In pop and rock music the structure of a song are made up of simple elemental building blocks which are slightly varied from song to song. By understanding the foundation elements of song structure in popular music we can make more sense of the structure of electronic music.
The Foundation Elemental Building Blocks
An intro is the beginning of the song that sets the mood, the tempo and the rhythm. Intros come in all shapes and sizes but the essence is to set up the listener to whats to come with often hints of a main theme or element.
The Verse is the composers story telling opportunity, the main body of the song which takes the listener on its journey to the destination. In other words; the “meat and potatoes” of the track. Some would say the verse is just there as a platform for the chorus but then where is the satisfaction of arriving if there has been no journey. I read in researching for this blog that Pink Floyd put it like this…..
“How can you have any pudding without any meat”
For me I have always preferred the verse as it holds suspense and tension and in doing so creates a sense of journeying, adventure and marvel. For example in the song “Here I go again” by White Snake. The verse captures me and I feel like I’m flying on a space dragon through the galaxy.
The Chorus is the destination and what the verse has been building up towards. It is higher energy and usually more repetitive. By design they are catchy and memorable. This is why it is very easy for a chorus to get stuck in ones mind on repeat (an earworm). Lyrically the chorus usually holds the meaning or the theme idea. Usually the chorus has the same lyrics and melody every time we hear it. The title of the song is very often included in the Chorus.
The bridge is a completely unique section which adds contrast to the verse and the chorus. It usually leads up to another chorus. The bridge could be same chords as the verse but with a guitar solo or could be completely different chords and also some singing with extra lyrics. The main idea is to create some variation from the repetition of the verse and chorus.
The outro is quite simple really. It is the opposite of the intro. A warming down and a bringing to a close of the song. Typically the essence of an outro is one of conclusion and resolution.
The structure of a song is the complete form after we put in order the various building blocks. An extremely typical example of this could be:
INTRO, VERSE, CHORUS, BRIDGE, OUTRO
The variations are endless but this is the most common structure of the basic building blocks for basically all pop and rock. Song structure can also get more complicated when genres such as jazz, progressive rock/metal or orchestral music etc but that is a lesson for another day.
With a lot of popular electronic music the structure is extremely simple and easy to understand or copy. For Example …
INTRO / BUILD UP / DROP / BUILD UP/ DROP / OUTRO
A lot like pop or rock music there are infinite variations. Although it looks simple there are millions of tracks which are pure genius and time after time the basic structure just works and works. The trick is to have memorable themes and well crafted sounds. From a study made of the most popular 100 tracks on Beatport the author come to realise the most frequently used structure of the most popular tracks were ABAB. Section A being the equivalent of a verse and section B a chorus. This is even more simple than my above mentioned example. You can read that article of which I found really interesting here. Here is a bar chart showing those100 songs and their structures.
In my own music which is a fusion of minimal techno, psychedelic progressive trance with lashing of 80s synth and cinematic science fictional vibes I have only a slight variation of the usually used structure. The main difference for me would be the amount of time each section goes on for. A modern EDM song might be 3 minutes where as my songs are on average about 7 minutes but the structure is only a slight variation.
INTRO / MAIN SECTION / MAIN SECTION B / BREAKDOWN / SECTION C / OUTRO
I see a lot of my beginners students kind of guessing how to arrange their songs and the result is messy and the opposite of positively impacting. A common mistake is not sticking to a groove and getting lost in millions of different sections which do not seem to have any common thread. A second common mistake is the various different sections that are coming in and out at what appears to be at completely random times and without any symmetrical balance with the grid. These two mistakes, if fixed is half the battle won.
I often really enjoy a first groove when listening to a students track and then out of no where it changes to another section and continues and continues to change and in the end the song becomes unmemorable and frustrating to hear. The principle less is more is one that comes up again and again and I find it to be a foundation philosophy in the art of writing music. If you find a nice groove you should stick with it and don’t get carried away. Simplicity is key and the art is refining the simple layers you already have. In addition to this point your extra sections should have a strong relationship with the original main section so your listener can have a memorable listening experience.
Another important element of song structure is the length/amount of bars in each section and after how long should a new section comes in after the next. In this case when a student guesses when to have a new section come in they are wasting an opportunity to make an impact. Music has always no matter what genre or time period has a tempo, a pulse, a meter, a groove we tap our feet or a flow we journey with in our minds. With Ableton or any other DAW we have a grid and a BPM. In my own experience in writing electronic music I find it makes a huge difference to always work with equal numbers of bars and also to work in equal multiples. This way I think it is like nectar for the brain because everything is balanced and flows well. It feels good to listen to and enhances that ecstatic feeling we have listening to music.
Using a Reference Track!
An additional way you can learn about song structure is by getting a track you admire and putting it in Ableton or whatever your DAW is and putting the right BPM so it fits into your grid. (You can find the BPM on Beatport usually). This way you can observe in detail each section and how it looks in the grid of your DAW. Something I have seen others do also is actually write your song with the other song still inside and use it as a reference. You can copy the structure but with your own sounds. This acts as a useful guide and you know the track your using has already a tried and tested structure.
The Soul & Body
Its the soul and body of a song that is going to be remembered and create an emotional impact on the listener. You must practice using your DAW as if it was an instrument so you can learn to make memorable melodies or whats known as a hook. Some kind of feature that is repeated and then variations can be made to help fill out the song. Here are some examples of songs with strong “hooks”.
Jon Hopkins – Emerald Rush
In this track there is a chord sequence that is powerfully emotive and is the main theme that carries the whole song until the end. It is accompanied by seriously nice grooves with simple tonality but have this beautiful human swing that has been expertly programmed.
Aphex Twin – Alberto Balsalm
This track (by a personal hero and inspiration of mine) has an obvious body that being the mysterious and powerful melody that comes in almost immediately after a short intro.
With some styles of music the “hook” or “melody is a lot less obvious as a lot of electronic music is based around beats, blips, bass, and sound effects. However you can still make it memorable by having well crafted beats and blips that stick to a memorable groove or sequence that can be evolved throughout the song. A good example of this is demonstrated below.
Trentemøller – Minimal Fox
Music comes in many shapes and forms and what is most important is the soul and body of the track. Many styles follow the same structure and can be easily mimicked. Most of it evolves from the origins of simple verse, chorus format. A verse being the journey and the chorus, the destination. Don’t forget some lashings of sub journeys (section c’s) and resolutions (outros) or obstacles (section X) :—)
With all the previous to think about remember there are really no rules and if you want to make techno opera or a psychedelic electro symphony then please bless the world.
If you enjoyed reading this blog there are plenty more for you to read and help you understand the composition and production of electronic music. I also have a YouTube Channel with hours worth of free content in producing using Ableton Live. I am also a private tutor and have students all other the world learning with me in one to one private online classes. I have courses for all experience levels and great prices. Please read how it works here.
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