Brief history of trance music

Brief history of trance music

According to the ticket vendor Skiddle, ticket sales for trance events are at an all-time high. The diversification into subgenres which occurred across the 90s has arguably reversed and trance has recombined with elements of house and techno from which it initially emerged. But the global appetite for the ethereal rhythms the genre has made its own is as strong as ever. This coincides with a general resurgence of interest in electronic dance music since approximately 2007 to the present. The 90s classics, which became unfashionable for a time, are getting the most play time at festivals in years.

In fact music intended to induce a trance-like state has a vast antiquity. It is evident in shamanism and tribal dance dating back tens or hundreds of thousands of years. Drums made from animal hide and flutes carved from mammoth bone date back over 50,000 years. The basic desire to dance to music has changed little across history. Ancient indigenous musical ceremonies resemble what still goes on in clubs, festivals, and outdoors parties across the world. The equivalence between tribal dance and the modern dance scene has been noted by numerous academics.



Modern history

As for the modern history of trance music, some would point to the work of Klaus Schulze in the early 1980s or even Tangerine Dream (of which Schulze was a member in the 1970s) as a form of proto-trance, but the first recognizable modern trance tracks originate in the mid to late-1980s. Proto-trance sounds emerged in several genres of music before they crystalized into the trance we know today.

There is no agreement among DJs as to what would constitute the first trance track. There are certainly opinions, but they are usually different. In any case trancey sounds began to appear in acid house and techno in the mid to late-80s in the USA and the UK, and in the underground scene in the Goa area of India. But the explosion of the genre was led by the European mainland, especially Germany.  The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, and the unified German football team’s subsequent world cup win in the Summer of 1990, created the kind of mood in which the euphoric genre could flourish.

By the early 90s the characteristic rhythm of 4/4 time, 32 beat phrases, and kick drums began to be heard in clubs and parties around Germany and Belgium, and quickly spread to the rest of Europe and to UK shores. The city of Manchester became an initial focus. Manchester trance parties attained legendary status and drew visitors from all over the country. Half hour tracks, with titillating, slowly building, 10 minute introductions began to dominate UK clubs and raves. The contrast between heavy driving beats, soaring synths, and often celestial vocal samples provided arguably the most emotional variety in a musical genre since the eighteenth century orchestral heyday. String patterns and a focus on melody and harmony provided further complementarity with classical music. For over a decade, trance was the most distinctive sound on the club and party scene.

The beat range of around 120-160 beats per minute and the flowing, emotionally and spiritually charged melodies, along with the characteristic ebb and flow of the build-up and climax lead to a trance like dance state in the audience. The dance style encouraged by trance was somewhat different to that which had been adopted in response to techno and house tracks. The winding melodies of trance encouraged a full bodied, flowing engagement, in contrast to the short stabbing movements more commonly seen on techno dance floors.

Released in 1989, Neon’s No Limit is a good example of trance sounds emerging on a recording which would otherwise be considered acid house. It is one of the tracks that is often mentioned in the unresolvable search to find the first trance track. The prophetically named Future Sound of London broke new ground with their 1991 track Papua New Guinea – one of the  most refined and delicately crafted tracks ever produced in electronic music. Although still properly described as acid house, its uplifting pad effects closely pre-cursed the atmosphere of trance and prepared the way for it in public consciousness.



Jam and Spoon’s Stella, released in 1992, is considered by some to the first track to display a mature trance sound. From then on the classics soon began to arrive. Quench’s Dreams was an early favorite. In the Goa trance subgenre, Hallucinogen’s LSD and Astral Projection’s Dancing Galaxy became eternal dance festival anthems.



Trance received increasing attention on main stream radio and quickly became the dominant sound in bars and clubs. Sasha’s progressive trance track Xpanda, Veracocha’s Carte Blanche, and Chicane’s Saltwater were seminal releases. Robert Miles’s Children was the first great track of the dream trance genre. Alice DJs Do you think you’re better off alone was a hit around the world Ian Van Dahl’s Castle’s in the sky cut across boundaries. Pop artists increasingly brought trance sounds into their recordings, even Madonna’s Ray of Light album had a distinctive trance sound. Delirium’s original of the track Silence featuring Sarah McLaughlin and the Tiesto remix released in 2007 achieved classic status. Planet Perfecto’s Bullet in the Gun was the anthem of high street clubs around the turn of the millennium, while Darude’s Sandstorm gave the world one of the most recognizable musical sounds of all time.



Trance faded in popularity and from play lists from approximately 2002 to 2007 with guitar music making a comeback. The release of Tiesto’s remix of Silence signaled the return of trance. The new genre of tech trance grew rapidly in popularity, while trance and house genres became merged again as they had been in the beginning, producing the synthetic sound of electro trance.

The genres

Since 1990 a large number of sub-genres of trance have emerged. They share being characterized by the words enthralling, atmospheric, uplifting, unifying, euphoric and transcendent. Different types of trance have differentiated but they usually still share important elements. It is often far from clear what particular type of trance a track is, or even what main characteristics a particular sub-genre has for its sound.

Uplifting or “pure” trance Uplifting trance, often called “pure trance” by enthusiasts, remains loyal to the mid-90s sound, and usually emphasizes the 138-140 BPM range. It is noted for the powerful drawn-out buildups, thumping drums, pulsing rhythm, and a somewhat rawer sound than the progressive trance which became popular slightly later. The focus is usually on a repetition and expansion of a single lead melody, or not more than two melodies. Uplifting trance continues to draw huge crowds of loyal fans at events across Europe. The genre is strongly focused on major chords, leading to the uplifting feeling. More downbeat and reflective forms of trance use minor chord leads.

Goa and psychedelic trance Goa trance emerged in the Goa region of India – an alternative living stronghold that had been popular with hippies since the 1960s. Goa was noted for hashish, LSD, and Eastern spirituality. The first Goa DJs played psychedelic rock in the 1970s, before techno and acid house began to dominate in the 1980s. Goa DJs developed their own form of trance music from the beginning, bringing in the acid rock influence and sounds from Indian classical music, in a form which developed in parallel to the European trance scene. The origination of trancey sounds in Goa arguably predated their origination in Germany, but on a much smaller scale. The emphasis was on a fast-tempoed (140BPM plus) yet dreamy, surreal, hallucinogenic and other-worldy sound, with multiple rhythmic and melodic layers that built throughout the track. By 1994 the movement was in full swing, and specialist Goa trance clubs and festivals existed around the world. By 1997 Goa trance briefly came to feature in the play lists of mainstream trance DJs and reached its commercial peak. This popularity did not last long – to the relief of many of the genre’s dedicated fans. Around this time the sound began to change subtly yet noticeably as Goa trance gave way to psychedelic trance. Psychedelic trance offered a more complex mixture of sounds and samples, a more fluid feel, and still more layers to the music. Psychedelic trance remains popular in the festival and outdoor party scene. Raising consciousness, finding alternative values and ways of living, and social activism are all strongly entwined with the psychedelic trance movement.

The “commercial” genres

Progressive trance Perhaps the most mainstream outlet of trance music, progressive trance dominated the dance floors of high street bars and clubs in the years surrounding the turn of the millennium. Though it was never quite right for more serious dance music fans, it produced melodies and that almost anyone will recognize, including Darude’s Sandstorm and Planet Perfecto’s Bullet in the Gun. It was the sound of DJs who became household names, like Sasha, Paul van Dyk, and Paul Oakenfold. Using multiple grooves and melodies rather than focusing on a single lead element in the 128-136 BPM range progressive trance has also acquired a reputation for being one of the most diverse of subgenres. It was slower and the feel often more reflective than either uplifting trance or psychedelic trance.



Vocal trance Vocal elements of one kind or another have always been a part of trance as they were a part of acid house and techno scene from which trance arose. The earliest trance tracks included both MCing and sampled female vocals. Trance tracks which were dominated by expansive female mezzo soprano or soprano came into their own from 1992-1993. Typically, heartfelt and emotional lyrics were offset against delay, reverb and a rapid driving beat, though there is really no standard tempo for vocal trance tracks. Vocal elements are also widely entwined with uplifting and progressive trance as well as being classified by many DJs as a genre in its own right. Vocal trance continued to be popular well into the 2010s. Tiesto’s 2008 remix of the Delirium track Silence featuring Sarah McLaughlin’s vocals was a hit around the world.



Orchestral influence and the modern reunification

Orchestral trance Orchestral trance features the sounds of classical instruments, particularly string melodies. The orchestral trance genre tends towards longer breakdowns than progressive trance. Fans claim it is the most varied emotional ride of all forms of trance. For this reason it is often called epic trance. More recently it has been referred to as “orchestral uplifting” and has undergone a resurgence. Andy Blueman’s  Sea Tides EP was a seminal release in this respect. From around 2009 an increasing number of trance producers have emphasized orchestral recordings to a greater extent in their music.



Dream trance Dream trance also emphasized a classical sound, but was slower and more relaxing. Dream trance was usually piano based. Dream trance grew out of the reaction to a spate of road deaths in Italy from clubbers driving home recklessly while still pumped up from the music. The watershed moment was the release of Robert Miles’s Children, which had worldwide success. The track, as Miles intended, was played last at gigs and club nights to intentionally slow down the mood. The title was a sentimental plea to the audience to think of their future children before driving.



Tech trance and electro trance Tech trance began in the mid-90s but underwent an explosion centered around San Francisco from the early 2000s. It is currently the most widespread and fastest growing form of trance. Producers such as Above and Beyond and Tiesto, previously involved in uplifting and progressive trance, now began producing tech trance. A revived techno influence brought a more mechanical feel to the music which separated it from other trance forms, while retaining the trance melodies which differentiated it from other techno sounds.

Tech trance was symptomatic of a reunification of sounds within electronic dance music during the 2010s, which also saw the rise of the genre of electro trance, a fusion of house and trance with resemblance of the late 1980s sound. Sander van Doorn and Marcel Woods were at the forefront of the emergence of both movements. The era was marked by a decreasing differentiation of the sound on trance, house, and techno dance floors, and the term “trouse” was one of the terms coined to reflect this mixing.