Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Song Structure workshop: Verse-Chorus vs. EDM

I just learned that EDM song structure is a thing.

Let me back up.  I've been writing and releasing electronic music for a little over a decade.  While "electronic" is an important part of that, my influences and core genres have not been Dance-related.  I'm more in the Ambient, Ethereal, New Age, Chillout, Downbeat arena.

When I started getting serious about electronic music production, I was pretty happy with short bits of music I was coming up with...the sort of thing that I would now look at and say "ah, this will make a good chorus."  The big picture stuff was eluding me: how much repetition of my core idea I should use, how many complementary ideas I needed, and in what order.  So, I got some books on song writing, did a bunch of critical listening to my favorite albums, and developed a pretty good concept of Verse-Chorus song structure.

Occasionally I've heard reference, in relation to an EDM track (i.e., Trance, House, Dubstep, that kind of thing), to "Breaks," "Drops," "Risers," etc.  I've always been pretty fuzzy on what these were, and sort of frustrated that I couldn't mentally square them with the Verse-Chorus model I have in my head.

Recently, I've been listening to a bit of Trance on YouTube, and I stumbled on a video about EDM song structure, which has finally given me some insight into those terms.   With that model in mind, I've been analyzing the structure of a bunch of Trance tracks, and they finally make sense! 

That brings me to the topic I initially sat down to write about.   I have a ton of remixes of Delerium's "Silence" in my collection.  The original track is very much a traditional Verse-Chorus song.  The remixes are generally Trance arrangements with EDM structure.  I've been analyzing each remix from both Verse-Chorus and EDM song structure perspectives.  I find the results interesting, and I'm going to post them...soon.

Before that, I need to define some terms.  One of the things I've learned about both structures is that everyone has slightly different names for the various components.  So, I'm going to lay out the terms I use, hopefully with enough detail that I can just link to back to this post in the future, and we'll all be on the same page.


The vast majority of songs you hear on non-classical radio stations use this structure.  It's much older than anyone reading this, and its been ubiquitous since the 1960s.  The fundamental premise of the structure is alternating between two main parts, named unsurprisingly:

Generally the lower energy of the two main parts.  Lyrics will tend to be different in each iteration of the verse.  If the lyrics of the song tell any sort of story, this is where the exposition and plot advancement happens.

Generally the higher energy of the two main parts.  More instruments may be playing, backing vocals may be added.  Lyrics are usually the same each time through the chorus.  This is the part you know and sing along with each time. 

It's possible to have a song that only uses these components...

Verse 1
Verse 2

...but in practice, there's vitually always some combination of these minor components.

Songs frequently start with only one or a few musical elements, adding more over time until the verse starts.  Songs intended for radio play generally have pretty short intros, but there's a LOT of variation out there.  Vocals generally aren't present.

This is a distinct musical idea between the Verse and the Chorus.  It may be completely different than either, or may be a variation on one or the other.  It generally conveys a feeling on intensification, as builds to the chorus.  I tend to use "Ramp" if the lyrics are different each time, or if it's not used for every Verse to Chorus transition in the song.  I'll use "Pre-chorus" if it's always there and the lyrics are the same each time.

Break/Middle 8 
Sometimes the end of a chorus goes right into a new verse.  Other times, something new happens here, and these are among the terms used for the musical ideas that fill this role.  If there are multiple Breaks in a song, they may be the same, or completely different.    "Middle 8" ("8" refering to it's duration in measures) is probably the worst term when it comes to people using it to mean different things.  I use it interchangeably with "Break", but others (including the Wikipedia article on song structure) use it interchangeably with...

This is sort of like an alternate chorus, usually inserted between repetitions of a chorus near the end of a song.  It's usually pretty high energy, but with a contrasting sound or vibe to the chorus.  If it has lyrics, they'll be new and unique to this section.

When a single instrument becomes the focal point of a song (usually be playing a melody), that instrument is taking a solo.  I don't personally use this term for a part of a song...rather, it's a specific attribute of one of the other parts of a song.  A bridge is frequently also a solo.  Breaks too, though I'd argue that it's pretty common for them not to really have a focal point.

Some songs play their final chorus and just stop.  Others end with a new musical idea, or a variation on some component of the song.  Others repeat the chorus over and over while the volume fades out.  That special case may be referred to as a "Fade" rather than an outro.   This though this hasn't been popular for a while now, probably doesn't lend itself to live performance.

EDM Structure

I haven't been thinking in these terms very long, but I have read a lot of other people's interpretation of them over the past few weeks.  As with the Verse-Chorus structure, everyone seems to have their own variation on some basic terms.


 An EDM track usually starts very sparsely, and adds one element at a time.  In that sense, the Intro is very similar to a Verse-Chorus intro, but EDM Intros can be much, much longer...sometimes half the length of the song.  There may be a bit of ebb and flow within an Intro where elements are taken back out.  By the end of the Intro, the mix will usually feel pretty full and busy so that it contrasts strongly with the...

Most of the rhythmic components of the song, especially drums and bass, drop out here.  This feels very much like "taking a break" form the intensity that's pervasive in the rest of most EDM songs.  The arrangement is sparse, and strong melodic elements frequently occur for the first time here.  This is in stark contrast to Verse-Chorus structure, where the strongest melodic material is generally combined with the most high-energy part of the instrumental arrangement.  This is frequently called just a "Break" which, given my use of "Break"to mean something completely different in Verse-Chorus structure, has caused me a lot of confusion over the years.

This is a transitional section.  It's a lot like the Intro, in that elements enter over time, but it's a considerably more rapid process.  It seems that "Buildup" or just "Build" is the more common term, with "Riser" used to describe either a very short version of this component, or just the last, most dramatic few measures of a larger Buildup.  If you were anywhere near the Internet in early 2013, you'll remember the Harlem Shake meme.  The first half of that is a quintessential Buildup, and the second half is a quintessential...

The bass line, and pretty much everything else in the mix, kicks in loud and hard.  This is the climax of the song (and sometimes just called the "climax").

Usually, components of the mix start dropping out one by one.  The end of an EDM song, like the beginning, is intentionally sparse so that DJs can crossfade easily.

My range of experience with EDM structure is much more limited than with Verse-Chorus, but my impression is that none of these sections are really optional.  It is possible, after a Drop, to repeat the Break-Buildup-Drop sequence.

To reiterate, none of this is meant to be definitive.  This is just the terminology I'll be using in upcoming posts.

Further, I think looking at song structure should be descriptive, not prescriptive.  I see no value into trying force new songs to conform to set structures.  I do see value in known the rules well enough to realize when you're breaking them.  You can then make an educated decision about whether that's what you want to do.

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