Archive for February 8th, 2010

The Structure of Sound

Monday, February 8th, 2010

People always ask me how they can “get into” dance music. I never have a good answer to this other than “listen to a lot of it.” But if you’re going to listen to more of the genre, it’s important to train your ear to listen to dance music. Let me explain.

Most songs written in the last fifty years follow a similar structure: verse – chorus – verse – chorus – bridge – chorus. We’re all used to hearing music like this. Sometimes I even think our brains have an innate affinity for an A-B-A-B-C-B structure (doesn’t this pattern show up all over the world independently?). But not all music follows that arrangement. Jazz fans are used to hearing a 64-bar improvisation in the middle of a song. And people who listen to jam bands are used to the whole, err, jammy-ness of them. Dance music is a little different, too.

At this point it’s probably better to distinguish between two different subsets of dance music: “songs” and “tracks.” The distinction is arbitrary, but I’ll use it for simplicity. Songs follow the same verse-chorus structure outlined above (but they’re got a BPM high enough to make the listener move). Dance tracks are structured something like this: intro, build, drop, bridge, build, drop, outro. They oscillate periodically and are built around escalation and release.

Tracks aren’t made for top 40 radio station, they’re made for DJs to mix into the middle of a set. That should explain 32 bars of drums at the beginning and end. The intro/outro makes blending one track into another much easier (especially if you’re using real vinyl). Sure, you can listen to tracks on their own; I always do. But most people don’t want thirty seconds of drums at the beginning of every song. That’s why there’s often a “Radio Version” on the b-side of a twelve inch. DJ’s use one side for mixing into a set, radio stations use the other. Form follows function.

So if you’re going to “get into” dance music you’ll have to re-train your ear for a different song structure. How do you do that? I’ll repeat: listen to a lot of dance music. And don’t fast-forward through those drums at the beginning. The intro is there for a reason.

This old house track from Phortune is a good example. It doesn’t have a verse or chorus. It’s just one catchy loop and some simple drums that periodically change. A variation on a theme, if you will. And it’s got an intro and an outro designed to facilitate a smooth crossfade.

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Phortune – String Free

This track from Louis La Roche works, too. To visualize what I’m talking about, I’ve included a waveform graphic of the tracks’s first 36 bars. Try to “follow along” with the picture underneath while you listen. It’ll all make sense.

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Louis La Roche – Sunshine Hotel (Original Mix)