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Synthpop is a subgenre of pop and electronic music in which the synthesizer is the dominant musical instrument. It originated during the New Wave era of the late 1970s and to mid-1980s, and it has continued to exist and develop ever since. It saw a rise in popularity in the 21st century.


While most current popular music in the industrialized world is realized via electronic instruments, synthpop has its own stylistic tendencies which differentiate it from other music produced by the same means. These include the exploitation of artificiality (i.e., the synthesis of sounds from waveforms) where the synthesizers are not used to imitate acoustic instruments, the use of mechanical sounding rhythms, vocal arrangements as a counterpoint to the artificiality of the instruments, and ostinato patterns as an effect. Synthpop song structures are generally similar to those of other popular music.



Mid-twentieth-century avant-garde and musique concrète composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen were pioneers in the development of electronic music. However, the instruments were originally large, highly complex, temperamental, and expensive. The use of synthesizers in rock music began in the 1960s, notably by the Beatles. In the late 1960s, there was a surge of Moog synthesizer-affected albums by artists like Perrey and Kingsley, Dick Hyman and, most notably, Wendy Carlos. In 1972, jazz musician Stan Free, under the pseudonym Hot Butter had a top 10 hit in the United States and United Kingdom with a cover of the 1969 Gershon Kingsley song "Popcorn". It is considered a forerunner to synthpop due to the the use of the Moog synthesizer. During the 1970s, synthesizers became more widely used by progressive rock and jazz fusion groups such as Pink Floyd, Yes, ELO, Genesis, Return to Forever, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Weather Report, often in place of or in conjunction with the Mellotron. Many Krautrock groups like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk heavily incorporated synthesizers into their music as well.

The mid-1970s, saw the rise of electronic art music musicians such as Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Brian Eno, and Tomita, who were a significant influence of the development of New Age Music. In the late seventies, Suicide, a duo from New Yorkmarker, combined vocals and keyboard in a harsh, avant-garde and often very controversial form. Italian producer Giorgio Moroder was also a significant influence on the further development of electronic music, producing synth driven hits for many artists, most notably Donna Summer.

David Bowie, Roxy Music and Kraftwerk influenced the first wave of British Synthpop.

First wave: late 1970s and 1980s

Giorgio Moroder paired up with Donna Summer in 1977 to release the electronic disco song I Feel Love. While a disco song first and foremost, the programmed, arpeggiated beats had a profound impact on the bands which would soon be known as synthpop. That same year, Ultravox member Warren Cann purchased a Roland TR-77 drum machine, which was first featured in their October 1977 single release Hiroshima Mon Amour.

In 1978, the first incarnation of the Human League of Sheffieldmarker, England released their debut single "Being Boiled". In the United States, Devo, who had been using synthesizers since their beginnings in 1975, moved towards a more electronic sound.

In the UK, the original synthesizer bands had a sound that was generally dark, moody and robotic and were more founded in an avant-garde, art rock aesthetic. Frank Tovey, who performed under the name Fad Gadget and was signed to Daniel Miller's Mute Records made use of found objects in his work such as bottles and razors. Daniel Miller himself had a role in the emerging futurist movement as a performer under the name The Normal which released a one-off single Warm Leatherette. Although the single did not chart, it became a cult favorite and has been covered by many artists since its release, including Grace Jones, Duran Duran and Nine Inch Nails.

In 1979, Giorgio Moroder collaborated with the band Sparks on their album, No. 1 In Heaven, perhaps one of the first bands to 'crossover' to synthpop. Others were soon to follow, including Tubeway Army, a little known outfit from West London, who dropped their initial punk rock image and topped the UK charts in the summer of 1979 with the single "Are Friends Electric?". This prompted the singer, Gary Numan to go solo and in the same year he released the Kraftwerk inspired album, The Pleasure Principle and again topped the charts for the second time with the single "Cars". M's had a hit hit singlewith "Pop Muzik".

This Zeitgeist of revolution in electronic music performance and recording/production was encapsulated by then would be record producer, Trevor Horn of The Buggles in the international hit "Video Killed the Radio Star".

As avant-garde of Futurism fused with the pop sensibilities of the New Romantics the sounds of synthesizers came to dominated the pop music of the early 80s as well as replacing disco in dance clubs in Europe. Others artist of synthpop of the 80s are Bananarama, Soft Cell, Camouflage, Modern Talking, Real Life, and others.

In early synthpop the synthesizer stood out and the music sounded eerie, sterile and slightly menacing. By the mid 1980's the technology had improved to the point that synthpop acts used the instrument to create a sound that resembled many instruments and allowed mainstream rock and pop acts to incorporate the synthesizer into their sound. At this point the synthesizer did not stand out and the differences between synthpop and mainstream music started to decrease.

In the United States where synthpop is considered a sub genre of New Wave the genre became popular in large part due to the cable music channel MTV.

1990s, early 2000s

In Europe, South America, Australia, and Asia, synthpop remained more widely accepted. Eventually, the global synthpop scene re-emerged in the United States with the growing success of American record labels such as A Different Drum. Synth-pop pioneers in Latin America during the 80s were Virus.

By about 1991, synthpop declined in popularity as acoustic music like grunge and also urban music began to replace its popularity. The bulk of electronic popular music in the nineties came from dance music genres such as house and techno. These music styles are usually not included in synthpop.

Some bands embraced by modern synthpop fans like Red Flag and Anything Box were dropped by their labels and began self-releasing new albums. Newer artists, such as Joy Electric have been influenced by the pioneering analog-coldwave sounds of the mid 1970's to early 1980s and have established a purist sound taken from the pre-sampling era. Low-fidelity synthpop artists Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, Microfilm and Ariel Pink have found success on independent labels.

Synthpop did not entirely fall off the radar in the '90s however: a few Alternative acts continued to experiment with electronics and pop music; examples include Björk, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt, Smashing Pumpkins, Blur, U2 and R.E.M..

Second wave, early 2000s to present

Synthpop has also begun to re-emerge as some indie artists have incorporated the sound, slowly increasing the popularity of the genre. Kid A by Radiohead in 2000 perhaps led to an increased interest in electronic music in the indie scene. Some key albums in the development of synthpop during the 2000s have included Neon Golden by The Notwist (2002), Give Up by The Postal Service (2003), Last Exit by Junior Boys (2004), Hot Fuss by The Killers (2004) and Silent Shout by The Knife (2006). The Killers brought the sound into the mainstream with the hits "Mr. Brightside" and "Somebody Told Me", which were seen by many as authentic throwbacks to 80s synthpop and achieved international success. However, they moved away from synthpop on their next release, Sam's Town (2006). Oracular Spectacular by MGMT, originally released digitally in late 2007, achieved unprecedented success and has led the way for chart success for other synthpop and indie electronic acts such as Cut Copy, Hot Chip, Metric, Owl City, Passion Pit, hellogoodbye, and even the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who switched to an almost entirely electronic sound for their 2009 album It's Blitz! after being part of the garage rock revival movement earlier in the decade. Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, and New Order, although nowhere near the peak of their popularity during the mid-1980s to early 1990s, are perhaps the only of the original 80s synthpop bands that continues to score international hits (and sell out concerts in major venues around the world).


Synthpop is sometimes confused with electropop, which is generally regarded to be a particular style of synthpop that incorporates the more robotic elements and feel of electro music. The term "synthpop" has also become increasingly used in goth and industrial circles to describe various alternative electronic artists who have used influences from synthpop, particularly those in the electronic body music genre such as Psyche, Covenant, Mesh, Iris, And One, Melotron, S.P.O.C.K, Beborn Beton, VNV Nation and Wolfsheim. It is otherwise generally used in its more classic sense, referring to 1980s synthesizer-driven pop acts (e.g., The Human League, Eurythmics), less precisely, to a variety of other pop acts from the same era (e.g., Duran Duran, Visage, Japan, and Spandau Ballet), and to current and emerging synthesizer-driven pop acts. A number of artists credit Techno music's emergence to synthpop's influence.


See also


  1. Hot Butter bio by Allmusic
  2. Allmusic Synthpop Genre
  3. The Death of New Wave Theo Cateforis Assistant Professor of Music History and Cultures in the Department of Art and Music Histories at Syracuse University 2009

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