The art of DJing isn’t as simple as some may have you believe. It’s not just a case of playing one song after another. Part of honing your DJ skills is coming to grips with the structure of the music you play. Having a good understanding of how electronic dance music (EDM) is structured will make your mixes sound more fluid. It will also open up the door for more advanced mixing techniques.
Luckily most modern EDM does follow a familiar pattern. In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about basic EDM song structure. You’ll also learn how to use this knowledge to improve your sets.
Nearly every single electronic dance track has a consistent beat. These beats are usually defined by the kick drum. This beat is what sets the tempo of the song. For most songs, this tempo will remain constant throughout the song.
These beats are usually arranged in groups of 4. This where the ‘four-on-the-floor’ term originated from and is used across all genres of music. These groups of 4 beats are generally called a bar. The common pattern in dance music is to have 4 in a bar and 4 bars in a phrase. This is a total of 16 beats in a phrase.
Beats, Bars and Phrases are the foundation of most electronic music genres.
Take some time to listen to one of your favourite tracks and count out the beats. You’ll notice that any changes will fall at the start of a new phrase. For example, there may be a basic kick drum for the first 16 beats and then a hi-hat is introduced for the next 16 beats. This is how most dance music is structured. Pay attention to these changes. Over time you’ll subconsciously become aware of them.
As mentioned above beats are grouped into bars which in turn are grouped into phrases. Understanding the phrase structure of the song you’re listening to will help you find the right spots to set cue points. It will also highlight where some of the optimal mix-in and mix-out points are.
Mark the first few phrases in your software with cue points as well as some of the last few phrases. Having this visually represented can prepare you for a mix with a quick glance at your software.
Phrases are not limited to groups of beats. They can be melodies or vocals as well. Each major element in the song will have its own phrase length. It may match up with the phrase length of the beats or it may be longer. Generally, it will be in a certain increment that is divisible of the main 4 beat bar. For example, if the main beat runs in a 16 beat phrase there may be a vocal element that runs for 8 beats. It may be repeated twice within the 16 beat phrase or it may only come back at the start of the next 16 beat phrase. Melodies can also be grouped in this way. For example, you may encounter a pad that runs for 64 beats. There may even be a quick melodic hit that only runs for 4 beats.
Once again listen to some of your favourite music and this time pay attention to the other phrases located in the song.
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Types of Phrases
Learning the different types of phrases you’ll encounter can help you identify which part of a song you’re at. Having this understanding can help you spend less time looking at your software. It can also help if you are digging for the next track and your mind recognises that you’re approaching the end of the current song.
Here is a summary of the main phrases you’ll find in dance music.
This phrase tends to be basic. It’s usually comprised of a kick drum and some other drum elements. It can also be made up of a basic melody that builds to the start of the next phrase. The basic drum based elements help DJs beatmatch music without too many other elements to distract the ear.
This is usually the main bulk of the song. It will usually be a repeatable chunk of music. In dance music, it can be a vocal component. It can also be melodic or drum based. This section will help set the tone of the song as well as build to the next phrase.
This is where the memories are made. The chorus section of the song will contain the main hook as well as any primary vocals. In dance music, this is where the most energy will be found. It is often called the ‘drop’. While not a rule that is set in stone you’ll often encounter a Verse followed by a Chorus then another Verse and another Chorus.
The break or bridge is an effective tool to change the feeling of the song. It will often strip back elements of the track like removing the kick drum. It will often also have a building element within it that will lead to the next phrase. Changes to instruments or to the key help give this section a separate feel to the rest of the song.
A very common component of electronic dance music. This section will usually have an arpeggiating sound. It can build either down or up and can change in intensity. The next phrase following a Riser is usually a climax to the energy built. It’s often used before the main chorus section to help build tension.
This phrase tends to be like the Intro but in reverse. Main elements from the Verse and Chorus are progressively removed as the song unwinds. It’s used to give some time for the DJ to mix in the next track without all the energy disappearing.
Waveforms are another excellent way to identify a song’s structure. All the information visible in a waveform can be processed in the blink of an eye. The first thing to look out for are the low and high sections. The low section will represent a section of the song where there is no kick drum. The high sections will represent sections where a kick drum is present. These sections usually can give you a visual sign of some of the core phrases within a song.
A waveform gives you an instant visual representation of a song’s structure.
When analysing your music within your DJ software you can use these highs and lows to identify key moments within a song. This can help speed up the process of assessing the song. You can jump to the main break to see how the song builds to its climax. It can also help in placing cue points efficiently.
Become familiar with the core sections and you’ll be able to identify whether a track will be suitable to mix into your current song.
Using EDM Song Structure When Mixing
Once you come to understand EDM song structure you can use it to enhance your mixing capabilities.
If you know where the outro phrase begins you can start the intro phrase of your next song for a smooth transition. This basic level of mixing will begin to bring in elements from the new track while the previous track begins to take out elements. This maintains a consistent level of energy as it builds to the new songs next phrase.
When mixing timing is critical for a smooth transition. You want the phrases to match up. This will result in a pleasant sounding and natural mix. The human ear and mind are very good at noticing patterns. If you mix outside of the phrases it will be noticeable even to a casual listener.
Understanding the various phrases in your music can also open up the door to creative mixing. You can layer a vocal phrase over the top of a break or even another non-vocal chorus. This is the fundamental component of creating mashups. You can also begin mixing in a riser section towards the end of a chorus section to maintain energy. This way you’ll go from one high energy phrase straight into another.
Putting It All Together
You now know everything you need to be able to identify the basic structure of an EDM song. More importantly, you know how to use this information to create smoother mixes.
As you become more experienced you’ll come to recognise these change in phrases instinctively. When first starting out set cue points at major changes to help you see when new elements begin. Having these initial phrases set as cue points will help you mix at the appropriate time.
Understanding EDM song structure will make your time on the decks more enjoyable.
Keep in mind that not all electronic music sticks to these patterns. Having the knowledge of the familiar elements to look for will help in identifying tracks that stray from the formula. You will then be more prepared for these tracks when you do come across them.
The most important thing to take away from this guide is to pay closer attention to the music you play. Each song will have clues to help identify certain segments in the structure of the song. Master identifying them and you’ll be well on your way to better mixes.