On Synthwave

On Synthwave

Lately I’ve been listening to ungodly amounts of synthwave. It’s not something I expected to get really, really into, but now that I’m here in the midst of this obsession, I can start to trace where this all came from and why I’m digging it so much.

A focus on atmosphere & forward momentum

Different genres and subgenres of music tends to have different purposes, different stylistic tendencies, different strengths & weaknesses. Some music reaches out and demands your attention, which doesn’t work so well when you want to get some work done. Music with angular melodies and awkward rhythms and rapid changes of texture, though they’ll always have a special place in my heart and in my playlists, aren’t exactly easy to grade exams to.

Synthwave, though, by and large, aims to set a mood and propel you forward. The lush pads set up a pillowy structure on which looping drums & arpeggiators & repetitive chordal structures & sparse melodic material move the listener through an inviting (but not overly so) space. The net effect ends up being very similar to minimalist classical music, though of course with a different instrumental palette and an array of other genre tendencies.

A lost era

I was born less than a month before the 80s were over. My baby-boomer parents were what we would now call “classic rock” aficionados, purists of the Bay Area who knocked on disco and the emerging pop culture surrounding synthesizers and their users starting in the 70s and running through to the present. My sister listened to pop music, but by then it was the contemporary 90s pop-superstars. I grew up occasionally hearing tiny snippets 80s pop music, but only when followed immediately by a turn of the dial and a “Turn that crap off let’s listen to some real music.” I can’t really fault them for that; in fact, I almost thank them; there is now an entire decade of music that feels alien & endlessly engaging to me.


For as long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with technology. My first computer was a Windows 3.1 machine. I would dig around in the folders, exploring the structure of the machine just for fun. I didn’t understand it, but it was like looking across an alien landscape.

Synthesizers hold that same kind of magic to me (even though I now have a much firmer (though still not complete) grasp on their inner workings than I did of Windows 3.1 as a 7-year-old), and they obviously hold a very central place in synthwave. The genre’s very definition is centered around technology and the geekiness that comes along with it. But instead of the cutting-edge of digital sampling, audio recording, and synthesis technology, we go back to this more primal state, where the cutting edge meant instruments that (in an over-simplified matter) increased and decreased voltage on various submodules in a hyper-organized fashion to create music. Even if the tools used to create it are mere emulations of this primitive technology (as it often is today), the result is compelling.

You have to be sort of geeky to really appreciate outdated technology like that. It’s related to the same reason I find Emacs & Vim interesting. They get their jobs done despite newer and shinier and more modern tools. And as we’ve seen with digital Eurorack modules (and, yes, with Emacs and Vim), you can even integrate newer and shinier technology into the more primitive technology without the primitive technology losing all of what makes it so special.

An alternate reality

Synthwave, on the surface level, seems in some ways to be rather pointless. After all, if it’s meant to imitate synth-based music of the 80s, why not just listen to the music from the 80s?

Well, as I just alluded to, there really have been improvements in the technology used to make music in the few decades. We can do what they did better and faster. We can make more of it. We can spin off in slightly different directions, utilizing the kinds of stylistic tendencies and technology that would not have existed even in the minds of anyone alive in the 80s.

Listening to synthwave is like entering an alternate version of the present, one where pop music went in a vastly different direction, and perhaps other parts of the world went with it. It evokes this false sense of invented nostalgia for something that never actually existed, or that at best that we never actually experienced (I’m going to guess that a big portion of synthwave’s fanbase did not experience firsthand the era on which it’s largely based). It’s magical and surreal. It’s escapist even. Maybe too much escapism can be unhealthy, but for now I’m going to keep riding this wave (zing!).

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