What Is IDM Music?

IDM stands for “Intelligent Dance Music”, a subgenre of electronic music that came to life in the early ’90s. It’s characterized by exotic tones, experimental sounds, and low frequencies.

IDM is music to listen to rather than dance. In other words, it’s the type of music to listen to when you’re relaxing at home rather than at the club. 

This may sound counterintuitive since the subgenre literally contains the word “dance” in its name.  However, it’s only named like that due to its link to electronic dance music, but more on that later. 

Where Did IDM Come From?

The music genre IDM originated in the United Kingdom, but the term IDM itself likely began from the release of the Artificial Intelligence Warp compilation in 1992. This was the record label’s first album in the Artificial Intelligence series. It included a mix of tracks from artists like The Black Dog, I.A.O, Aphex Twin, Speedy J, Autechre, B12, and The Orb.

The compilation received critical acclaim, with critics describing the music as “satisfying” and “a re-training of the ear”. Some critics also mentioned that the album challenged the status quo back then by proving that electronic music isn’t just a genre for dancing. 

According to Wrap’s co-owner Steve Beckett, the album was intended for a home-listening audience who weren’t into partying and dancing. In 1993, a mailing list that discussed the English artists who appeared in the compilation marked the birth of the subgenre and popularized it. 

Dozens of IDM albums were released over the years, but only a few made it to the top charts. Now, let’s explore some of the most popular IDM albums of all time:

Selected Ambient Works 85-92 by Aphex Twin

Aphex Twin is a British DJ and composer who’s often regarded as one of the most notable producers of electronic music. His real name is Richard David James, but most people know him by his stage name. 

Although Aphex Twin isn’t solely an IDM artist, his first album, “Selected Ambient Works 85-92”, is considered one of the sprouts of IDM. 

The album was released in November 1992, when it made a significant ripple in the field of electronic music and IDM. In 2012, Fact dubbed “Selected Ambient Works” as the greatest album of the ’90s.

Surfing on Sine Waves by Polygon Window

Surfing on Sine Waves was released in 1993 by Polygon Window, who’s actually Richard David James. He liked to use many pseudonyms throughout his career, and you can’t blame him for that. He wanted to give each of his releases a unique identity depending on the music. 

The album includes a list of tracks that truly represent electronic madness. It combines the ambient works of Mr. James with his rave-minded masterpieces. The album was also praised for being melodic and catchy. 

Fact listed Surfing on Sine Waves as the 26th best album of the 90’s, while Pitchfork named it the 26th best IDM album of all time. 

Hard Normal Daddy by Squarepusher

Squarepusher is a British electronic music composer. He’s known for being a part of the big 3 revolution of the early ’90s, along with Aphex Twin and Autechre. His real name is Tom Jenkinson. 

Hard Normal Daddy is Squarepusher’s second studio album released in 1997. The album is usually described as cinematic and funky, with each song on the album being perceived as a short story. 

Bytes by Black Dog Productions

Black Dog Productions is a British electronic music group founded by Ken Downie, Andy Turner, and Ed Handley. The group members changed its name to “The Black Dog” later. 

Bytes was the group’s first-ever album, and it’s widely regarded as one of the most influential works in IDM music. The tracklist features euphonic melodic passages built around complex patterns and diverse atmospherics. 

Slant Magazine gave the album the 23rd spot on its “The 25 Greatest Electronic Albums of the 20th Century” list. 

Why The Name IDM Was Controversial

Following the period the IDM subgenre gained popularity, there’ve been lots of debates and controversies surrounding its name. 

Some people saw ‘intelligent’ as snobbish, arrogant, and intellectual. They also believe that the name is dismissing other types of electronic music

What makes things even more interesting is that many artists don’t approve of the term either, most notably Aphex Twin himself, who is most often associated with the genre. 

What Does IDM Sound Like?

IDM is experimental. Usually, it doesn’t follow regular progressions or song structures. In fact, you can call it chaotic at times.

Here’s a quick overview of some of the distinctive characteristics of IDM music:

Digital Aesthetic

IDM typically relies on cool texturing by including jazz and old-school funk samples rather than hip hop samples. Most other electronic music subgenres lean on louder and more intense sounds. 


Unlike traditional dance music, IDM music sheds light on soundscapes that integrate ambient textures. So, when you listen to IDM music, you’d want to relax and focus on every tiny detail of the beat rather than get up and dance. 

Great for Close Listening

Listening to IDM music with loudspeakers will never give you the same rewarding experience of listening with a pair of noise-canceling headphones. It’s the style of music that’s meant to be listened to closely. 

Is IDM Dead?

IDM is still around but not quite as popular. However, it’s not referred to as IDM as much these days because some see it as a snob term. 

According to music critics, IDM is here to stay, and the name is still used nowadays, albeit less commonly. 

The subgenre has changed dramatically over the years. And despite the emergence of new artists in the first two decades of the 21st century, the subgenre’s pioneers are still the most influential. 

Other Names for IDM

Many alternative names for IDM emerged in the early ’90s, including “art techno,” “electronica”, and “armchair techno”. These names were pretty descriptive of the subgenre, but IDM was the name that reigned back then. 

In recent years, many artists and fans stopped calling IDM by its name. Instead, the subgenre was renamed to “BrainDance” by multiple artists and PR companies. 

Difference between IDM and EDM

EDM is often confused with IDM, to the point that some people accidentally use both terms interchangeably. And while both terms are related, they don’t mean the same thing.

EDM, or Electronic Dance Music, is actually not a genre but more of a generalization of several electronic or dance music genres. Some of these genres include techno, house, dance-pop, and synth-pop. 

EDM is a term that you can use to call a DJ’s dance music playlist at a party or rave. On the other hand, IDM is technically a subset of EDM as it’s referred to in America, but EDM is more associated in general with music that you dance to. 


While the popularity of IDM music has faded significantly, many fans of electronic music still appreciate what it brings to the table. Putting its controversial name aside, the subgenre has contributed substantially to the development of electronic music. 

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

I’ve been a writer with Musician Wave for six years, turning my 17-year journey as a multi-instrumentalist and music producer into insightful news, tutorials, reviews, and features.

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