Synth-pop (short for synthesizer pop;[3] also called techno-pop[4][5]) is a subgenre of new wave music[6][7] that first became prominent in the late 1970s and features the synthesizer as the dominant musical instrument. It was prefigured in the 1960s and early 1970s by the use of synthesizers in progressive rock, electronic, art rock, disco, and particularly the "Krautrock" of bands like Kraftwerk. It arose as a distinct genre in Japan and the United Kingdom in the post-punk era as part of the new wave movement of the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.

Electronic musical synthesizers that could be used practically in a recording studio became available in the mid-1960s, while the mid-1970s saw the rise of electronic art musicians. After the breakthrough of Gary Numan in the UK Singles Chart in 1979, large numbers of artists began to enjoy success with a synthesizer-based sound in the early 1980s. In Japan, Yellow Magic Orchestra introduced the TR-808 rhythm machine to popular music, and the band would be a major influence on early British synth-pop acts. The development of inexpensive polyphonic synthesizers, the definition of MIDI and the use of dance beats, led to a more commercial and accessible sound for synth-pop. This, its adoption by the style-conscious acts from the New Romantic movement, together with the rise of MTV, led to success for large numbers of British synth-pop acts in the US during the Second British Invasion.

"Synth-pop" is sometimes used interchangeably with "electropop",[5] but "electropop" may also denote a variant of synth-pop that places more emphasis on a harder, more electronic sound.[8] In the mid to late 1980s, duos such as Erasure and Pet Shop Boys adopted a style that was highly successful on the US dance charts, but by the end of the decade, the 'new wave' synth-pop of bands such as A-ha and Alphaville was giving way to house music and techno. Interest in new wave synth-pop began to revive in the indietronica and electroclash movements in the late 1990s, and in the 2000s synth-pop enjoyed a widespread revival and commercial success.

The genre has received criticism for alleged lack of emotion and musicianship; prominent artists have spoken out against detractors who believed that synthesizers themselves composed and played the songs. Synth-pop music has established a place for the synthesizer as a major element of pop and rock music, directly influencing subsequent genres (including house music and Detroit techno) and has indirectly influenced many other genres, as well as individual recordings.


A colour photograph of a synthesizer with a keyboard
The Prophet-5, one of the first polyphonic synthesizers. It was widely used in 1980s synth-pop, along with the Roland Jupiter and Yamaha DX7.

Synth-pop was defined by its primary use of synthesizers, drum machines and sequencers, sometimes using them to replace all other instruments. Borthwick and Moy have described the genre as diverse but "...characterised by a broad set of values that eschewed rock playing styles, rhythms and structures", which were replaced by "synthetic textures" and "robotic rigidity", often defined by the limitations of the new technology,[9] including monophonic synthesizers (only able to play one note at a time).[10]

Many synth-pop musicians had limited musical skills, relying on the technology to produce or reproduce the music. The result was often minimalist, with grooves that were "typically woven together from simple repeated riffs often with no harmonic 'progression' to speak of".[11] Early synth-pop has been described as "eerie, sterile, and vaguely menacing", using droning electronics with little change in inflection.[12][13] Common lyrical themes of synth-pop songs were isolation, urban anomie, and feelings of being emotionally cold and hollow.[14]

In its second phase in the 1980s,[14] the introduction of dance beats and more conventional rock instrumentation made the music warmer and catchier and contained within the conventions of three-minute pop.[12][13] Synthesizers were increasingly used to imitate the conventional and clichéd sound of orchestras and horns. Thin, treble-dominant, synthesized melodies and simple drum programmes gave way to thick, and compressed production, and a more conventional drum sound.[15] Lyrics were generally more optimistic, dealing with more traditional subject matter for pop music such as romance, escapism and aspiration.[14] According to music writer Simon Reynolds, the hallmark of 1980s synth-pop was its "emotional, at times operatic singers" such as Marc Almond, Alison Moyet and Annie Lennox.[13] Because synthesizers removed the need for large groups of musicians, these singers were often part of a duo where their partner played all the instrumentation.[14]

Although synth-pop in part arose from punk rock, it abandoned punk's emphasis on authenticity and often pursued a deliberate artificiality, drawing on the critically derided forms such as disco and glam rock.[9] It owed relatively little to the foundations of early popular music in jazz, folk music or the blues,[9] and instead of looking to America, in its early stages, it consciously focused on European and particularly Eastern European influences, which were reflected in band names like Spandau Ballet and songs like Ultravox's "Vienna".[16] Later synth-pop saw a shift to a style more influenced by other genres, such as soul music.[16]

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