You’ve probably heard the word “Techno” used to describe many different songs. As a result, it can be quite difficult to answer the question, “What is Techno Music?“
Since the dawn of Electronic music, people have been divided as to how the different sounds and textures ought to be labeled. What one person calls “House’ is, to another person, something entirely different.
The other trouble with a standard definition of Techno Music is that the music is constantly evolving and adding new sounds. However, the footprint of Techno can be found in genres both popular and obscure the world over.
In this article…
I’ll be looking at the history of Techno music, the musical elements that make up the sound, the influence of the genre, and some other aspects surrounding the music.
Origins, History, and Influence
When it comes to understanding the origins of Techno music as a genre, we need to understand two very important things. Firstly, the place where it started – Detroit, Michigan. And, secondly, the importance of the German electronic pioneer Kraftwerk.
Kraftwerk’s influence stretches far beyond just music. But, a few of their followers took the influence of their sound to heart as much as the original Techno pioneers. The key concept that they took to heart was “Industrial”; this will become clear soon.
The Belleville Three
It is generally accepted that three young Detroit natives are responsible for beginning what would become known as “Detroit Techno.”
Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May were friends since high school. They shared a love for the same kind of music. And, as young students in both high school and college, they shared their passion by listening to and making music together.
Atkins, Saunderson, and May…
They started by listening to records by artists like Bootsy Collins, Parliament, Prince, Depeche Mode, The B-52s, and, of course, Kraftwerk. Their infatuation with the focus on rhythmic elements began to inspire them to do more than just bob their heads up and down.
May once recalled how they listened to music as almost a ritualistic act:
“We perceived the music differently than you would if you encountered it in dance clubs. We’d sit back with the lights off and listen to records by Bootsy and Yellow Magic Orchestra. We never took it as just entertainment; we took it as a serious philosophy.”
The group was inspired by the sound of the music…
But, also by the fact that the artists they were listening to were often not trained musicians. The group felt that if these pioneers could learn to use music machines, then they could do it as well.
Atkins began by purchasing a synthesizer and turntables. The rest of the group followed suit, and soon the trio was making basic tracks in their basement.
Initially, their attempts were merely imitations of the industrial and hypnotic rhythms of Kraftwerk and The B-52s. But soon, they would grow hungry for something of their own.
The three went off to college…
That is where Atkins met Rick Davis, a like-minded amateur musician, and DJ. The young disciples decided to do some exploring into the thriving House scene that was gripping the states.
They were not oblivious to this European music invasion. But, they wanted to experience firsthand what the descendant of Disco music looked like after the Americans got hold of it.
They visited places like the Powerplant in Chicago and Paradise Garage in New York, venues where House DJs like Ron Hardy and Franky Knuckles were tearing up clubs with massive mixes. It is at this point that the foundations of Techno music were laid down.
Detroit: Industrial, Robotic, and Angry
In the 1980s, the end of industrialism was already beginning to rear its head. Many had thought the day would never come. But, the invention of the computer and the beginnings of robotics and futurism were heralding the coming of a new age.
Detroit was known for being an industrial hub for many years. And, in the 80s, it was a city that embraced the newfound invitations offered by things like automation and advanced robotics.
These changes were good for the profit margins of the guys at the top…
But, they also lead to massive layoffs of factory workers. Since a large part of Detroit’s population made their living working in the factories and service industry, it left a large part of the population feeling disenfranchised and displaced.
The Belleville Three didn’t know at the time, but they would soon give many of these lost folks a sound that would relate to their circumstances.
They started taking the melodic sounds they heard in House music and replicating them with their own synths. They then started mixing these elements with the hard-edged, rhythmically-focused sounds of the groups they listened to as youngsters.
They related to the industrial edge of drum loops from Kraftwerk…
That sound spoke to the industrial roots of Detroit, where they hailed from. At the same time, the three were seeing robots in factories, reading SciFi books, and wondering about the future. It is the influx of these two forces that lead these three to spawn the very first true Detroit Techno creations.
As mentioned earlier, Atkins had met fellow music aficionado Rick Davis while attending Washtenaw Community College. The two started experimenting together and soon had enough material to start playing sets.
Under the name of “Deep Space Soundworks,” Atkins and May began to perform their live sets around the Detroit area. The group started basing their compositions around the idea that they needed to be fitted into extended mixes. Something that would become central to Techno Music philosophy.
The duo’s mixes were getting played by radio DJs, and, most notably, were getting circulated on Mojo regularly.
They decided to call themselves Cybotron. Already the influence of SciFi and the Futurism movement were very prevalent. The group played some shows and wanted to release their music, so they formed a label named Deep Space and released their first single, “Alleys of the Mind,” in 1981.
They quickly followed up these singles with “Cosmic Cars” and “Clear.” These eventually lead to California-based label Fantasy, to sign Cybotron to an album deal. It was on this label that Cybotron released their first and only album, Clear.
At the same time…
Saunderson and May were toiling away at their desks and keyboards, forging their mix of industrial electronic music and House. Elements of African, Blues, R&B, and Jazz also started finding their way into the story of Techno music.
Cybotron split due to creative differences, and Atkins began experimenting with his own sound. He decided to begin appearing under the moniker of Model 500, a name that would become synonymous with Techno music.
He later founded his own label called Metroplex and released what would become one of the seminal Techno songs, as well as one of his biggest hits, “No UFOs.”
Metroplex and PC Records…
The label became the foundation for the very first pioneers of the Detroit Techno scene to start releasing their music. Among these were Derrick May, Eddie Fawkes, Kevin Saunderson, and Robert Hood.
Another artist to take note of at this time was Erick Travis. Erick’s love for electronic sounds began in 1985. And, as a fledgling artist, he single-handedly founded and managed his label PC Records.
On this label, he released the obscure “Sound of Mind Programming” in 1987. This release was very heavily influenced by the industrial sound of Kraftwerk. As a result, it quickly gained the attention of hardcore electronic fans like the Belleville Three.
Overlooked by many at the time, the album has since gained cult status amongst hardcore fans. Travis would later also enjoy tremendous success on Atkins’s Metroplex label on the “Techno Drivers” release. He continues to press records regularly to this day.
As mentioned, a large part of Detroit’s population felt displaced by the technological innovations that forced many of them out of their livelihoods during the 80s. They looked at the rising Techno sound as an escape and voice for their feelings and displeasure.
The Belleville Three were embracing this new technology to create a world for themselves. This new sound featured themes of the future and technology, along with an industrial sound that spoke to the hearts of marginalized factory workers from Detroit.
The Music Institute: More than Just Music
While this new Detroit Techno scene had already found its heroes in the form of the Belleville Three and the other early pioneers like Erick Travis, it still needed a place and a culture to call its own. This came in the form of the Music Institute on 1315 Broadway in downtown Detroit.
Just like the Belleville Three…
Music Institute founders Chez Damier, Alton Miller, and George Baker went on trips to New York to see clubs like the Powerplant and the Paradise Garage. They decided that Detroit needed its own club to serve as the foundation for the new bustling scene.
The Music Institute became a thriving success and united the new Detroit Techno scene that had been divided up to that point. All the artists on the Metroplex label were able to start playing there. This led to new collaborations and influxes of sounds.
Techno music’s first scene had found a home base and was in full swing…
As this new music began to take hold of the public consciousness, a unique and new culture began springing up around it.
A unique dress code and insider culture developed around Techno music and Techno parties. Organizers would go to extra lengths to print very decorative and expensive flyers that would be handed out to “the right people.”
These flyers would often be required for entry to an “underground party.” And, would also contain strict instructions as to what to wear if you want to be admitted.
The Godfather, The Innovator, and The Elevator
By the time the Music Institute had become “the place to be” if you wanted to hear the new Detroit sound, it was widely agreed that the Belleville Three were the big names when it came to Techno music.
Regarded as the Godfather of Techno Music, the instigator and original master of the industrial and futuristic Techno sound of Detroit.
Known as an innovator, a master of his gear, and always trying new things with his sound. He pioneered the use of retro and cutting-edge tech to form ever-evolving and unique sounds. He still does so to this day.
The Elevator. A great crowd personality, and promoter for the new sound. Known for promoting and collaborating with many artists to further the music he helped create.
What Is Techno Music? – Musical Aspects
Techno Music evolved from experimentation and is, in many ways, still evolving. There are so many off-shoots, and sub-genres of Techno Music that trying to define them all would be beyond the scope of a single article. But, there are some basics to consider.
The term “Techno” refers to technology. Technology sits at the heart of the Techno sound for two main reasons. Firstly, technology is widely used in the making of Techno music. This includes samplers, synthesizers, drum machines, and vocoders. This gives the music a “futuristic” sound.
Secondly, technology and the future are often the themes of Techno songs or albums. Artists like the early Detroit pioneers often incorporated SciFi imagery and concepts into the music.
Who coined the term Techno?
Juan Atkins is widely recognized as the one who used it first. One of his early releases, “Techno City,” is viewed by many as the first tune to use the term.
When Virgin Records talent scouts contacted Derrick May about this new thriving scene in Detroit, he gave them the word Techno, immediately setting them apart.
Techno, in all its many forms, runs at a tempo of between 120 and 150 BPM. As mentioned, the use of electronic instruments is very prevalent in Techno music which lends a distinctive futuristic sound to the music.
When it comes to vocals, Techno music often doesn’t have vocals. When vocals are featured, they are in the form of single phrases that get repeated over and over. Oftentimes, choirs and chants are also employed by producers to lend an epic feel to the track.
The influence of groups like Kraftwerk and Parliament can be heard in even more modern Techno music. The focus is often on the rhythm of a song and the hypnotic state it seeks to place the listener in.
As a result…
Techno compositions were purposefully composed to fit inside an extended DJ set. They are, therefore, lengthy compositions, often running to over ten minutes.
Aside from the obvious influences like Kraftwerk, Techno music also houses elements of Traditional African rhythms (usually in the form of drums), Funk, R&B, Blues, and Jazz music. These elements usually appear in the form of loops that get used as the basis of an evolving sequence of sounds.
What Is Techno Music? – Influences and Off-shoots
Using the foundation laid down in Detroit during the 80s, DJs across the world have taken the sound and made it their own. Techno has evolved far beyond just dance music. There are colors to suit every taste, and here are but a few:
- Minimal Techno.
- Acid Techno.
- Intelligent Techno.
- Free Techno.
- Dark Techno.
- Ambient Techno.
- Dub Techno.
- A very hardcore variant from Germany, known as Tekno.
What Is A Rave?
Lots of people believe that Raves come from Techno music, but this is not true. Raves are organized events where lots of DJs (usually falling in the same genre) play extended sets for people to dance to.
Raves had been going on in Europe for a while before they started happening in the US. There are usually extravagant light shows, and “Psychedelic” themed decorations and dress codes.
Techno Raves have been known to go on for ages. Some of them last two to three days when they were meant to be a single-day event. If non-stop pounding beats are what you’re after, then Raves are for you.
How To Dress for A Techno Party/Rave?
The only rule when it comes to dressing for a Techno party or Rave is that there are no rules. The most important thing is to express the wilder side of your personality.
- Try wearing bright colors and odd textures. Lots of people love to wear bright orange overalls which are painted.
- Make sure that whatever you wear is still comfortable because you’re going to be moving a lot.
- Wearing accessories is a great way to stand out; anything that glows or flashes will work. Glow-in-the-dark paint is a great idea just make sure to get the non-toxic kind.
- Wear comfortable shoes.
Are You a Fan of Head-Bumping Music?
If so, take a look at our detailed articles on the Best 2000s Dance Songs, the Top Songs with a LOT of Bass, the Best 90s Hip Hop Songs, the Best 2000s R&B Songs, and the Best Pump Up Songs for more high-powered song selections.
Of course, you’ll need to bump out those tunes. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Loudest Portable Bluetooth Speakers, the Best Party Speakers, the Best Tailgate Speakers, the Best Waterproof Speakers, and the Best Bluetooth Speakers with Light Show you can buy in 2023.
And, don’t miss our comprehensive reviews of the Best Headphones for Music, the Best Headphones for Hip-Hop, the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, and the Best Bluetooth Headphones Under $200 currently on the market.
What Is Techno Music? – Final Thoughts
Since its birth, Techno Music has spread across the world. The first wave may have come and gone in the 80s. But, the sheer amount of variants that developed from Techno kept it alive in one form or another ever since. There’s even a kind of Techno that makes you relax.
If you like electronic music and dancing to pounding beats, then you should at least give the world of Techno a good look. You are sure to find at least one kind that you like.
Until next time, let the music play, and happy listening.