This is a paper I wrote for the class “History of Western Music” at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute which I decided to make public, since there are not many articles on the internet dealing with the specific topics I write about.

The past few decades have seen the rapid development of electronic dance music and the creation of a large body of music referred to as “trance”.  Trance music, like many genres of music, does not have a precise definition and usage of the term varies. Today trance is usually played at clubs or at large festivals and is characterized by slowly morphing patterns of synthesized sound.  In the European version, tracks each contain their own theme or “anthem”, last around 5-10 minutes each, and are mixed continuously and usually played nonstop for hours.  Although in its most popular form it is uplifting dance music, the range of emotive expression is quite broad, with subgenres which could be characterized as “dystopian”, “spooky”, “alien”, “harsh”, “relaxing” or “soothing”.  There is a certain simple purity to trance music, and the effect on listeners can become quite strong, presumably because of “trance-inducing” qualities of the music.

The roots of trance music go back some time.  Connections are often drawn to the ancient rituals of Shamans, which involved the use of the drum to achieve an altered state of consciousness, which ancient peoples interpreted as a journey into the spiritual realm. Such extreme minimalism did not enter into Western music until the 20th century with the minimalist movement, which was a reaction to the random, scattered sounds of the serialists and atonal composers.  Minimalists wanted to go back to things that were simple and easily accessible but still open to analysis and elaboration. Steve Reich, in particular, is noted for creating music which is very long and minimal, but contains slight shifts and changes. Minimalism does not always imply precise ordering however,  as many composers rejected this notion and left some elements up to pure chance. The minimalist movement shifted focus away from melody and large scale structure towards fundamental aspects of music such as rhythm, harmony and timbre (tone color). During this time experimentation with electronic instruments and the vast spaces of timbre they offered was just getting underway. Many classical minimalist composers (such as Reich and Milton Babbit) adopted electronic instruments to explore new types of tonal color. These composers laid the foundation for the more mainstream electronic music which would follow.

At this juncture it is important to distinguish between trance and techno, because the two terms are often confused and used interchangeably, especially in the United States. In most literature on the subject, the term “techno” is reserved for the highly synthesized and sequenced music that developed in the late 1970s, primarily in Detroit.  Techno music usually contained darker sounds, some taken from rock, mixed with a wide degree of experimentation. There was also a parallel development in Germany, most notably by the German band Kraftwerk, which became known as “Electro”.  Highly minimal techno was also composed, for instance the album E2-E4 by Manuel Gottsching, produced in 1981, is 60 minute composition of slowly shifting layers of drums and simple synthesized sounds. Such pieces sound much like trance, and could well be considered trance, but by all accounts trance did not start until the 90s. The two tracks that are always referred to as the first examples of trance hits are “Age of Love” (Track 1), by Age of Love, and “We Came in Peace”, by Dance 2 Trance, both composed in 1990. Indeed, these tracks were something distinctly different from anything before. Although not as slow as true minimalism, they utilized gradual changes and gradual ambient washes, along with a steady, danceable beat.  Some describe them as a combination of techno and house.

During the period from around 1990-1996, trance only had only a small, underground following, and music of this era is already referred to as “Classic Trance”.  Early trance producers utilized the new and exciting sounds of the Roland TB-303 Bassline Synthesizer, a sound which became known as the “acid” sound.  Classic trance is known for unpredictable beat patterns, highly abstract sounds, and relatively longwinded tracks, which are perhaps reasons it remained unpopular to the public at large. A perfect example is “Falling” by Oliver Leib, from an album called A Day on our Planet.(Track 2) A related genre is “gabber trance”, which incorporated hard, fast bass rhythms from the related genre of “gabber hardcore”. A song from the later half of this era that became mainstream classic was “Red Herring” by Union Jack. (track 3)

By 1996, trance had started to become more melodic and anthemic. For instance, “Resurrection”, by Russian producer PPK was a major hit of this time. (Track 4) A new form was becoming commercially successful: the “build, breakdown, anthem” form. This form contained catchy melodies and lots of tension and release which appealed to clubbers. Soon, producers were producing tracks without beginnings and ends, and DJs were mixing them together into huge mixes and starting to pull in huge audiences. During this time DJing became a respectable art on its own — no formal musical training required. The greatest example of this is DJ Tiesto, who was ranked no. 1 DJ in the World by and DJ Magazine for many years. Like many new stars in electronic music, DJ Tiesto has been criticized for not having traditional musical talents or training.  However, he has produced some of the most highly acclaimed trance mixes, starting early on with gabber trance and gaining popularity with compilations of the very best of uplifting and epic trance. He even composed a few highly original and influential tracks of his own, such as a high energy remix of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”, and a non-stop “hoover”-based song “Flight 643”.(Track 5).  However, he perhaps is best known for his compilations of Ibiza and Uplifting trance in a series of albums called “In Search of Sunrise”. (tracks 6 and 7) Ibiza trance follows the laid back lifestyle of vacationers on sunny Mediterranean beaches in Ibiza Spain and features soothing rifts, female vocals, ambient washes, and other “tropical” sounds, such as steel drums and samples of ocean waves and seagulls. Other influential DJs from the 2000’s include Paul Oakenfold, Sasha and John Digweed, and Paul Van Dyck.  Related to Ibiza trance is ambient trance, which contains all kinds of ambient washes, sounds and samples. Finally, one last genre of note is a genre ushered in by DJ Robert Miles with his album Dreamland called “Dream Trance”. (track 8). Dream trance is characterized by quieter sounds and soothing piano riffs, such as found in the notorious Italian dance hit “I Like Chopin”.

At the same time that all these genres where being developed in Europe, an entirely different type of “trance” was being becoming popular in Goa, India. This type of trance, with lots of spazy, spontaneous samples, was not only different musically, but had a much different culture associated with it — a culture influenced by Zen Buddhism, hippies, transcendental meditation and drug use. This entire style and culture of trance would become known as “psychedelic trance”, and would become popular in Russia, Israel, and parts of Africa as well. One major psychedelic trance group is Infected Mushroom, from Israel. (track 9)

Now that we have seen some of the great variety of trance music, we should ask to what degree it lives up to its name, which is used as general term for an altered mental state.  Trance states come in many forms, ranging from extreme states induced by hypnotism or drug use to more mild forms we encounter in everyday life.  For instance, many would describe people watching TV as being “in a trance”, and the same goes for any other activity that holds the mind’s attention. According to research from the Trance Institute in Switzerland, using music to put a listener into a trance is a rather simple matter. All that is required are three or more independent beat patterns, and having the listener focus on them for several minutes. Researchers note that such multiple beat patterns are found in a wide variety of music, such as the canons of JS Bach, and Reggae, and the polyrythmns found in African drumming. Keeping the listener focused without boring them or breaking the trance state is key. An important way of achieving this is to slightly vary some aspect of the music, a technique called “modulating the disassociated trance plane”.  It is this very technique that was used by Shamans and other ancient cultures in ritual ceremonies. It is also that case that many natural sounds, such as bird calls and other sounds heard in a forest can have a powerful effect on the listener, for similar reasons.  Finally, this technique is exactly what Reich and other minimalists often did!  In trance music, Goa and some acid trance are probably the genres that meet these qualifications the most, because they utilize multiple patterns for long periods of time. I do not think most modern commercial trance would meet these criterion much more than rock or rap. Even this is modulation technique is known to work, the exact mechanism is far from understood, but is being studied by neurologists. Another (more hypothetical) theory is that certain types of music can influence brain wave patterns. It is well known that different tones in different ears can change brain wave patterns, inducing feelings of either relaxation or agitation (known as the phenomena of binaural beats). However it is unknown whether this phenomena generalizes to normal musical experiences.

I hope that in the future trance music will be studied more by musicologists because I believe there is a lot to be learned and taken from the genre.  The worse thing someone interested in understanding music can do is to limit themselves to specially cultivated forms, as was done by the high modernists. I also disagree with those that preach that future musicians and musicologists must study classical music only, to help preserve it. While preservation of the classical musical arts is certainly important, this attitude seems to have placed a certain stigma on the formal study of more popular genres. In particular there seems to be a belief that trance music is simplistic, boring, and will dull one’s senses. Perhaps it does “dull one’s senses” or some mental capabilities, but this is interesting in it’s own right. I also reject the notion that trance and other popular forms of electronic music are merely cultural fads of little significance in the wider scheme of music.  Music that is “simple”, accessible to the general population and emotionally powerful can still be studied and analyzed.  (although the degree of accessibility may vary greatly, commercial trance is generally acknowledged as being easily accessible).  Finally, there are a lot of important technical aspects associated with trance, such as how sounds are created and processed, and I suspect many of the techniques developed by trance musicians will only become more widely used as time passes.


  1. Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music

  2. Argentum. “Trance music. A definition of genre.”

  3. Wier, Dennis R. (1996). “Trance Inducing Music“. (The Trance Institute, Switzerland).

  4. Pilch, J. J. (2004) Music and Trance. Music Therapy Today (online) Vol. V, Issue 2,

  5. Shamanism, from Wikipedia.

© 2007 Dan Elton