Having ideas is great! Putting them into practice is even more satisfying… In the contemporary electronic music market, it is important to know how to stand out from the crowd. Song structure is one (often underestimated) way to achieve this. By giving a structure to your ideas, your listener will easily understand the message you are trying to convey.

When we talk about music production, we often talk about sound design, processing, effects and composition of melodies. However, all this would be nothing without formal song structure!

Careful planning (intro, outro, verse, chorus and break) and techniques (surprising elements, filtering, syncopation) will contribute to a memorable track. In this article we will have a look at grounding notions of song structure before giving you some further tips and advice on arrangement which can be extremely useful in the studio.

This article contains excerpts of Rick Snoman’s “The Dance Music Manual (3rd Edition)”.

1. Starting points for song structure & arrangement

Binary phrasing

Binary phrasing is a technique that allows melodic allows melodic or rhythmic distinctiveness. Its efficiency lies in the fact that it clearly separates two parts of melodic or rhythmic idea. In electronic music, a binary phrase corresponds most of the time to 2 rhythmic or melodics of similar duration which have either pitch or rhythmic differences in the second part compared to the first (i.e: a single-phrase piano opposed with a binary phrase bass). Within rhythmic elements this can either occur with drum loops or modulating timbres. Typically, a binary phrased drum loop will be modulated with a filter. This will modify the frequencies on the hi-hats, making the loop less repetitive. With a snare, the producer will use pitch shifting or frequency modulation (both can be combined).

When repetition is key with most electronic tracks, this type of microtuning will produce a very effective result (method that is heavily used in tech house, house or minimal). In the latter electronic music genres, the timbre and pitch modulation of a bass drone can make listening more enjoyable, offering a less monotonous loop.

Call and response

Very similar to the first technique, this method is focused on a different instrument playing during the second phrase. Originating from sub-saharan African music, here one instrument makes the call and a second responds. Frequently, the secondary instrument has a different timbre. In techno and tech-house, this technique is used with snares which have a particular pattern in the first bar (call), and with the same percussive instrument responding with a somewhat different pattern in the second bar (response). In Dubstep, call and response is used with two different instruments. Here, a bass produces the call and a higher-pitched lead sound produces the response, or vice versa.

What is important to note down is that both binary phrasing and call and response have to be placed in the context of the hook. If these fundamental points are not clearly visible in any arrangement, there will be no resolve in the music. Because, as with great films, books, or computer games, music also necessitates a resolve which comes at the end of a cycle of tension which drives the reader, listener, viewer’s interest. This dramatic song structure follows a very predictable but not so easily applicable chain of events. In literature and cinema, the following structure is often encountered.

The dramatic structure (a winning formula in cinema & literature)

  • Exposition: Introduction of the main character and building of the foundation of the story.
  • Incident: A crucial step where a conflict arises which will drive the rest of the story until the finale.
  • Rising action: Corresponds to an intensification of events and problems. Here the main character is confronted with a more complex/difficult situation which increases the tension of the story.
  • Climax: A major turning point takes place. Often, the protagonist will be faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. This is also the moment where suspense reaches its peak.
  • Resolution: This is the moment where the protagonist triumphs. For the reader or viewer, this moment corresponds to the culmination of his expectations. This “dénouement”  often conforms to a happy ending.

The sonata form (musical alternative to the dramatic structure)

1. Exposition
In music, this step is accomplished by the introduction of the main musical theme to the listener. More specifically, for EDM (Electronic Dance Music) that is played on the radio or iPod, this involves the main melody without the drum and bass sections.
2. Development

After the exposition, it is time for the initial hook or melody to be be developed. In electronic music, the producer often concentrates on timbral development, textural motion and any other form of production ethics which can be useful in this context. Use of EQ and filters to thin out the lead, or playing only part of the lead are some techniques. Other involve the changing the timbre of the lead or even focusing on another part of the track which is the rhythm (drums & percussion).

3. Recapitulation

This is the moment for the producer to entirely reveal the 16-32 bar of the track which was his initial idea. Most of the time this is what happens. Nonetheless, the elements with which a tracks starts with may differ. Sometimes, it can be a percussive element that starts the track. Generally, however, the exposition is considered to be the introduction of the groove. Accordingly, development is build on the basis of that groove and recapitulation should relate to the final reveal of the hook.  The latter is also the overall goal of electronic music. As with dramatic structure, this series of events should produce a building and releasing of tension before playing the ‘best’ part of the track, the complete hook.

What are some issues beginners struggle with, in terms of song structure?

Almost all beginners struggle with the development of song structure. A theme is not easy to be developed in a sequencer, with nothing more than multiple ‘events’ and ‘regions’. This virtual representation of sound in graphical blocks on the arrange page makes it easy for the producer to consider them as fixed musical ideas which can be repeated indefinitely.

As anticipation is an indispensable element in electronic music, the aforementioned approach cannot possibly produce an interesting arrangement. If the producer only relies on the introduction of new instruments in his song structure, he won’t succeed in developing a coherent idea.  It is precisely by breaking free of this block-based approach that the producer can think horizontally, in terms of time. In order to this, the producer must make good use of the energy around which the music revolves.

2. Song Structure: Energy in electronic music

There are numerous ways to transmit and alter energy in electronic music to keep things interesting. One is to make original use of pitch and frequency. Modification of these parameters can be made through rising the pitch of a melody or modifying the frequency content of a timbre track.

If used adequately, layering of elements can increase the frequency content of a track. This is a particularly useful strategy within sight of the ending (to deliver a meaningful message).

Filters can also be used (high or low-pass) to remove frequency content before teasing the listener with a slow opening. This also builds up energy and anticipation.

All the processes used to adjust and modify the different levels of a track are named contour. Most successful structures make use of a carefully thought contour.

“Teasing” the listener and structural downbeats

Accordingly, energy heavily relies on teasing the listener before delivering the main part of the song. A careful arrangement with techniques such as filters, canonic behaviour, denial of expectation, syncopation provide the ground for this. Therefore, a hook should be played as little as possible to remain ‘catchy’. Hence, the other parts of the track should focus on preparing the listener for the hook.

Moreover, the producer will utilize structural downbeats to introduce new instruments or textural changes at precise metrical cycles in a track. The name refers to the first downbeat of a bar where a new instruments/textural development is introduced. In electronic music, most of the time, these occur at the 8th, 16th, 32nd or 64th beat of the bar.

Development of the initial idea

Once you have determined the point at which to introduce a new instrument, it can be accomplished in a number of ways. Techniques to introduce different instruments vary (and are endless) but commonly the producer will employ a mix of reverse cymbal crashes, reverse reverb, slow filtering of an instrument, velocity, syncopation, melodic variations and musical cannons.

Reverse reverb effect

Here, a single note of audio from an instrument is reversed in the workstations sample editor. If you don’t want the whole audio in your project to be reversed you should first duplicate the event. When reversed, the event is placed onto a new audio channel. The producer then inserts short pre-delay and a very long tail (3 seconds). After this step, the audio is bounced to an audio file, re-imported into a new channel in the workstation and reversed again.

Filtering and introduction of new instruments

Mentioned earlier, filters (high or low-pass) which are gradually automated can introduce instruments over several bars. There is no question about the fact that introducing elements is the most efficient way to generate energy in an arrangement. However, if employed too frequently, the music will run out of elements to offer to the listener.

Altering the velocity and syncopation

Velocity can be modified either via MIDI or if you are working with an audio file, via the sample editor. Altering the velocity should usually happen every 4 or 8 bars. Underestimated, velocity, through its subtle modifications is an effective tool to keep the listener interested over a long period of time. This technique is regularly used in tech-house. In the latter genre, the velocity of the pulsing bass is syncopated through velocity.

Rhythmical and melodic variations

To maintain interest, producers can also reduce the melody of the event but maintain its rhythm. The genre that has made a great use of this technique over the years is trance. When a bass or lead sound is considerably melodic, it is reduced to a single pitch. This single pitch retains the rhythm of the original melody but builds on the anticipation of the listener before introducing the complete melody gradually. As with all of the previously mentioned effects, this one must be applied cautiously without denying the listener’s expectation for too long.

The musical canon

Easily comparable to an “echo” or “delay” effect, the canonic drone relies on the same principle. Here, ‘canonic’ is derived from the traditional musical canon,where one melodic line is played and followed by the exact same line of the melody. Very frequent with musical instruments, this can also happen with vocalist, which reproduce the same vocals or melodic sound. The video hereunder explains the ‘Canon’ concept.

Coming back to the theory, what this means in melodic terms is that if the bass is at C on the first bar, E on the second bar, G on the third bar and B on the fourth bar, disregarding the pitch of the rest of the notes in all bars, the canonic would play C for one bar, E in the next, followed by G and then B. This effect can be increased with the syncopation of the canonic. What this means is that whilst C,E,G and B play over four bars, the bass of your melody could be repeated over eight bars.

Creating the sense of anticipation within your song structure.. 

Creating a sense of anticipation can happen with the processing and effect development of a timbre. Textural development is greatly used in electronic music. This can correspond to slowly-modulated change in filter, distortion and other effects which modify the initial timbre. As an example, a lead can play the complete melody but the lead could be processed through a high-pass filter which gradually allows more low frequencies over several bars.

Reverb and delay may be used to wash away a sound. This effect can be gradually reduced via automation to make the instrument seem more distinct. The latter effect can also be used the other way around. Over the years, progressive house has made good use of this effect. Nonetheless, while the previously mentioned techniques work, a sense of anticipation can ironically also be created by denying an expectation. In this case, the expectation should be predictable and the increasing tension should lead to a more power subsequent release after the expectations of the listener have been denied.

Referring back to binary phrasing, the latter can be used in these circumstances by providing the main riff with few backing instruments, employing an alternative voice, and heavily filtered lead. With the main melody being provided, but certain musical elements lacking, this might be the most effective sense of anticipation that can be created. The producer can also slowly introduce the full timbre, coming back to the simpler line when he is revealing too much of the complete melody.

Buildups in music are constructed in that way. Effects and filters applied on leads or bass instruments create a sense of tension. The latter process can also be accompanied by gradually augmenting a filter cut-off, and then reintroducing the complete binary phrase again. In this way, the listener will expect music to return in its full form. It is important to remember that careful application is the rule here since the listener might lose interest easily.

3. Song structure and arrangement: the completing parts of a track

When combining all these techniques, the producer will deliver an arrangement which has a logical development with a theme that leads towards a breakdown and finale. Before the finale, often there will be a drop with the initial idea of the producer and the simultaneous play of almost all the main instruments and sounds. The drop is called like that because it is at this point that all the instrumentation drops in a track. To prepare the listener for this part of the track, the producer will often take advantage of snare rolls, snare breaks, synthetics risers, filters and increasing of effects.

A buildup with snare rolls can easily be constructed in the piano roll editor of every sequencer. Starting at every beat of a bar or two, the striking becomes increasingly more frequent (from 1/8th to 1/16th , 1/32 etc). Simultaneously a low pass filter may be automated to progressively open or the initial volume of a snare might be gradually augmented through velocity. Often, in progressive house a filter is applied on the main lead, slowly allowing more frequencies through whilst reverb and delay times are increased.  The end result is a powerful building effect. In EDM, this technique is used with a riser. In that way, when the riser stops, you can hear delay and reverb echo across the whole mix.

After the build up, the music reaches the drop. At this point, a low-pass filter is applied since it gives the most energy to the mix. Nonetheless, with the never-ending expansion of electronic music genres, the way to handle the drop can highly differ from one genre to another. However, most of the times this part of the song structure will only present a few or all instruments that are filtered. In this case, the filter will be automated to slowly open up. Sometimes a riser and snare roll may back up this evolution. This process continues until the song structure reaches its culmination At this point the hook appears and a resolve is offered to the listener.

Some helpful additional videos on song structure!

VIDEO: “Arrangement and Structure”

VIDEO: “How to Arrange Music (Arrangement Tips & Tricks)” 

Conclusion | As you may have seen with the other chapters in this series, music production proves to be a very complex field. Arrangement and song structure is no exception to the rule. Here, however more than anywhere else, it all revolves around the producer understanding what type of emotions  he wants to convey and when he wants to transmit to the listener. Mentioned at the beginning of this article, binary phrasing and call and response are foundations to any piece of music.

Furthermore, when the producer has understood that all art is based on a dramatic structure, music being based on the sonata form, it will be much easier for him to comprehend what is required for him to deliver a meaningful message. Energy and its long list of associated tools should be practiced over and over again for the producer to understand when it is the right time to use them. In the end, the tips that are given in this article are quintessential, but the most important recommendation we can make is that the producer ought to see song structure as dynamic, never as fixed and repetitive.