Hello! this blog is a genre analysis on a genre of music that I’m really getting into at the moment: Synthwave.
So, you may be asking yourself, what the hell is Synthwave??? Well I’m here to tell you what it’s all about. Synthwave is a genre of music that began in the early 2000’s and has only gained popularity in recent years. It is a very synth-based style of music that aims to not just emulate the stereotypical feel of 80’s culture but aims to be a fusion of elements from the past with technology of the future. Samuel Valentine summarises this relationship pretty well, “Synthwave is the music for a future that never happened but everyone dreamed about in the ‘80s.”
Some artists that are credited with the birth of the genre include, Kavinsky, College, Minitel Rose, The Outrunners, Anoraak, Lifelike and Miami Nights 1984. Below are some popular examples from these artists.
So where did Synthwave actually evolve from? It is seen as a sub genre of New Wave. New Wave is a genre of music that was especially popular in the late 1970’s – 1980’s. It is a term that is used to describe one of the two styles of music that split from Punk rock. The other of the two is Post-Punk, which was a much more musically challenging and experimental genre compared to New Wave which is a much more pop driven, simple offshoot of Punk Rock. Some popular New Wave artists include Blondie, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Eurythmics, Cyndi Lauper and Madness. Synthwave is used to essentially describe a more synth driven version of New Wave, hence the name Synth (New) – Wave. Synthwave however is not just a strictly musical genre, it also encompasses the culture surrounding the technology, style and art of the time. Below is also some popular examples of New Wave music from the time.
Many forms of Synthwave art can be seen as emulations of that classic 80’s style. It generally includes a lot of bright, vivid colours, really early looking CGI, very futuristic landscapes and can also include some more low quality pixel style art. The culture surrounding the different types of art is very much tied to the actual music itself and some would even argue is equally as important to what makes up the genre. Below are some examples of some Synthwave art.
As well as having a large association with art, Synthwave also has ties to different forms of media in popular culture. Some of the most famous of these include, Hotline Miami, Outrun and the movie Drive. The classic Sega video game Outrun is commonly tied to Synthwave with many people even using Outrun as an alternate name for the genre. The video game was extremely popular during the late 1980’s and its soundtrack has been referenced as a big influence for the genre. The release of the movie Drive in 2011 gave new popularity to the genre as the soundtrack featured music from pioneering Synthwave artists, Kavinsky and College.
So what actually makes up the genre? Synthwave is usually in a 4/4 time signature and ranges between 80-160BPM. The greatly varying tempo can be accredited to a few different styles of Synthwave, where some artists create quite slow and ethereal tracks and some much more fast and beat driven tracks. A lot of the time the overall feel of Synthwave gives the listener a sense of heavy nostalgia and this is can be due to a few different things. Firstly the scales that can be used for Synthwave can evoke this sense of nostalgia. A video from the YouTube channel misteramazing discusses this topic. He describes how the music theory behind HOME – Resonance is used to trigger a sense of nostalgia. The song itself is only built out of 3 chords but mainly uses 2 of these; the I and V chord of Ab Major and the very occasional ii chord as well. This means that the main chords that are used are Ab and Eb. However he doesn’t just utilise these in their basic triad form. Throughout the whole track, each of the chords use additional notes to turn them into 7th, 9th, 11th and even 13th chords. Every one of the chords that he uses actually ends up being a mix between major and minor chords.
The video goes on to show that throughout the whole track, there is both a major progression and a minor progression that is being played simultaneously. This essentially creates a nice blend of happy and sad chords, which is used to evoke a very melancholic feel. HOME also uses a variety of inversions to create change within the progression. Check out the video below for a more in depth discussion into this topic.
An article from Computer Music magazine also describes some typical chord progressions found in Synthwave. The list 2 common major progressions and a minor progression. The first is I-vi-IV-V. This progression utilises the same I and V chords present in Resonance, as well as vi and IV chords to bridge between them. This means that in a major scale, the chords used would be Major-Minor-Major-Major. Add in some extra notes to turn them into 7th, 9th and 11th chords and you should get a similar feeling to that of resonance. The second chord progression that they list is I-vi-V-IV. This is basically identical to the previous progression but they’ve swapped the V and IV chords. This again creates the same type of progression to the first which is Major-Minor-Major-Major, however would have a slightly different feel. The last progression that they detail is a minor progression I-VI-VII. This still utilises the I and VI chords from the previous major progressions, however because it is in a minor scale they have slightly different meanings. In a minor scale, this progression would end up being Minor-Major-Major. This progression would create a slightly different feel to the first 2 major ones as it starts on a minor chord rather than a major. In saying this though, it still follows an almost identical structure to the first 2, just without the first major chord.
Another extremely important aspect of the genre is the sounds itself. Synthwave utilises a lot of classic 80’s synthesisers and drum machines to create its signature sound. Some popular synthesisers that used are:
- Korg mono/poly (1981 – 1984)
- Esoniq SQ80 (1987-1989)
- Roland Juno-60 (1982-1984)
- Yamaha DX-7 (1983–1989)
- Roland Jupiter 8 (1981–1985)
- Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 (1978–1984)
- KORG MS-20 (1978–1983)
A lot of these synthesisers also have plugin versions that have been created by either the company or others companies as emulations of these synths.
- Korg’s mono/poly plugin
- Siegfried Kullmann’s SQ8L/SQ8X plugin, which is an emulation of the SQ80
- TAL’s U-No 62 plugin, which is an emulation of Roland’s Juno range
- Arturia’s DX7 V plugin, which is an emulation of Yamaha’s DX-7
- Arturia’s Jun-8 V plugin, which is an emulation of Roland’s Jupiter 8
- Arturia’s Prophet V plugin, which is an emulation of Sequential Circuit’s Prophet 5
- Korg’s MS-20 plugin
All of these plugins are great ways to achieve a similar, if not identical sound to the classic 80’s synths commonly used in synthwave.
In addition to these synthesisers, a lot of classic 80’s drum machines are also used to achieve the same aesthetic. Some popular drum machines that are used are:
- Linn Electronics LinnDrum LM-1 (1980-1983)
- Roland TR-808 (1980-1983)
- Roland TR-909 (1983-1985)
- Roland CompuRhythm CR-78 (1978-1979)
- E-mu SP-1200 (1987 – 1998)
- Yamaha RX-5 (1986)
There is a huge database of all of these drum machines and plenty more that are available for download here.
That’s it for my analysis and deconstruction of Synthwave!
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Guitarhabits.com. (2018). Building Chords and Progressions of The Major Scale. [online] Available at: https://www.guitarhabits.com/building-chords-and-progressions-of-the-major-scale/ [Accessed 11 Apr. 2018].
Guitarhabits.com. (2018). Building Chords and Progressions of The Minor Scale. [online] Available at: https://www.guitarhabits.com/building-chords-and-progressions-of-the-minor-scale/ [Accessed 11 Apr. 2018].
Iron Skullet. (2018). What is Synthwave? 2018 Edition. [online] Available at: https://ironskullet.com/2018/03/01/what-is-synthwave-2018-edition/ [Accessed 11 Apr. 2018].
Pressreader.com. (2018). PressReader.com – Connecting People Through News. [online] Available at: https://www.pressreader.com/australia/computer-music/20170419/282492888557413 [Accessed 11 Apr. 2018].
Retro Synthwave. (2018). Synthwave Universe. [online] Available at: http://www.retro-synthwave.com/music/synthwaves-universe/ [Accessed 11 Apr. 2018].