Musically, synthwave is heavily inspired by new wave and the soundtracks of many 1980s films, videogames, cartoons and television shows. Composers such as John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream are frequently cited as influences. The style is mainly instrumental, and often contain 80s cliché elements in the sound such as electronic drums, gated reverb, analog synthesizer bass lines and leads, all to resemble tracks from that time period. However, synthwave incorporates modern production techniques such as sidechained compression and placing the bassline and kick drum prominentliy in the mix as heard in modern electronic music genres such as electro house.
Aesthetically, synthwave gives a retrofuturistic perspective, emulating 1980s science fiction, action, and horror media. In this sense, it can be considered the inverse of vaporwave; while the latter expresses disdain for 80s culture, synthwave expresses nostalgia for it and attempts to capture the era's atmosphere. Examples of this aesthetic may be viewed in films and video games such as Drive, Hotline Miami, the upcoming game Power Drive 2000 and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.