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The Mechanics of Song Structure

By: Alex Scheibe
Alex is an electronica reviewer and the audio tech article guy at raw42 music. He has a degree in Audio Engineering and plays around making his own music on his spare tire.

If you're interested in writing free-form avant-garde experimental pieces, then you need read no further. this article is concerned with song structure, be it in electronic music, industrial or techno. most musical pieces have some basic structure, without which, the song would be a bunch of non-related sounds and hence, probable mess. this is not to say that some of the more interesting compositions from electronic masters such as autechre or download are messes, they're not, far from it. what they do with their music is structured, just not in the most basic sense. because they are masters of their music, they are able to pull off a series of non-related sounds, noise and effects and bring it all together to form a song. however, based on what we've heard over the past couple of years, the majority of new artists who try this often just make a nasty litter of noise which hurts. nabbing a few cracked versions of audio software and stringing together some samples does not make a musician.

The basics of song structure
At its most basic, a song normally requires a verse, chorus and bridge. theories have been devised about structures for good pop music and one of the variations that is believed to make a catchy pop song is ABACAB. A is the verse, which will usually be different all three times. B is the chorus which is the catchy part of the song that people are supposed to remember and sing along to. C is the bridge, a break that comes about two thirds of the way through the song, usually involves a tempo or key change and guitar lead if you're in a rock band. east 17, a boy group from the uk, managed to release a song whose structure was bbbcbb (anyone remember around the world?). i thought it was horrible but nevertheless, the abacab rule doesn't always apply. another song would be the genesis one, abacab, which did not follow this basic song structure theory... just for fun i suppose. my point being, that even though the abacab theory should hold true, there are many variations in song structure and you really have to go with what works best for your own composition without making it muddy and senseless.

Even electronic music without vocals can consist of parts of music which can be easily labeled verse, chorus and bridge. it would help to take the strongest part and name it the chorus in your mind and then treat it as such when you compose your song. for instance:


This example doesn't seem to be structured according to current theory, but it is. try composing a song with those basic structures and i can almost guarantee that it will work provided that your chorus at the end is enough of a climax. you can see this type of written down structure in almost any band's lyric sheets. they scribble all over them - verse, chorus, verse, chorus - sometimes with keys - verse e, chorus g, etc. for electronic musicians, the same holds true. write it down, give it some structure and see what happens.

Tempo and Key
If your song is going to contain samples, then your first order of business is to make sure all your samples are in the same tempo. and most importantly, in the same key. this applies to any sample that has a sound other than percussion. some drum loops contain (parts of) bass lines so you really need to check the key of that too.

Make sure there are no false notes in your samples. a false note is a note which does not fit into the musical scale of the melody or of another melody that plays at the same time. sometimes, for untrained ears, it's not very noticeable, hence the proliferation of false notes in many compositions from indie electronic artists. but it is noticeable to me and to many reviewers you may be sending your music to. a crash course in musical scales is in order for many electronic musicians. false notes make the music sound off and will usually cause raised eyebrows, even for untrained ears.

Time Changes
Time changes are for led zeppelin and progressive rock bands. they sometimes work for electronic compositions but more often don't. most electronic music is beat driven and when you start messing with the timing of drums within a song, it causes confusion and messiness if you don't know what you're doing. you can change from a 4/4 to a 3/4 but you'd best be sure you have a good idea for the 3/4 part or it will come off sounding like a cheesy waltz. a 5/4 beat is very difficult to pull off nicely but the cranes do a masterful job of it on the song, pale blue sky.

Song structure is just a theory. most of the time it works and it works very well. it doesn't always apply to electronic music but some of the best techno songs are very structured. you have to find what works best for your style and go with it. but don't get your song all muddied up in the process and come off sounding like a musical moron. there are reasons why bands like the prodigy and the chemical brothers et al are so good. study some of your favorite electronic songs. pull them apart piece by piece and see what makes them so appealing and well done. chances are, those songs will have a structure that hooks and catches and sticks in your head. when your song flies all over the place, there isn't much to hook a listener with. ABACAB may be a pretty silly sounding theory but it rings true for most popular music.

Article first appeared at raw42 music. Reprinted with permission.

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