Emerging in the late 1970s and gaining prominence in the mid-1980s, new wave was a dynamic and diverse rock music subgenre. This movement represented a significant departure from the art-focused, emotionally-driven sounds of previous generations, transitioning towards pop-oriented tracks aimed at wider audiences.

Pioneering artists like Modern English and Dexys Midnight Runners laid the groundwork for some of the biggest bands to emerge from the new wave scene.

Defining and Origins

Influences on new wave music included punk rock, pop, jazz, and reggae, among other genres. Some also consider ska an influence, as it shares similarities with reggae in terms of rhythm and tempo changes.

The genre is characterized by the use of synthesizers, electronic sounds, and other production techniques, such as sampling.

The term “new wave” was initially coined by journalists attempting to describe a fresh generation of musicians emerging at the time, despite their limited experience writing about these artists.

Identifying New Wave Music Characteristics

In addition to synthesized instruments, we can identify common elements in new wave music by examining several of its characteristics.

  • For instance, these tracks often incorporate electronic sounds and utilize drum machines, creating rhythms with a distinctive clicking sound.
  • Typically, a new wave song’s composition features numerous layers and minimal use of bass and rhythm instruments like drums or bass guitars.
  • Vocals (and frequently lyrics) and melody take precedence. Songs tend to be short and catchy rather than the lengthy. The free-form improvisations found in jazz or the extended ballads popular in the 1970s.

What Sets New Wave Songs Apart?

The use of technology to innovate and repurpose existing sounds was crucial to the new wave aesthetic. Bands would record live performances, then manipulate these recordings using computers to create something unique.

Consider the vocoders or pitch-shifting effects in songs like “(Just Like) Starting Over” by John Lennon or “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk.

Vocal styles frequently fluctuated between lower pitches (e.g., Barry Gibb from The Bee Gees) and higher pitches (e.g., Phil Oakey from The Human League).


New wave music continues to thrive today, proving its enduring appeal. Combining elements of punk rock and reggae with an energetic dance beat, this subgenre of rock is both lively and infectious. New wave has successfully stood the test of time and remains a captivating musical style!

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