One of the hardest parts of being a producer is taking a song from start to finish.
You may have put together a great loop with an infectious beat and a top notch bassline. You listen to this loop over and over, perfecting every detail until it’s just right. And then it hits you.
Your idea is so good that you don’t know how to follow up by building a track around it.
We’ve all been there.
Turning a rough idea into a full fledged song is no easy task, and a lot of great loops never become anything more because of this.
But there’s no reason why good ideas should go to waste! In this article, we outline some techniques and critical information that you can use to streamline your workflow and turn your ideas into full fledged tracks.
By developing a framework of how a complete song should be put together, it becomes much easier to turn your simple loops into full blown productions.
But before we can turn your loop into a song, it’s a good idea to have a firm grasp on what goes into an EDM song in order to get the full picture.
EDM Song Structure
A new listener will notice that a lot of EDM tracks use song structures that differ slightly from what we’re traditionally used to hearing on the radio. In fact, the last few years have seen pop music taking influence from the EDM song structure as dance music becomes more mainstream. Songs like “Lean On” by Major Lazer and “Scared To Be Lonely” by Martin Garrix are great examples of this.
While the verse-chorus song structure of pop music has remained dominant throughout the last several decades, EDM switches it up. This is because a lot of electronic dance music doesn’t feature vocals and wouldn’t work within the pop structure.
Most EDM tracks can be broken down into four main structural elements:
- Build up
By understanding how these four elements come together to form an EDM song, you’ll be able to figure out where your loop will fit into your overall song structure.
If you know your loop is going to be the drop, then you’ll be able to start connecting the dots of how to expand on your first idea with additional sections like the intro or the build up.
Let’s briefly go over each element.
The intro of a song is somewhat self-explanatory. It’s common for the beginning of a track to feature a stripped down beat to set the pace, making it easier for DJ’s to transition them into their sets.
The intro is followed by a breakdown, where the drums drop out to create a sense of anticipation for the listener.
The breakdown leads into the build up, which ramps up the energy to prepare the listener for the drop. Common techniques in build ups include rising pitch synths and rushing percussion patterns.
The last element, the drop, is arguably the most important. This is the main hook of the song and the section where your production skills have to really shine.
The drop is the energetic high point of the song and the part that needs to make the listener want to move.
The way you’ll use these elements will vary across different genres, and there is plenty of variety when it comes to song structure. But once you realize that just about any EDM track can be broken down into these basic elements, it becomes easier to visualize your song’s structure.
Common Song Structures
Now that we’re familiar with the elements of an EDM song, we can dive into how they are used in some common song structures.
It’s not always necessary to utilize the same structures you hear in your favorite tracks, but it can be a great way to lay out a road map for your project. You already know what elements will go into your song, so now you’re tasked with arranging them into a structure that will let them shine.
The EDM song structure is designed to keep the energy flowing in a dynamic way, with high peaks and deep valleys. This results in building up the energy, then dropping it back down, only to repeat the process again.
In this sense, EDM songs are a bit like a rollercoaster.
When analyzing song structure, it’s common to use letters from the alphabet to represent each new section in a song.
One of the most commonly known song structures is the ABABCB form, which is the format used most commonly in pop music.
The ABABCB song structure breaks down like this:
- A – Repeated section used for the verses
- B – The chorus
- C – The bridge, a third section that adds variety
One of the most common song structures in electronic dance music would be the ABAB form. In this format, the song cycles between two main sections.
The A section would feature the intro, breakdown, and build up, while section B would be the drop. The song cycles through these two sections twice, possibly with some added variation on the second run-through.
A common alternative to ABAB is ABCB.
The two formats are similar, but ABCB features a third section that differs from the intro. It may be an extended variation of a breakdown from earlier in the song, or it might be an entirely new section altogether. ABCB is a great way to add a little variety to your song to keep it from getting boring.
When it comes to song structure, there are endless ways to put a project together. However, sticking to known structures can sometimes serve as a good launching point to get a song started. This can be a great way to lay out your song structure, and it will also help your listeners follow along on the dance floor.
That being said, there’s no reason to feel like you have to stick to tried and true formulas. Breaking the rules can often lead to groundbreaking results, so don’t be afraid to get creative.
Song Structures And Genre
When it comes to turning a loop into a full blown song, it’s helpful to understand the elements that go into one and how they fit together into a song structure. But you should keep in mind that song structure varies from genre to genre.
There are a lot of different formats that get used across the EDM spectrum, but different sub-genres tend to develop different trends regarding song structure.
In dubstep and trap, it’s common for the drop to start around the 55 second mark, as that’s where bar 32 lies in 140 bpm. This would leave room for a 16 bar into, an 8 bar breakdown, and an 8 bar build up.
Keep in mind that the four elements are used differently depending on the genre. For instance, build ups are often longer and more prominent in genres like house and techno than in dubstep.
Timing in general can vary a lot from genre to genre. A lot of progressive house songs can run into the 8-10 minute range, while future bass and trap songs tend to be closer to the 4 minute range.
How long your song is and how repetitive the structure is will largely be determined by what genre you’re working in.
Turn Your Loop Into A Song
Now that we understand the basic elements that go into a song’s structure, we can work on turning your loop into a full fledged song.
When you’re starting out with a fresh idea, you will need to figure out how that loop will fit into the context of your song. Whether it’s the drop or a build up, identify where your loop will occur in your song’s overall structure.
Once you know what part of the song you’re working with, you have the first piece of the puzzle and can begin putting together the full song structure.
After you’ve identified what part of the song your loop will be, spend some time thinking about what song structure can be used to present that idea best. Listen to other songs in the same genre to get a sense of how established producers are crafting their tracks. This will help you develop some idea of how your overall song should be structured.
Once you have a basic framework of your song structure and know how your loop fits into that framework, finishing your project becomes as simple as filling in the gaps.
To help you get a better idea of how to use this technique, let’s walk through a few common scenarios.
Start With The Drop
Let’s say you’re starting with an 8 bar loop featuring an energetic beat and an impressive Serum patch you’ve designed.
It’s clear to you that this section is going to be the hook of your entire track, so you know that you’re working with the drop.
You can expand on your drop loop by splitting it up into two sections, or by creating a second drop that’s a variation of the first one. This will keep the audience on their toes and ensure that the structure doesn’t get overly repetitive.
Once you have the drop dialed in, it’s time to start filling in other crucial elements such as the intro and the build up.
The drums from your drop can be simplified and reused to serve as the intro. You might add in a melodic idea here as well to set the tone of the song.
After a 16 bar intro, you can work in an 8 bar breakdown followed by an 8 bar build up. This will lead you into the first drop. If you’re going with an ABAB structure, you basically have a whole song created already!
The key is to be sure that the intro of your song is going to reinforce your drop and make it as strong as possible. The build up is very important as well, as it creates tension and contrast that will help your drop make the most impact.
You want the song to have a consistent vibe to it, so make sure all the different pieces work together.
This can be achieved by re-using elements throughout the song, like repeating a melodic phrase on the last bar of your drop, or incorporating the drop bass into your breakdown.
Another commonly used tactic is to take an element from the drop, such as a lead melody or a bass part, and use it during the build up. This prepares the listener for what’s to come and helps make the transition from breakdown to drop smoother.
Start With The Intro
If you’re starting with the intro of a song, your workflow will be different.
Let’s say you have a 16 bar loop that sounds good, but isn’t strong enough to carry the song on its own. Loops that are stripped down and only feature a few simple elements generally work best as the intro. If your loop is more focused on melody, it may fit well within the breakdown.
The intro sets the vibe for the rest of the track, so try to imagine a drop that would compliment this section as you go. After all, you have to be building up to something.
You may want to start with a drum loop and gradually add in new sounds over time to fill in the rhythms. This can be a great way to kick things off and start building momentum.
After completing the build up, you will probably have some idea as to what direction you want to take the drop in.
Reverse Engineering Songs You Know
If you’re still struggling to visualize the structure of your song, one great way to get inspired is by reverse engineering other tracks you like.
By listening critically to arrangements of other productions, you can begin to pick out the different sections and how they fit together. Your new production can then be modelled off of these tried and true formulas.
This can be done by throwing one of your favorite tracks into your DAW to break it down and further analyze it.
After importing a song, you will need to figure out its tempo. Most DAW’s are capable of analyzing a song’s waveform to figure out its tempo, or you can generally look a song up on Beatport.com to find it. Once you’ve found this information, you can set your project to that same tempo.
Now go through the song and identify where each section of the song starts. Depending on your DAW, you may be able to insert markers to point out where each section begins, or cut up the audio file and move each section onto its own track.
You now have a map of what a finished track looks like. By counting out exactly how many bars are used in each section, you will be able to get a better idea of how the song is arranged.
This can then be used as a map to flesh out your own loops, filling in the blank sections according to how the reference track is put together.
The struggle to finish an idea is a problem that can plague any music producer. It makes it impossible to finish your songs, leaving you with a bunch of unfinished projects on your hard drive.
By understanding how EDM song structures work, it becomes much easier to expand on your loops and turn small ideas into full compositions.
It can be easy to come up with more ideas than you know how to finish, but your productivity will go up if you are able to find creative ways to see your projects through to the end.
With a little discipline, there’s no reason why you can’t use these methods to turn your half-finished ideas into complete songs.
What parts of song structure do you struggle with the most?
Are there any tips you use to finish your tracks that we forgot to include?
Let us know in the comments!