How Electronic Synth Sounds Shaped ’80s Music
Every decade of music has introduced a new perspective that represents the culture as it unfolds, creating a sonic imprint to reflect society. The scene of the ’80s music industry witnessed a revolutionary transformation with the widespread introduction of drum machines, synthesizers, and non-traditional instruments.
The Use of Synthesizers in ’80s Music
Percussion synthesizers were essential to elevating the popular electronic style in the ’80s. Drum machines gave musicians the power to introduce rhythmic patterns with precision, consistency, and flexibility, playing a pivotal role in recalibrating various music genres, including synth-pop, electronic dance, and new wave/modern rock.
They functioned as a reliable alternative to human drummers, enabling musicians to experiment with unique beats and grooves that defined the characteristic ’80s dance music. As a result, catchy, electronic-driven rhythms became a prominent element in some of the best ’80s songs ever recorded.
Synthesizers during this period were the backbone of the electronic sound that dominated the ’80s hits. These versatile instruments produced a wide range of sounds, from warm analog tones to futuristic, ethereal melodies. Through the use of synthesizers, musicians had the freedom to create intricate, layered textures and innovative soundscapes that were impossible to achieve solely with traditional instruments. Highlighted synth songs from the 1980s are represented below.
Kim Wilde: “Kids in America”
Recognized as one of the defining hits of ’80s dance music, “Kids in America” channeled Kim Wilde’s boisterous punky voice through a barrage of synth sounds that echoed the attitude of the decade like no other.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood: “Relax”
With its aggressive slant and charged lyrics, Frankie Goes to Hollywood came out of the starting blocks intending to shake up the music world, and it did just that with “Relax.” This song sold millions of copies and introduced new fans to the power of synth sounds.
Depeche Mode: “Just Can’t Get Enough”
Involving all the characteristics of synth pop is Depeche Mode released the energetic single “Just Can’t Get Enough,” a song released at the beginning of their career that demonstrated even a serious band is capable of sonic frivolity.
The Elevation of Electronica in ’80s Hits
The ’80s music scene also saw the rise of electronica as a genre to be mentioned in the same breath as rock, with many old and emerging artists incorporating the sound into chart-toppers. If synthesizers expanded musicians’ musical possibilities, non-traditional instruments like electronic keyboards, samplers, and drum pads resulted in even more expansive options for artists to sample or manipulate sounds. The end result was new recordings with added layers and dimensions to the music.
New technology led to unique sounds during the 1980s, and many artists — from classic rock bands to ’80s one-hit wonders — began experimenting with these influences. This resulted in the birth of several sub-genres including electro, techno, and house.
A slew of new wave and modern rock bands surfaced during the heyday of the ’80s, embracing the latest technology, which they merged with classic rock elements to produce a fresh and distinct sound that became a calling card of the ’80s alternative scene. Examples include:
a-ha: “Take on Me”
Featuring a killer synth riff, inescapable chorus, and unforgettable video, “Take on Me” was one of the best ’80s tracks, with a-ha defining an era and gaining acclaim for slick production and inspired synth arrangements.
Eurythmics: “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”
Showcasing not only Annie Lennox’s textured tenor voice but also a perfect combination of new wave and sensual R&B, Eurhythmics gained international acclaim with “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” — arguably one of the best ’80s love songs ever.
Bring on the New Wave!
New wave music in the ’80s blended elements of new wave, post-punk, and electronic music to create an innovative and experimental sound. There were several standout songs during the decade, which include “West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys. Easily one of the most popular songs of Pet Shop Boys’ long and storied history, “West End Girls” is a song about sex and escapism — the quintessential elements to ’80s love songs that have somehow stood the test of time and earned it a spot as an endearing pop single.
Rock of Ages
The impact of synthesizers on classic rock was transformative, adding new layers of sound and texture and diversifying the sound in a whole new way. This enrichment allowed classic artists to experiment in new ways that shattered conceptual elements and merged genres that defied the conventional. Standout examples of this illustrious work from the ’80s are Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads.
Tina Turner: “What’s Love Got to Do with It”
The comeback song for the Queen of Rock, “What’s Love Got to Do with It” not only solidified Tina Turner’s status as a great singer and musical chameleon but also proved that classic rock could evolve and incorporate elements of synth to produce a new sound that was full of raw emotion and soul.
Talking Heads: “Psycho Killer”
This provocative ’80s song from Talking Heads takes the unique perspective of a killer’s mind. “Psycho Killer” takes listeners up down, across, and through a wide labyrinth of synth sounds that continue to resonate long after the decade ended.
Synth as a Groundbreaking Sound in ’80s Music
The introduction of synthesizers, drum machines, and unconventional instrumentation changed the musical landscape not only during the 1980s but also for the proceeding decades. The significance of these technological advancements is directly responsible for a sonic renaissance shaping the overall international music scene and taking mainstream culture by storm.