Song Structure Basics for Electronic Music Producers
Electronic or Dance Track Structure:
Electronic dance music has a different purpose than traditional pop or rock songs in that the main function is to make people dance and not just listen.
The basic structures may be the same but sections can be a bit longer as the tracks in general don't stick to the 3:30 min length of your typical pop tune. Dance tracks tend to clock in anywhere from 5:30 mins to over 7 mins in some genres.
Most sections have an even number of bars. So you may start with a 16 or 32 bar intro followed by a 16 bar breakdown followed by a 16 bar drop followed by a 16 bar breakdown followed by a 8 bar bridge and then a 16 or 32 bar drop and then a 16 bar outro.
Dance music song structure terms are a bit different than traditional pop or rock styles:
You'll still speak of intros, outros and bridges. Instead of verses and choruses however you'll often hear producers speak of breaks, drops and builds or rises. Let's take a look at these terms quickly...
1. Break or Breakdown
The breakdown section in electronic dance-style genres loosely relates to the verse. The break will in most cases be lower-energy than drops. A typical break could start with 8-16 bars of a simple beat and progression followed by 8-16 bars of a build or rise which is still part of the break. See below for more on builds.
2. Build or Rise
The build section has the job of heightening the suspense and setting the listener up for the drop that follows it.
There are various techniques available to help you create this mounting tension. Examples include snare rolls that speed up as you get closer to the drop and risers that increase in pitch.
The drop relates loosely to the chorus of a traditional pop song in that it carries the main message, theme or motif of the track. The drop is also, more often than not, the section that contains the most elements or highest amount of energy in your track.
Song Structure - What To Pay Attention To:
The role of a song structure, as mentioned before, is to lead your listener through the journey of the song. It's how you grab attention and keep it from first note to the final cymbal crash.
A song that repeats the same thing over and over the same way will quickly bore the listener. Skip! Ouch.
This is why you want to pay attention to things like:
-Variations - How do the same parts change as they repeat.
-Transitions & Fills - How do you move from one section to the next in a pleasant way.
-Tension & Release - How do you gradually create suspense and push a listener into the next section.
-Surprises - They think they know what's going to happen next. Surprise them by doing something else!
The best way to learn how to do this well is to learn to critically listen to professional released tracks and analyze them...
How to Do Basic Song Structure Analysis:
An excellent way to learn what works and what doesn't in terms of song structure is to do some basic analysis of already released songs.
There are many ways to analyze a song but in terms of structure the process pretty straightforward:
-Grab a pen and a large notepad.
-Listen through the song.
-Count the bars, section by section and make note of the section length in terms of bars.
-Next, pay attention to which sections are used when to extract the song structure. Note it down.
-Then, note the variations or differences between repeating verses. Do the same for choruses.
-Listen to pre-choruses, breaks and any other non-verse or non-chorus parts. Make notes.
-You're goal here is to notice what happens where in the song and why it works or doesn't work to create the emotional effect wanted in the listener.
The aim of this is to get your ears and brain used to analyzing songs. The process also helps you learn about what works and what doesn't work and figure out why it works or doesn't. If you're good with music theory you can also analyze the chord progressions and melodies to better understand how they relate to the structure.
Creating a Song Structure - One Easy Little 4-Step Hack:
One great thing is that, last time I checked, you cannot copyright a song structure. Woo hoo! Now, this is of course not legal advice and don't quote me on that. ;-)
The above fact means that you can use other completed songs as a reference for your own arrangement and still sleep well at night. In fact, tons of songs, especially those in the same genre, often share the exact same arrangements.
Now, that song structure hack I promised...
Find a song or track that matches the style and tempo of the track you're working on. Some sites like Beatport give the tempo of the track. Otherwise, do some googling for the tempo and failing that use the tap tempo in your DAW to tap in the tempo.
Then, load the reference track into your DAW and make sure it lines up with your grid. It's easiest to line up the downbeats.
Next, use your markers to color code and name the different sections of the track.
Finally, delete the reference track and save your project. Boom!
You now have a skeleton or frame of reference to base your own song structure on. No mess, no fuss.
You can of course switch it up here and there and cut out, add or extend sections.
This little arrangement hack obviously speeds up your production workflow. It however also has the added bonus of being a great way to learn about different song structures as you can analyze the arrangements as you go.
Oh, and you'll be surprised how many top producers do exactly this. ;-)
This little introduction to song structure basics will get you started.
Remember, there are no hard and fast rules with song structure, just certain time-tested forms that have been proven to work well over a long period.
Your best approach as a producer is to learn as much about the different song structures that are often used. Then, when you're familiar with the different types of structures you'll start to learn how to create your own arrangements in a way that makes sense for your music.
So, find some examples of the most common song forms and analyze them until you understand how they do what they do and the effect it creates in the song.
Next, analyze the tracks in the genre you want to produce in and make sure you get a basic feel for the most common structures used in your particular genre.
Then, pull some of your favorites into your DAW and produce some tracks around the song you've imported.
This practice will in time give you an intuitive feel for what works and what doesn't.
Oh, and always be analyzing more tracks when you get the chance. ;-)
Now go make some great music!