Brain Eno and Ambient Music
Myth

Brian Eno invented ambient music.

Did Brian Eno Invent Ambient Music?

Brian Eno didn’t invent ambient music, but he did coin the term and popularize the genre drawing from underground experimental music and the work of Erik Satie.[1][2]

In other words, Brian Eno was “instrumental” in popularizing ambient music, but he wasn’t the first to play in that style (see early acts like Tangerine Dream). He drew inspiration for earlier artists like John Cage, and he used his star status to popularize the experimental work of underground bands. He helped to bring the underground music, and what Brian would later call “ambient music,” to a large audience.

Eno didn’t just work with electronics, but he is most famous for his work with innovative recording techniques and experimenting with synthesizers. The story of Eno is well encapsulated in the BBC documentary.

Arena – Brian Eno – Another Green World BBC Documentary. Eno was interested in cybernetics and machine automata; he wanted to create machines that could automate the music process. This was the sort of thinking that led to Ambient music. TIP: See Conway’s Game of Life for a great example of automata.

FACT: Brian Eno was one of the first popular “art school rockers”. Like Warhol’s “art rock” groups, Eno was less a virtuoso and more an artist. He rightfully got a reputation of “a mad scientist of music” being one of the first to use a synth as a “noise machine” rather than a beefed-up electronic keyboard in the pop-music world.

BRIAN ENO – Interview (The TUBE 1986) with Jools Holland. Eno on music as art.

FACT: Eno’s first foray into music with the band Roxy Music (one of the first glam bands) is mostly rock, his following work goes more toward experiment, and then most of his career after the 70’s is experimental and ambient (mostly electronic) music.

BRYAN FERRY/ROXY MUSIC Retrospective Part 1 of 6. Roxy music from the perspective of Bryan Ferry the lead singer of Roxy Music. Eno played synthesizers. 

FACT: John Cage is famous for his 1952 composition 4′33″, which contains no notes and instead prompts the conductor to “play the natural sounds occurring in the room.” Cage was a big influence on Eno. Cage used to use I Ching to create his works, employing chance in his art. Eno utilized a similar method with Eno’s own “card game” Oblique Strategies: Over one hundred worthwhile dilemmas (Amazon), which provides random bits of insight to “unstick” stuck artists.

What is Ambient Music?

Ambient music is just what it sounds like, it emphasizes tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure or rhythm. Brian said (paraphrasing), “ambient music should be unobtrusive enough to play in the background, but just interesting enough to capture attention.”

Brian Eno | Ambient 1 – Music for Airports.

FACT:The direction of Eno’s music was, according to Eno, inspired by La Monte Young‘s “drone music”. He was quoted saying, “La Monte Young is the daddy of us all.”[3]

Mike Andrews interviews Brian Eno for Riverside in 1983. Eno describing his music and his opinions on electronic music.

What Were the Albums that Started Ambient Music?

1975’s Discreet Music, is considered the landmark album of the genre.

This was followed by his Ambient series 1978’s: Music for Airports (Ambient 1), The Plateaux of Mirror (Ambient 2), Day of Radiance (Ambient 3) and On Land (Ambient 4).

Other important albums that elude to this direction are David Bowie’s Low (which Eno helped produce along with the more famous Heroes) and Eno’s other 1975 album Another Green World (and generally tracks from earlier Eno albums).

David Bowie on his iconic album ‘Heroes’, 1977: CBC Archives. Bowie interviewed by the Turtles about Iggy Pop and Eno. If that is a hint as to why Eno is important in music.

FACT: With this said some would consider Eno’s work an extension of Erik Satie’s furniture music which predated Eno by decades.

Erik Satie: Gymnopedie 1,2,3 Gnossienne 1,2,3,4

TIP: For a full look at Eno’s years from Roxy music to Ambient music see Brian Eno 1971 1977 The Man Who Fell To Earth (affiliate link). This video backs up every point made on this page with great detail.

Brian Eno – In Conversation, Artscape documentary, 2009. Eno discussing the thought process behind “inventing” ambient music, how he used cybernetics to create a music that wouldn’t go away and could play forever.



Conclusion

Brian Eno experimented with music, one result was what he called “ambient music”. He drew from other sources, meaning we can’t just credit the invention of the music to his name, but with this in mind he popularized and named the genre, and helped to popularize other artists in the genre as well.

Ultimately, Brian Eno is an important innovator in a few different music genres including glam rock, ambient techno, and, in ways, just electronic music. Eno was also influential in the post-punk and the new wave movements due to work like the track “Third Uncle” predating any popular and like music by years. He was also notable for his work with Talking Heads (The song “Kings Lead Hat”, from Before and After Science (in my opinion Eno’s best album), is an anagram of Talking Heads). Eno would later produce Talking Heads’ second, third and fourth albums, Devo’s first album, and much more. Check out Eno’s latest album The Ship (2016) (in the links below).


Citations

  1. Ambient music
  2. Brian Eno
  3. Potter, Keith (2002). Four Musical Minimalists (Amazon). endnote page 113.


"Brian Eno Invented Ambient Music" is tagged with: Fathers or Mothers of a Field, Music Theory, Rock Music, Sound


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Ed A. on

It’s true that Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Terry Riley and others were creating ambient music long before Eno labeled it as ambient music.

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

Very true. I agree. That is why we framed it the way we did. The idea being he may have coined the term and popularized the music, but he didn’t create it. Eno readily admits his inspirations.