc.
This isn’t the Love Inc. you might think it is, though the other group almost made it on this list. The Life’s A Gas album is a pet project produced by Wolfgang Voigt way back in 1996, with a different track list between the vinyl and CD versions. The wet, squelchy sound puts this track–and most of the album it comes from–in the category of acid techno.
In truth, this is techno distilled to its purest form. A solid beat, fluttering melodic elements with no real melody line to pin down, and some messy synth and percussion combine to make a dark, filthy track overall. You can hear what the earlier influences have turned into and it’s a fascinating thing to listen to.
“Callista” by Saki Kaskas
Sometimes an artist is taken from the world too soon, and Theodosius Kaskamanidis–also known as Saki Kaskas–is one such artist. A brilliant and varied composer in the realm of video game music, it’s the track he composed for the Afterlife club in Mass Effect 2 that sticks in the mind for many.
For a track that plays in the background of a den of scantily clad blue alien dancers and a badass mafia boss of a woman, it’s surprisingly mellow. But that more subtle vibe adds to the atmosphere of the place; the low lighting and illicit feel of the club make a great introduction to the game’s darker tone as a whole. It lends an unsettling edge to the scene overall.
All that careful set dressing would be lost on the player without good music, and it’s this techno track that gets it there.
“Phylyps Trak” by Basic Channel
From layered sounds with a lot of nuance and atmosphere to pure, sweet minimalism, here’s one of the most simple kinds of techno you can find: dub techno. A duo of two producers, Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, formed Basic Channel back in the early 90’s, and the resulting sound became what’s now known as dub techno.
The sound of the track is messy, but simple. It manages to have a flow to it that speaks to its purpose as long-running club music, where one track is meant to roll seamlessly into the next. It’s so smooth that it becomes hard to pin down where one part of the instrumental ends and another begins as they weave in and out of the piece.
Von Oswald and Ernestus went on to establish the record label Chain Reaction, a dedicated techno label that helped a lot of younger artists get their footing.
“Blade Runner (End Titles)” by Vangelis
Back to soundtracks, we have the end titles for one of the most iconic sci-fi movies of all time. According to filmmaking legend, the whole soundtrack for Blade Runner was composed as a single piece of ambient techno over the top of the film itself. The composer, Vangelis, wrote music for whatever feeling was evoked by what he saw on screen.
The end titles turned out as a kind of overture for the entire film as a result, which makes them a condensed version of a lot of the musical themes and ideas contained throughout. Though a lot of the soundtrack leans more towards what we would call synthwave today, this track in particular is much closer to true techno.
It’s also influenced a lot of the sounds and ideas found in cyberpunk tales that followed it, which leads nicely into our next track.
“Extra” by Ken Ishii
When you give cyberpunk to Japan, you get stories like Akira, which was directed by Koji Morimoto. And when you give techno to Japan, you get songs like Ken Ishii’s “Extra” with a music video by that same director. The result is a cyberpunk techno trip that throws everything that came before in a blender with the weirdness of Japanese culture.
Transhumanism, violence, dirty back alleys, and poverty are all touched on in this wild ride of a video, complete with fish-eye lens views and some truly unique cyborg designs. The visuals are made all the more compelling by the music that they’re paired with, sharp and unsettling. The listener is compelled to feel for the figures presented, but given no time to do so.
In short, this is the kind of thing that truly elevates techno to an art form all its own. It’s not as flashy as some modern high-budget music videos might be, but the skill and attention to detail really shine through.
Examples of Techno Musicians
There’s no way to compress all of techno into a single short list of songs, however. Techno isn’t the kind of genre that lends itself to single tracks and short sound bites. To that end, here are a few artists whose discographies really encapsulate what techno’s about.
As a master of ambient techno, Shinichi Atobe is a secretive producer whose biography is largely a mystery. After the release of Ship-Scope in 2001, he fell off the grid for 13 years, only to be rediscovered in 2014 and coaxed into releasing his next project, Butterfly Effect. He’s been making music steadily ever since, although he often requires convincing to release it.
Not much is known about this producer except that he’s based out of Saitama, Japan, but his music is well worth digging for.
Function (David Sumner)
Born in 1973, David Sumner released his first album as Function back in 1996, and has been steadily producing music ever since. His music has a low-key, minimalistic sound that embodies the bare essentials of techno. He was also an early member of the Sandwell District techno record label and multinational music collective.
Ambient techno group The Orb were founded in 1988, and they’ve been making trippy, atmospheric music ever since. With a sci-fi phonaesthetic that they’ve kept up through numerous changes in the proverbial guard, they’ve honed their sound into a mellow, meandering art form. They have a cult following among stoned club-goers for a reason.
English duo Rob Brown and Sean Booth make up one of the best-known experimental acts signed to Warp Records: Autechre. In the early days they produced pure melodic techno, but these days they like to break genre conventions and compose more complex pieces. Their music is great for taking the listener on a journey.
A free music collective that got their start in the UK, Spiral Tribe’s music is a result of techno’s post-rave DIY movement. Based out of London originally, their music embodies the free party ideology of countryside music festivals. Collectives like Spiral Tribe are an important part of countercultural techno history, even if they don’t get much attention from the mainstream.
The History of Techno Music
There is a lot of debate about whether techno started in Europe or Detroit. However, the term itself originated in Germany in the early 80s. Most arguments stem from whether people think Kraftwerk is actual techno or not, as it’s the most common influence cited by early techno pioneers.
Whatever side people are on in the Kraftwerk argument, most agree that techno really found its footing in the 80s when synthpop met African American house, electro, and funk in Detroit. It was around this time that techno was codified as a genre.
From there, things branched out quickly. Techno ended up being the parent genre that would lead to today’s trance, eurodance, tech house, and techstep. Its influences can be heard in acts as popular as Daft Punk, Depeche Mode, and Porter Robinson. Elements of it pop up in sci-fi soundtracks like the ones for Tron: Legacy and The Matrix.
These days, younger artists like Amelie Lens and Alan Fitzpatrick do with digital sampling what used to be done with physical synthesizers. Meanwhile, older DJs like Carl Cox are still keeping the tradition of long-running live sets alive, making the kind of music that brings people to dance clubs again and again.
What Is Techno Music? Final Thoughts
Techno is, at its heart, a genre defined by artists seeing what they can get away with using the tools they have available. It’s vast, diverse, and loved by many, with a worldwide appeal that crosses cultural boundaries. Its simplicity also makes it an easy genre to make music in. And as technology for music production gets more varied, so will the music that gets produced.