Style DNA: Breaking Down The Elements of The Four Biggest Genres

When I started listening to electronic dance music back in 1995, I really didn’t know much about the genre. In fact, I referred to all electronic dance music as “techno,” not realizing at the time there were many diverse sub-genres which made up electronic dance music. All I knew was that there was this “techno” sound I loved which was not made with the traditional instruments of the day. The absence of guitars, strings and live drums made it a foreign obsession, which was as alluring as it was confusing. All I knew was that all of this new music was made using drum machines, samplers and computers and it was the sound of the future.

In 1997 I went to my first rave and my life was changed forever. As I wandered around the halls of Seattle’s notorious NAF Studios, I soaked in room after room of this new music that I had only previously heard on CD. Every DJ I watched pushed their own version of electronic dance music through the speakers. All of this music had its own distinct feel and changed from DJ to DJ, and stage to stage. After leaving, I talked with the friend who brought me and told him I was blown away by all the different types of “techno” that I heard that night. With this statement I completely showed my naïveté and was immediately scolded for making such a clueless remark. Luckily my good friend took me under his wing and began to show me the different sub-genres of electronic music.

When I started delving into the different genres, it was VERY confusing to differentiate each from the other. All of my attention was focused on the different sounds being used, and how they were all blended together creating a soundscape that provided a specific feel. The two main details being omitted from my study of electronic dance music were tempo and beat structure. I was relatively unaware that these two details are the main determining factor in each sub-genre of electronic dance music. I really started to be able to differentiate each genre from each other once I started to collect vinyl and tried to mix them together.

When I started buying vinyl, I bought every piece of music that I liked. Once I got to use my first pair of turntables and started to mix, the differences in genres became starkly apparent. Trying to mix a drum & bass song with a house song was impossible. Then I started paying close attention to the tempo of each sub-genre because I wanted to be able to mix my music together. Hearing the differences in each sub-genre started to influence the buying choices I was making. Soon after, I had amassed a sizeable collection of house, techno and breaks because they went really well together.

I’m going to break down the beat structure and tempo of a few selected sub-genres of electronic dance music. I realize that within each sub-genre, there are almost infinite variations of each. So in an attempt to simplify, I will stick to a few main sub-genres of house, techno, drum & bass and trap.


One of the main characteristics of house music is its repetitive 4/4 beat. This means that a kick drum will land on every beat and will repeat in increments of 4. Those 4 beats constitute one bar of music, and this bar is usually repeated 4 times to make create a sequence. A hi-hat cymbal is usually found playing off the kick drum on the 2nd and 4th beat of each bar. This repetition in the drums is one of the main characteristics of house and is its main focus, rather than its predecessor disco, which focuses on more on melody.

One other main characteristic found in house music is its inclusion of a bass-line made with a synthesizer. The use of bass tones in house music has been one of the defining factors as to what sub-genre of house is being made. Deeper, more muted tones are characteristically found in deep house, while more jagged sawtooth tones can be found in electro house. As I stated earlier, there are almost infinite variations of each sub-genre.

The other main determining factor in house would be the beats per minute. The BPM is normally set to 120-128 when making house. In other variations like nu-disco, you can find BPMs as low as 110, or in progressive house it can go as high as 135.

To assist in the description of the different beats, I have included a visual of what each drum beat looks like when programmed into a sequencer. To accompany this, I have also included a video sample, which shows the beat playing in Ableton Live while being sequenced.

House Beat (120 BPM, 606 Drum Rack in Ableton Live)


Drum & Bass

Drum & bass is a genre of electronic dance music which emerged from England in the 1990s. It is a spinoff of the American breakbeat scene, which was widely adopted by hip hop in the 1980s. The BPM is normally found playing between 160-180, and has numerous variations such as jungle and breakbeat hardcore. In addition to breakbeats, it is widely known in the drum & bass community that the “Amen Break” was one of the main contributing pieces of music instrumental in creating this sub-genre. The “Amen Break” is a six second audio clip taken from the song “Amen, Brother” by The Winstons.

When I was first introduced to drum & bass, I was blown away at the complexity of the rhythms in each drum pattern. I found that the speed of each beat was a lot faster than most real drummers could play live. What I later found was that the basis of most drum & bass patterns came from sped-up breakbeats. A good friend of mine clearly illustrated this to me by taking a hip hop record set to 33 RPMs, and then playing it with the 45 RPM setting. I was astonished to hear my hip hop record instantly turn into a drum & bass tune.

In addition to the drum programming, the bass-line plays a huge part in the construction of a drum & bass song. Traditionally, the Roland TR-808 drum machine was responsible for generating the deep and punchy bass tones found in drum & bass. Over the years as the genre evolved, more advanced and sophisticated synthesizers created new and exciting bass-lines, which have breathed life into new variations of this sub-genre of dance music.

Drum & Bass Beat (170 BPM, 606 Drum Rack in Ableton Live)


To illustrate the roots of Drum & Bass, I have created a hip hop drum beat set to 85 BPM in Ableton Live using the same drum kit that was used on the previous example.

To show you how easily this hip hop beat is transformed to drum & bass, I simply doubled the BPM to 170.


Techno music has been the flagship sub-genre for electronic dance music since the 1980s. Inspired by electronic music artists such as Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, this sub-genre was founded in the underground of the Detroit dance scene. In the late 1980s its earliest pioneers Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May were found in warehouses playing track after track of this new repetitive rhythm.

This repetitive rhythm became the signature of the techno sound. A driving kick drum on every beat with a hi-hat on every other beat gave dancers a bouncing feel that made them dance in a way that came to be called “Jack.” This driving rhythm was often paired with jagged melodies performed on the now popular Roland TB-303 synthesizer. These melodies soon became a staple part of this genre and appeared in some of the most popular tunes of the day.

The Roland TR-808 and TR-909 were some of the most widely used drum machines in techno music. There were hardly any songs in the sub-genre that did not use at least one of these machines. As time went on, more sophisticated drum machines and samplers were introduced, providing a more complex sound.

Techno is normally made in the tempo range of 125-135 BPM and is normally faster than its cousin, house music. While its tempos are similar, techno often offers a more “driving” beat which brings a higher energy to the dance floor. Its signature hi-hat found on every other beat drives each song forward pushing the intensity higher and higher.

Techno Beat (128 BPM, 909 Drum Rack in Ableton Live)



Trap music is one of the newest sub-genres of electronic dance music. It is a derivative of hip hop and is often referred to as bass music. The term “trap” (shortened from “trap house”) was used in reference to the spots where dope boys made drug deals. This music became the soundtrack for street pharmacists and others whose main lyrical focus was drug-related.

It was primarily hip hop artists from the southern United States who pioneered this sound, which used mostly the 808-kick drum paired with triplet hi-hats. Almost 20 years after this sound evolved, many new electronic music producers started to revamp this style by updating and tweaking this legacy sound into new productions.

While trap is still a signature sound in hip hop today, the electronic dance music variation emerged in 2012 using elements from drum & bass, house and dubstep to create a new sub-genre which has a unique feel. Now, you can often hear trap music at electronic music venues showcasing the instrumental aspects rather than the lyrics, which were previously just as much a focal point as the music. In addition to the signature bass sounds made by the Roland TR-808, pitched down samples of classic hip hop are often found in this style of music, a nod to its roots in 1990s urban culture.

Trap Beat (70 BPM, 808 Drum Rack in Ableton Live)


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