I have been asking myself that question a lot recently, mostly due to this record. I had read online that this album was the generally accepted "starting point" for someone who wanted to get into Aphex Twin. I knew Aphex Twin was very influential in the electronic music/house genre, so I gave it a go.
Despite its title, it didn't strike me at all as "ambient music". Each song has a drum beat, something I had always thought was a no-no in ambient music. The songs also have logical musical structures that you can bob your head to. I never thought you could "bob your head" to ambient music, either. But there it is on the cover, Selected Ambient Works.
My experience in ambient music before this album was mostly the work of Oneohtrix Point Never. I would listen to OPN at work a lot. It relieved my stress when I was focusing on the music, and gave me intense focus on what I was working on when I was ignoring the music. Some of OPN's material is very ambient and minimal, other stuff is very sample-based and can easily hold your attention. Granted, I never bobbed my head to OPN. But I do have a profound emotional response when listening to his stuff.
After hearing Selected Ambient Works and getting thoroughly confused on what "ambient music" really was, I dove into Brian Eno's music. He is the so-called "father of ambient music" after all. So I checked out Another Green World and Apollo. Another Green World is Talking Heads-esque pop-rock one moment, instrumental chill-out music the next. Apollo is exactly what I had always thought ambient music should be. Slow, minimal, spacey-sounding songs. However, there are moments on the album that really demand your attention. There are a lot of cool country-western inspired songs that sound really awesome against the spacey synthesizers.
I was further confused when I listened to a band called Rachel's. Their music is made up of relaxing, emotional, string-and-piano-driven songs. Not really background music, but not something you can hum along to either.
So, I had listened to four different "ambient" artists, and really heard four completely different approaches to ambient music. Like any other person seeking hard answers, I decided to consult the Wikipedia page on ambient music. You can read it if you like, but the page includes two quotes from Mr. Eno himself that really help describe ambient music:
"Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting."
"Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think."
I really like the idea that ambient music must be as "ignorable as it is interesting." That is an excellent description of the four examples above. There are when I'm listening to ambient music in the background and when I focus on the music I feel like I've been missing out on something brilliant. Then I can't focus on anything but the music. It is for this reason ambient music begs replays, and it would explain why I listened to nothing but Oneohtrix Point Never for three weeks straight last year.
Anyways, there are no real earth-shattering revelations in this post, but I really like investigating what makes certain genres what they are.
Get chilled out by listening to some ambient songs below.