the world's premier FREE website for learners + teachers of English

History of Dance Music

This page looks at the vocabulary of Dance Music through its history, people and songs. For other genres see Popular Music Genres.

Daft Punk with Nile Rodgers and Pharrell WilliamsIn the mid-60s, US soul singer James Brown developed a new style of music called funk. In soul music the melody and lyrics are central, but in funk the rhythmic groove is central. The main stress in a funk rhythm is on the first beat of the bar, called "the one", and a repeated pattern of drum beats and bass lines that begins on the one creates a groove. Riffs played by guitars and horn-sections add to the groove, and rhythmic vocals and raps can be added as well. A funk groove can continue for a long time without chord changes, and funk songs in the 60s often lasted for ten minutes or more.

Image above right: Daft Punk with Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams during a photo shoot for their song Get Lucky. Photo: NileRodgersProd / CC BY-SA 4.0

As part of the civil-rights movement, James Brown wanted African Americans to feel proud, so he began writing songs like Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud, a top-ten crossover hit in 1968 that took funk to the mainstream. Other funk bands soon formed including George Clinton's bands Parliament and Funkadelic and a chart-topping band that mixed funk with pop and rock called Sly and the Family Stone.


By the early 70s, nightclubs called discos were employing DJs to play dance tracks because it was cheaper than hiring a band. At first they played funk and up-tempo soul tracks, but in the mid-70s they started playing tracks with a new rhythm that was easier to dance to. It had a simple four-on-the-floor bass-drum beat with hi-hat on the offbeats. These songs were soon being played in discos all over the world, and a new genre called disco music was born. Artists like Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, and the Bee Gees had huge disco hits, as did a band formed by guitarist Nile Rodgers and bass player Bernard Edwards called Chic. With Bernard's funky bass lines and Nile's smooth rhythm-guitar playing they created a style of disco that's still popular among dance-music fans today.

Chic, like most disco artists, released their singles in two versions; a short version for the radio and a longer twelve-inch single that was remixed for dance clubs. Most twelve-inch singles had a breakdown in the middle with extra percussion but no singing, and most dance remixes still have breakdowns today. In 1977 Italian producer Georgio Moroder used synthesizers to create Donna Summer's electronic disco hit I Feel Love, one of the first examples of a new genre called electronic dance music, or EDM, that's been central to dance music ever since.

Video: Donna Summer performing I Feel Love, the world's first EDM hit produced by Georgio Morodor in 1977

Georgio wasn't the only artist producing rhythmic electronic music, however. German group Kraftwerk had been making electronic pop music since the early 70s. They'd invented synthesizers with touch pads to create funky electronic rhythms and then added beautiful electronic textures and melodies. Kraftwerk's music has inspired countless EDM and hip hop artists and remains some of the finest electronic music ever made.


In the early 80s a new style of disco called house developed in the gay clubs of New York and Chicago. Like disco, house songs had catchy melodies with lyrics about going out, having fun or making love. They had pounding four-on-the-floor disco rhythms, but in house music drum machines and synthesizers were often used instead of drum kits and other instruments, although piano remained central in most house music. Classic New York house tracks include Royal House's Can You Party? and Larry Levan's Don't Make Me Wait. Chicago produced classics like Marshall Jefferson's Move Your Body and Freddie Knuckles' sexy, Kraftwerk-inspired track Your Love.

In the late 80s Steve "Silk" Hurley took house to the UK with his number-one hit Jack Your Body. UK artists soon began making house tracks as well, and M|A|R|R|S had a huge hit in 1987 with Pump up the Volume, as did Coldcut with Doctorin' the House. Basement Jaxx led a second wave of UK house in the late 90s with their hit single Red Alert and album Remedy. European artists also produced big house-music hits like Pump Up The Jam by Belgium's Techtronic and Ride On Time by Italy's Black Box. The vocals on Black Box's biggest hits were sung by US soul and R&B singer Martha Wash, who had one of the most powerful voices in house music.

Video: Black Box’s Ride on Time. Like most house soungs, it features piano, disco-style vocals and a breakdown near the end.


Another new genre of dance music called techno developed in Detroit in the early 80s when club DJs began making electronic dance tracks. They used drum machines to create electronic rhythms and synthesizers with keyboards to add chords and melodies. They also began sampling short sections of music from old records, especially short drum breaks. The most famous of these is the “Amen break”, a snare-drum sample that's been used on hundreds of EDM and hip hop tracks. Sampled breaks are often used to stress structural points in the music like the beginning of a new eight-bar phrase or sixteen-bar section. Techno classics from Detroit include Clear by Cybotron, a track based on Kraftwerk samples and melodies, Derrick May's Strings of Life and Inner City's Ain't Nobody Better and Big Fun which were top-ten hits that took techno to the mainstream in 1990.

A subgenre of techno called trance developed in Europe in the early 90s, and it's still popular today. In trance, techno rhythms are mixed with layers of dreamy electronic sound, with most tracks building to a climax followed by a breakdown in which the beats stop but the dreamy electronic sounds continue. Good examples of trance include Jam and Spoon's single Stella, Hallucinogen's album Twisted, and Robert Miles' chart-topping album Dreamland which took trance to the mainstream in 1996. Most trance music didn't include vocals, but in the early 2000s a subgenre called vocal trance became popular, with Oceanlab's 2008 album Sirens of the Sea being a good example.

When members of UK's experimental post-punk scene heard techno tracks, many began experimenting with EDM. Artists like 808 State and Orbital mixed techno-style rhythms with unusual electronic sounds to create a new style of music now called progressive EDM. Some artists were also inspired by Brian Eno's atmospheric ambient music, and artists like Aphex Twin and Leftfield soon began creating ambient EDM tracks. Progressive and ambient EDM artists wanted their music to be good for both dancing to and listening to, and these styles were often played in special areas at raves for people who wanted to relax after dancing.

Video: 808 State’s Pacific State. Like most progressive EDM, it features unusual electonic sounds, samples and no vocals.

Other EDM Styles

When audio editing software became available in the late 80s, producers could "cut and paste" sound files to create new pieces of music. When artists in the UK began using this software, a new genre called big beat developed. Big beat artists used sampled sound files of drums and other instruments to build their tracks, so their music didn't sound as electronic as most EDM. They also used complex funk or hip hop breakbeats instead of the simple four-on-the-floor beats used in disco and most EDM genres. Popular big beat artists include The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and The Prodigy, whose 1997 album The Fat of the Land topped the charts worldwide.

Progressive EDM artists in the US like Moby also began using audio editing software. Moby used samples from old gospel, soul and funk records and mixed them with techno-style rhythms and sounds to create the soulful album Play which topped the charts worldwide in 1999. Techno artists from Detroit like Carl Craig had already created similar music, and Carl's 1997 album More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art is one of finest examples of this style. Like many EDM artists, Carl also creates dance remixes of other artists' songs, and some of his best remixes are on the 2008 album Sessions.

Another style that developed in the 90s is drum and bass (or "DnB"). Most DnB has very deep bass sounds, jazzy breakbeat rhythms, and is very fast and aggressive at around 160 to 180 bpm. Well-regarded DnB albums include Goldie's Timeless and Ronnie Size & Reprazent's New Forms. A style that developed from DnB in the mid-2000s is called dubstep. Like DnB, dubstep is very bass-heavy, but at around 75 bpm it's much slower and often has a darker, more atmospheric feel. Some of the most highly-regarded dubstep is made by UK artists Benga & Coki, Digital Mystikz and Burial.

In the US, popular DJ Skillex has created a heavy-metal style of dubstep called brostep that mixes dubstep breakbeats with monstrous sci-fi sound effects and dramatic drops. In EDM, a drop occurs when a new section is "dropped" into a track and the music suddenly changes. Most brostep drops feature very low, heavy bass sounds, and they usually occur at the climax of a build. A good example of a drop occurs at the 1:04 mark of Skillex's Ragga Bomb, a track he produced with UK DnB group Ragga Twins in 2014.

Video: Ragga Bomb by Skillex and Ragga Twins. Like most dubstep, it has complex breakbeat rhythms and very heavy bass drops.

Dance pop

EDM has had a huge influence on pop music over the last 30 years, and pop stars and EDM producers often work together to create dance-pop tracks. EDM artists sometimes invite pop singers and musicians to perform on tracks they've created using the pop-music formula. French EDM "robots" Daft Punk did this in 2013 when they invited Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers and R&B singer Pharrell Williams to perform on their disco-revival song Get Lucky, one of the biggest hits of the mid-2010s.

More often it's pop stars who invite EDM producers to work on their tracks, and Madonna did this when she invited EDM producer Stuart Price to help her create the dance-pop classic Hung Up. The song combines a pounding disco beat with many EDM features, including a trance-like breakdown near the end. The song was a huge hit, topping the charts in over forty countries, and is a good example of a new genre of 21st-century dance music that combines older styles like funk and disco with the latest styles of electronic dance music.

Video: Madonna’s dance-pop classic Hung Up features a breakdown beginning at 3:37 and a drop at 4:38.

Styles, artists and recommended albums

ambient music (noun): calming, atmospheric background music - Have you heard Brian Eno's ambient music?

backbeat (noun): a beat counted as two or four in 4/4 rhythm - Can you hear the snare drum playing on the backbeats?

big beat (noun): an EDM genre with breakbeats, heavy bass, vocals and samples - Maxim loves that big beat sound.

bpm (noun): beats per minute - The fastest drum and base tracks are around 160 bpm.

break (noun): a short section in which most instruments stop, but one or two continue, esp. drums - We sampled a snare-drum break from an old jazz record.

breakbeat (noun): a jazz or funk rhythm with complex bass-drum beats - Hip hop and dubstep use breakbeats, not disco beats.

breakdown (noun): section of a dance track with less singing but more percussion - Does the track have a good breakdown?

chord (noun): three or more notes played together - Lots of great songs only have two chords, you know.

disco (also "discotheque") (noun): a 70s nightclub in which DJs played dance records - The gay discos in New York were fabulous.

disco music (also "disco") (noun): 70s dance music with a steady four-on-the-floor beat - My sister loves dancing to disco music.

DJ (or "disc jockey") (noun): someone who plays records at dance clubs or on radio - Do you like the tracks this DJ's playing?

drop (noun): a point in EDM when the rhythm and sounds suddenly change - If it's a really great drop, everyone goes crazy.

drum and bass (or "DnB") (noun): an EDM genre with breakbeats, heavy bass and a fast tempo - Let's make a drum and bass track.

drum machine (noun): an electronic instrument that makes sequenced drum sounds - Our drummer quit, so we're using a drum machine now.

dubstep (noun): an EDM genre with breakbeat rhythms, very heavy bass and a slow tempo - My neighbours hear the bass when we’re playing dubstep on the stereo.

EDM (noun): electronic dance music - That band didn't start out playing EDM, did they?

four-on-the-floor (noun): a 4/4 rhythm with bass drum on the beat and hi-hat on the offbeats - Terry's sick of playing those four-on-the-floor disco beats.

funk (noun): rhythmic groove-based music that developed from soul in the 60s - I reckon Bootsy Collins was the best funk bass player ever.

groove (noun): a highly-rhythmic pattern repeated for a long time, esp. in funk music - Hip hop artists still sample James Brown's funk grooves.

hi-hat (noun): a pair of foot-operated cymbals that's part of a drum kit - Drummers play bass drum with one foot and hi-hat with the other.

house (noun): 80s dance music similar to disco but with more electronic sounds - Those old house tracks from Chicago still sound great.

offbeat (noun): a beat between the main beats, often counted as "and" by musicians - Disco has hi-hats playing on all the offbeats.

pounding (adjective): having a very strong, loud and steady beat - Those pounding disco tracks are still great to dance to.

progressive EDM (noun): EDM made for listening to as well as dancing to - I listen to progressive EDM when I'm on the bus.

rave (noun): a large dance party held outdoors or in an empty building - Did you go to any of those raves in the 90s?

remix (verb): to change a track's sound-level mix and add effects - When he remixed our song, he made the bass drum much louder.

sample (verb): to copy a sound or section of music from a record or audio file - We sampled a snare-drum break from an old soul record.

synthesizer (noun): an instrument that makes and combines electronic sounds - Matt played organ and synthesizer in Use No Hooks.

techno (noun): an EDM genre from Detroit that led to many subgenres - Which style of techno do you like the most?

texture (noun): the musical pattern created when sounds are combined - The textures on this track are amazing.

track (noun): a recording of a song or piece of music - Their new album has some really great tracks.

trance (noun): a subgenre of techno with electronic beats and dreamy textures - Dad's dancing to his old trance records again!

twelve-inch single (noun): a special single that's longer than usual - Twelve-inch singles of Sylvester's disco songs are awesome.

Contributor: Matt Errey