The biggest problem with modern electronica
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
And no, it's nothing to do with your mastering process or insufficient use of sidechain f**king compression. Let's just put the software to one side for a second, and talk about "form". As much as I love electronic music, about 95% of the stuff I'm exposed to these days is dull and uninspiring, and form is nearly always the culprit.
So what is form? In music composition theory, form is a way to describe the overall structure of a piece, by breaking it down into distinct musical sections, and describing how those sections get repeated, modified, or arranged. It's a simple but incredibly useful way to think about the structure of any piece of music. For example, here is the form of a typical pop, rock or folk song:
Verse, Verse, Chorus, Chorus, Bridge, Verse, Chorus, Chorus, Chorus
Using standard form notation it can also be written like this, assigning letters of the alphabet to sections in the order that they first appear:
A A B B C A B B B
And since the same phrase is often repeated multiple times in a section, we often leave out the repetitions, giving you the more succinct version:
A B C A B
When talking about form, what differentiates sections is their musical content, which in most genres means chord progressions, melodies and harmonies. Changes in instrumentation or mix don't count! So simply punching different tracks in and out doesn't create new sections. Those are just repetitions (ie. "remixes") of the same same section. They have the same musical core, and therefore the same emotional content, regardless of where you drop the beat.
Sometimes a section will reoccur, but with some significant musical change. It's recognizably similar to the old one, but maybe one chord is different, or the lead plays a new melody. In those cases it's common to refer to those variations as say A¹ and A². Here's the rough form of our song "Flutter for a Day":
A¹ B¹ C B¹ B² B³
There are no rules to form, but there are many examples of form that work well and crop up again and again, even getting their own names. I'm only giving you the basics here, so feel free to Google for a deeper dive into the topic.
Binary form A B
Ternary form A B A
Arch form A B C B A
Rondo form* A B A C A D A
(*Rondo, it's what notes crave :)
Now let's take a look at the form I see prevalent in the vast majority of modern electronic music:
Or to use the more verbose notation:
A A A A A A 🐤 A A A A A A
Hopefully you can see the issue here. I would ascribe this to two things...
Firstly, the popularity of loop-based music production and the shifting role of electronica to background music (thanks to DJ culture) have been progressively watering down the musical content of the genre for a long time. A lotta younger producers have probably never been exposed to the musically richer work of their forbears. Or even studied what is really going on (musically) in any chart-topping pop song, for that matter.
Secondly, I think many artists in this genre are just plain cheap about ideas...
I fell into this trap when I first started making music, and had to consciously rid myself of the habit. It's very tempting to treat every nugget of an idea that you come up with (be it a chord progression, a beat, or a hook) as precious. And to also assume that ideas are inherently rare and in short supply (which is patently untrue, just look how much music exists in the world today). If you think this way, you're likely to take each little idea and stretch it out like taffy, to fill an entire track. And so on with the next idea, ad infinitum.
Loop-based music software makes this trap even easier to fall into. With a lot of EDM songs I hear, it sounds as though the artist literally just stacked up a bunch of parts, hit the play button and walked away, wandering back to their computer every minute or so to move some sliders and vary the mix. Now, if you're talking music that is intended just for dancing or chilling, maybe that's all that is needed to satisfy an audience. But it could be so much more interesting. And it doesn't take much extra effort to get there...
The next time you are working on a new track, try to create one or two musical variations of your core idea - even if it's just replacing one chord in the progression, or writing a 2nd hook. Better still, pull three or four different ideas from your notebook, and find a way to interweave them into a single piece using form. You can even take a song you love by another artist, figure out the form that they used ...and copy it!
When you write a song, you are taking your audience on an emotional, musical journey. You just need to decide whether you want that journey to be a winding trail through an enchanted landscape, or an eight-laned concrete highway.