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Dance music is a broad term that includes many different styles of music. Through this lesson, you will explore some of the history of dance music and gain an understanding of its evolution from the 19th century to the present.

Defining Dance Music

Since the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950’s, music has come to occupy a considerably important place in the lives of young people. Indeed, there are seemingly endless applications for popular music, from driving social justice movements to selling consumer goods, but sometimes we all just want something that makes us dance.Dance music is a broad term that refers to any kind of music that is created specifically for people to dance to. Considering that music is very personal and its uses are subjective, it can be hard to distinguish dance music from other types and to pinpoint its exact origins.Though there are earlier examples of dance music from the classical and romantic periods, like the waltz or the mazurka, the genre as we know it today has roots in the late 19th and early 20th century.

During this time, ballroom dancing was a popular form of entertainment and music was often created specifically to accommodate the dance style.Moving into the 1930’s, town hall dances and dance competitions were a popular form of entertainment for which music was also often specifically written. Throughout the 1930’s, 40’s, and into the early 50’s, swing music was a wildly popular form of big band jazz that generally accompanied high energy dancing. The popularity of these styles began to decline with the emergence of rock and roll and rhythm and blues music in the mid-to-late 1950’s.

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Swing music was often created to accompany the high energy dance movement of the same name.

Though not specifically produced for the purposes of making people dance, the rhythms, melodies, and composition of 1960’s soul and rhythm and blues lent itself well to dancing and good times.

Moreover, there were a number of singles, like The Twist and Shake a Tail Feather, that were created for dancing, often going as far as calling out the steps in the song.Entering into the 1970’s, the concept of dance music changed considerably, as soul and R&B slowly morphed into funk music and eventually disco, which would ultimately reshape the way that we all think about dance music.


Disco is a genre of dance music blending soul, funk, rhythm and blues, and pop that emerged during the late 1960’s and early 70’s in New York City. It is characterized by heavy bass lines, strong beats, and the incorporation of early electronic instruments like the synthesizer. The word is derived from the French term discotheque, a name given to nightclubs in France during the 1960’s and eventually in other parts of Europe.Throughout the first half of the 1970’s, it was a relatively unknown style among mainstream audiences, as it was primarily played in private clubs, particularly the members only gay clubs in the city. By the mid-70’s, however, disco had reached the mainstream through strong radio play of singers like Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, and ABBA.

By 1977, disco was at its peak with the music charts being dominated by disco singers and the box office success of the film Saturday Night Fever. Towards the end of the decade, disco had become so influential that it started to influence rock and pop artists like Rod Stewart, generating a widespread public backlash and giving rise to the catchphrase ”disco sucks.”

Despite its popularity, many people felt that disco lacked substance, giving rise to the phrase disco sucks.

Disco had dominated the music charts for the last half of the 1970’s, but by 1980 enthusiasm for the genre had begun to wane.

Techno and Synthpop

During the first half of the 1980’s, keyboards and electronic drum kits figured prominently in a number of hugely successful records.

Like the music of the 1960’s, these songs weren’t specifically created for dancing, but they had an upbeat tempo and fun sensibility that was common in disco. In the UK, on the other hand, bands like the Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode began releasing a different style of electronic music that also reflects disco’s influence. The synth heavy style of bands like Depeche Mode is sometimes referred to as synthpop for its blend of popular styles and heavy use of synthesizers.Synthpop’s heavy use of electronics and synthesizers served as an important influence on later dance music. Throughout the 80’s, electronics were regularly featured in music, but tended to be incorporated into a more traditional arrangement.

By the mid-to-late 80’s, however, electronics were taking a more prominent, if not exclusive, role in music. In Detroit, a new genre was forming that almost exclusively used electronics to create music–a genre that we now refer to as techno.In many ways, techno is a modern return to the late 19th century style of dance music. It is very often instrumental and its general purpose is to facilitate dancing. The style makes heavy use of bass lines and drum beats to create familiar rhythms.

Between the late 80’s and into the 90’s, techno would become as influential as disco ever was, often blending different genres like jazz, pop, and soul music, all created and mixed using computers and electronics.


Tracing the history of dance music from the 19th century to the present day, you can see how each new genre influenced the ones that followed. In the present, dance music is often referred to as electronic dance music (EDM), a term that distinguishes it from earlier incarnations.

Modern dance music relies heavily on computers, turntables, and faders to create music.
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