So you’ve created a killer 8-bar loop and want to take your great idea to a full song, but don’t know where to go from here? We've all been there before!
The good news is that you don’t need to feel disheartened: this is a super common problem that happens to all music producers, and thankfully there are some very straightforward steps you can take to get out of the loop and to a finished arrangement....
We get stuck because it can be very difficult to imagine each individual section of a track before it exists. So, how do we fix this?
Let's look into EDM song structure, and use that knowledge as a template for our own tracks almost like one of those Paint-by-Numbers books. If you use the techniques outlined below, you’ll be writing full tracks and streamlining your workflow in no time!
EDM Song Structure
So what exactly are the benefits of learning EDM song structure? Well, for one, by learning the common ways in which other artists create and sculpt their songs, we can use that as a template for when we get stuck in creating our own music.
Additionally, using known song structures helps increase relatability and appeal to a wider audience. The practice of purposely arranging your music in a carefully crafted way is called arrangement, and is used in all types of music – not just Electronic Dance Music.
In most Electronic Dance Music genres, your track will be in 4/4 time. This means that in every bar (also known as a measure), there will be 4 beats, and that the quarter note (the kick on every beat), will carry the song.
In this format, a bar is 4 beats, and a musical phrase is usually a multiple of 2 or 4 bars. In music theory, a phrase is generally just a grouping of bars whose energy flows nicely. For example, your build might contain two separate phrases; one that first hints at the melody followed by a second that introduces a snare or clap build up.
Phrases build up, take down, or play around with the energy of a section of your track to build interest, and create and release tension.
However, let’s take a step back and see what the main overall sections of an EDM song structure are.
They are as follows:
- Build up
Each of these distinct sections contains elements of your loop simplified, modified, or generally expanded upon. Knowing what makes up these sections and how they’re crafted is at the heart of how you transform your loop into a full-fledged song.
Now, let’s see a rundown of which elements each section usually contains.
The intro is usually the simplest part of your entire track. It will usually contain a stripped down beat to allow DJ’s to more easily transition into your track, or – if you’re making a radio or Spotify edit – will have a very short 2 to 4 bar phrase introducing the main theme of your track. The intro also sets the pace and expectations for what the track will deliver. (Will it be a break-neck speed drum-n-bass track? Will it be a more chilled-out deep house track?)
The verse is more complex than the intro, but often less complex than the drop (or at least, conveying less energy). In vocal driven music, this is where the majority of the storytelling of songwriting occurs, but in a lot of EDM, this is where you establish your melodic motifs. These motifs – or small musical ideas – should hint at your main drop melody without giving away your big, exciting, energetic drop.
The build up typically contains risers, repetitive melodic motifs, and is generally rather short (a notable exception to this rule might be an 8-minute trance track). When creating build ups, you can also consider stripping down your percussion and drums to the bare essentials, in order to juxtapose to the heavy drop.
The drop is the hardest hitting part of your track. This is where the main hook of your song lies, and where the energy in your track should be the highest. You want people to get up and dance when they hear your drop! The drop can be very simple, or very complex; this heavily relies on genre, so make sure to listen to your favorite songs and use them as reference.
Many songs you hear on the radio or in the club utilize similar song structures, with some key variation to keep it interesting. When deciding how to structure your own track, listening and referencing your favorite track in the same genre can be immensely valuable, as that track is likely commercially successful and has a structure that is proven and works.
As a high level overview, structuring your song is a bit like designing a roller-coaster. We want to bring the listener on a journey with the emotion and energy from the track. This will help keep your listeners engaged, prevent them from becoming bored, and hopefully keep playing your track for days, months, and years to come.
You can even analyse the structure of existing songs and draw in an “energy map” using an automation line, as shown here.
There are a few ways of representing song structure, but by far the most common is to use letters to represent each part of a track. For example, a common song structure in pop music goes as follows:
A B D B D E D A
In this instance, the letter A stands for an intro or outtro, B stands for a verse, D stands for a chorus or drop, and E stands for the bridge of the song, adding variety. Using this notation, we can quickly and easily create and plan our song’s structure without getting too deep into the details and slowing us down.
If we wanted to use a similar structure for EDM, we could use A B D B D A or A B D E D A, both of which are fairly basic but common structures. In this instance, however, the E section is an extended breakdown, bridge, or a new section or extended verse.
Now we understand how song structure notation works, let’s look at a common example of a more complex EDM song structure.
A B C D B C D A
This structure breaks down like so:
A: These are the intro and outtro of the track. They are typically 8 or 16 bars in length. In some genres, you may have 4 bar intro and outtros; it’s important to reference the genre you’re producing to ensure your song fits in well with the genre.
B: This is the verse in your track. The first verse is typically 16 bars, and the second verse is 16 or 32 bars.
C: This is the build of the track. Both builds are typically 8 bars in length, although in some genres can be 4 or even 10 or 12 bars long.
D: This is the drop of your track. A drop can vary in length but are usually 8 to 16 bars. The second drop is typically either the same length as the first, or slightly longer to develop a little bit of additional energy.
This is only one example of how you can structure your song, feel free to deviate as much or as little as you want. During the music production process, there’s tons of room for experimentation, innovation, and self-expression; however, the vast majority of the time, you do not want to experiment with EDM song structure. By doing so you make your track more difficult to understand. No need to reinvent the wheel!
Song Structure and Genre
Now for a quick note on genre. Genre itself dictates a lot of how your track should be structured. A tech house track is going to have a different song structure than a future bass track, which will be different than an EDM trap track. Additionally, the length of the track also fairly tightly correlates to the genre, with pop-y tracks being shorter and club and house tracks being on the longer side.
For example, future bass typically follow a more pop-like structure, with longer fleshed out melodic verses and short 4 bar intros and outtros. Most house music, however, has a significantly longer intro and outtro; 8 to 16 bars, sometimes even 32. House music also typically has fewer purely melodic elements focused in the verses and breakdowns, and instead focuses on the vibe, atmosphere, and groove, building up to an epic drop.
Let’s take a look at “Chained For Love - B2A & Anklebreaker Remix”. This is a hardstyle track and has a song structure of:
A B C D B C D A
Where A stands for your intro and outtro, B is your verse, C is the build, and D is the drop. This is an extremely common structure in hardstyle tracks; the verse is also typically split into a more vocal or lower energy first half, and the second half is where your saw-driven leads come in to introduce components of the drop melody.
Now let’s examine a future bass track, “Lifeline - LODIS, Josh Rubin”. This particular track has a structure like so:
A B E C D B E C D A
Note that this genre has a significantly longer intro than the previous hardstyle track, yet the overarching structure itself is remarkably similar. The key difference is the addition of E; which is a breakdown or pre-build. This component lowers the energy right before the build, allowing the producer to create a bigger feeling build.
Finally, let’s take a look at a big room / EDM track. We’ll use “Cold - Timmy Trumpet” as an example here. He utilizes the following structure for his track:
B C D B C D A
“Cold” also shares a similar structure to the other tracks. In fact, it’s virtually identical to “Chained For Love”, save for the lack of any sort of intro, even though the sounds and overall general vibe of the genre are strikingly different.
EDM Song Structure and Arrangement
Now we understand how songs are structured and how to structure our own track, we need to decide on the genre we want our loop to fit, or what genre the loop already fits. Then, identify which section of a track your loop fits into. Is it a heavy and energetic drop, or is it more a verse or breakdown?
Once you’ve figured out these overarching details, we can start to think about how we want to structure our track. You can use your DAW or even just a piece of paper to map out each section of our song, and what should go where. Now it’s as simple as filling in the gaps with elements from your loop, and you’re well on your way to finishing your track!
Let’s go over some of the common scenarios you’ll find yourself in.
Starting with the Drop
Your loop is energetic and pumping; this is your drop. Let’s use an A B C D B C D A structure for our track, just like the “Chained For Love - B2A & Anklebreaker Remix” prior example.
Now you’ve identified that you have a drop, let’s expand it to two sections with a little bit of melodic or rhythmic variation on the second iteration.
Now we’ve gotten a full drop, let’s take a look at the build up. We can use more filtered leads and pads, and switch up the snare or clap to a contrasting rhythm to build tension. We’ll open up the filters and speed up the percussion as the drop builds to further build up that tension before the drop.
Let’s take a look at the intro and outtro. Take the melody, simplify it and the instrumentation, and use a stripped down drum pattern. You can also experiment with some low and simple bass or some rhythmically simple chord patterns. The outtro can be as simple as the intro, but instead of bringing in elements, we take them out.
The verses should be a contrasting force to the drop, while still maintaining a similar vibe. To quickly get down a verse idea, you can take the drop melody, take it down to a lower register with some more interesting rhythmic chord structures that build nicely into the build up. We can also add our second verse, build, and drops.
Starting with a Breakdown, Verse or Intro
So your loop isn’t super energetic, maybe it fits well as a verse or intro. To generate your placeholder verses, take the idea and evolve it with moving drum patterns and chord patterns. The build up will then come more naturally, and you can introduce a switch-up in drum patterns to help contrast this section from the verses and drop. Work up the energy in the build up, adding faster drums and risers and other effects. After this build is complete, usually you’ll have a solid idea for the drop itself; if not, don’t worry! Take your verse idea, take apart a one or two bar section, and build upon it to make it as high energy as possible.
Referencing Existing Material
If you’re still struggling to build out your loop into a full track scaffold, try using your favorite song as reference. In this example, we’ll use HOLIDAY by Lil Nas X, a pop and rap song.
Import the track into your DAW, and set the tempo equal to that of the track. Sometimes your DAW will do this for you, but if not, you can usually find it easily on Beatport or other sites.
Take a listen to the song in full. As you listen, mark down where each change occurs in the song, and what the upcoming section is.Take a listen to the song in full. As you listen, mark down where each change occurs in the song, and what the upcoming section is.
After going through the entire track, you’ll have an accurate map of the full track, and can use the markers as guidelines on how you can structure your own track.
One of the hardest parts of music production is actually finishing your own tracks, and not ending up with a hard drive full of unfinished loops. However, using song structuring techniques, we can use them as scaffolding for us to write better music, faster. When you create each section, make sure that each section captures and holds the user’s interest in its own right; the best songs are interesting throughout, (even in the intros and outtros!), not just during the drops.
What do you struggle with most when it comes to EDM song structure? Let us know in the comments!