Posts Tagged ‘ Structure ’

Proportion and variety

It’s a funny word, but it’s critically important.

Proportion in music best understood as the relationship between the amount of musical material in a song and the length of time that the song goes for. By ‘musical material’, I’m referring to the unique ideas – not counting repeats or slight variations. Another way of thinking about proportion is as the amount of variety in the song. There has to be a balance – too little variety will result in the listener getting bored and too much variety will result in the listener getting confused.

With too little variety, a song will have too much repetition. This is a common problem among beginner dance music composers. You’ve probably heard it before – a seven minute track that only has eight bars of music in it. It’s just different variations and combinations of the same material.

If you’re working on a track like this, you probably have very little source material and you’re trying to squeeze it for all it’s worth. The most effective solution will either be to introduce some more original material (not just variations or developments of what’s already there) or reduce the total length of the track.

With too much variety, a song will have too many different ideas, with little connection between them. You’ve probably heard this as a song that has a lot of good ideas in it, but seems to have a weak identity or doesn’t seem to have anything that binds it together. Instead of being heard as a single focussed piece of music, it comes across as a collection of different ideas.

If this sounds like one of your songs, you probably need to separate the ideas out into two or three (or more!) individual songs. Focus on getting more mileage out of fewer ideas. By varying and developing fewer ideas (instead of simply adding more fresh ideas) your song will sound much more focussed and cohesive.

Of course, the goal is to find the right balance. This is where judgement and experience play such an important role, and why it’s important to listen for proportion in your own music and others’ music. Try to identify when you’re listening to music that feels like it’s repeating itself a bit too much (like a sense of not knowing how long the song will go for) or when you’re listening to music that keeps switching between different ideas (like switching the TV channel or radio station).

There’s no magic ratio here. It depends on your personal taste and your listener’s expectations. Listen to a lot of music and you’ll know it when you hear it.



Don’t build a structure by just muting/unmuting parts

It’s pretty tempting.

You’ve spent days developing your utterly brilliant eight-bar loop.It sounds full and thick. All your EQs and compressors are perfectly set. It almost makes you want to get up and dance.

But it’s only sixteen seconds long.

And you didn’t want to make a sixteen second song. You want to stretch it out over five minutes. So first you duplicate your eight bars until it fills five minutes. That’s almost twenty repetitions. And your eight bars already has a lot of repetition in it. So you start muting parts. Let the intro be pretty sparse. Then bring in some more synths. Then the kick drum. Then drop it all away for a bit. Then build up and suddenly drop everything in. Sit on that groove for a minute or so, then tear back the layers until the track ends.

That’s how it goes, doesn’t it?

Except the end result is a bit lacklustre. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it’s not *special*. Maybe add a few whooshes, a few risers, tweak things a bit here and there… And then what?

The problem is that you’re still thinking in layers. You’re hearing the music as a stack of simultaneous components. You’re arranging your musical ideas by layering them on top of each other. Most listeners, however, hear music as a sequence of sections or landmarks. They prefer to hear musical ideas one ofter the other. In other words, you’re thinking vertically and your listeners are thinking horizontally. You think you’ve got five minutes of music, but your listeners are hearing the same sixteen seconds twenty times.

The solution is not in how you mute or unmute your parts. It’s not in where you added your whooshes and risers. It’s not even in the way you set your EQs and compressors. The solution is in changing your workflow of building a track by stacking musical ideas on top of each other.

Try to build your initial musical ideas side by side. Think about developing sections (you don’t have to worry about the order at first). Give yourself more than sixteen seconds to express your musical ideas. Develop several different ideas, and then put them in the blender. See what happens when you mix and match them. Build some transitions from one section to the next.

And then – once you’ve got some reasonably well-developed musical material – you can start to assemble the structure of the track. Pay particular attention to the contour of the track. This is the time to think about rates of change, primary and secondary themes, listener expectations, momentum, etc. The key difference is that if your starting with a lot more musical material, you have a *lot* more scope for doing interesting things with your track. Your ideas are the building blocks. You don’t have to use all of them, but you’ll be glad you gave yourself the options.


How long should your song be?

This is a deceptively simple question. Will some of you will answer “3:30” without hesitation? Do you even have a standard length that you aim for?

Nothing wrong with having a standard length, by the way. Some genres call for it. Hard to have a club hit that’s 2:30 (unless you have an extended version just for DJs). Hard to have a pop hit that’s ten minutes long (unless it’s the extended video version). Chances are your saga about wizards and dragons won’t fit in less than five minutes (fifteen if you’re wearing a cape).

But even within stylistic constraints, you need to pay attention to length. This is because the length needs to be considered together with the quantity of musical material in the song. This is called coherence. Basically, it’s the trade-off between musical material and time.

  • A song has low coherence when it has a lot of musical material squeezed into a short time.
  • A song has high coherence when it has not much musical material stretched over a long time.

You should aim for a balance between the two.

A song with not enough coherence will have too much material and not enough time to develop it. The song will sound fragmented and unfocussed. Listeners will be confused and disoriented.

Conversely, a song with too much coherence will have too much time and not enough material (or development) to use it effectively. The song will sound boring and undeveloped. Listeners will be bored and will probably not wait to listen through to the end of the song.

What’s the right balance? You have to be the judge. You have to use your experience and judgement to decide what the right balance it. Fortunately, finding that balance isn’t difficult – after a lifetime of listening to music you should have a pretty good sense of what level of coherence to aim for. If you haven’t got it right in the past, it’s probably because you simply haven’t been aware of it.

So what if the song you’re working on isn’t quite there yet?

If your song is sounding fragmented or there isn’t a clear musical language, you probably need to increase coherence. You can either increase the length of the song (to let the material develop a bit further) or you can remove some of the musical material (which in turn gives the remaining material more time for development).

If your song is sounding boring or your musical material is dragging on, you probably need to reduce coherence. You can either reduce the length of the song (to make it tighter) or you can add new musical material (which adds more breadth and variety).


Preproduction: Tightening structure

Another important aspect to consider in preproduction is the structure of the song. For vocal songs, this is often addressed when working on the lyrics. Sometimes this is enough, sometimes it isn’t. Approaching structure  separately is often necessary when there is a strong instrumental component to the song. This includes vocal songs that have distinctive sounds or textures. This is where the vocal is not the only driving force or characteristic feature of the song.

In assessing the structure of the song and identifying ways it might need to be improved, it’s essential to understand concepts such as contour, proportion, development and coherence. I’ve already written about these here:

Usually artists present demos that have some good ideas, but are undeveloped. They might range from a collection of ideas (sometimes even in the same key!) vaguely arranged in a structure, to fully-realised compositions that are just a little loose around the edges.

Sometimes I need to do a lot of work with the arist to present their musical ideas in a way that flows and makes sense. In extreme cases, I need to rerecord parts just to make sense of the structure. This is often because the sections are in different keys or tonalities in a way that doesn’t make musical sense, or because individual tracks are too heavily processed (typically compression or distortion) in a way that can’t be undone or pulled back.

When it’s only a nip and a tuck required, it’s because there are sections that are too long – they spend too much time without contributing much to the story of the song. In other cases additional parts are recorded or rearranged to give the song a more defined shape (contour) and progression (development).


Five ways to build energy

Buildups are important in many styles of music. Essentially, buildups are transition sections that gradually change from low energy to high energy. They’re often useful for creating anticipation leading into a high energy section.

There are many ways of making this transition from low energy to high energy, although it’s easy to always resort to using the same tired methods over and over again. Without a wide enough variety of buildup methods in your musical ‘vocabulary’, your music will tend towards the uninspiring and predictable. This is particularly true in styles such as electronic dance music and rock.

So, if you want to shake things up a bit, try some alternative ways to building energy:

  • Use syncopation. This means making use of rhythms that emphasise the off-beats. This is especially powerful if you change or remove the instruments that are playing on the beat (such as the kick drum). What this does  is increase anticipation – especially if the texture is also thinner for most of the buildup.
  • Gradually add other instruments or sounds. What this does is increase the density (and energy). By doing it gradually, it allows the listener to expect and anticipate the increasing density.
  • Use unusual effects processing. This can really take a song in a new direction – particularly useful if the buildup section also functions as a bridge (adding new material or building on previous material, rather than returning to familiar material). Of course, this is particularly effective if the added effect sound gradually rises in intensity or pitch.
  • Take it in a different direction (bait and switch). This can be a good way to surprise the listener. Construct a section that seems to build up to a particular section or texture, but then switch to something different at the last moment. One common example of this is when a buildup appears to lead up to the song’s climax, but instead of reaching the climax the texture suddenly becomes sparse and subdued.
  • Speed up (tempo or pace). This is another technique that can be extremely effective if done well. It’s important to understand that tempo is different to pace. Tempo is a technical measurement of how fast the beats (quarter notes) are in a song, wheras pace is a subjective  judgement of how fast a song feels. Pace can be increased without having to change the tempo by increasing the density of notes and increasing the rate of change.
  • And a bonus sixth – do all the above at the same time! The more techniques you use at once, the stronger the buildup effect will be. You can use this to make a buildup extremely dramatic (useful leading into a song’s climax), or to use each technique more subtly (creating a more subtle effect).

Hopefully you can use these techniques to kick-start your own experimentation and exploration of ways to build energy. The more tailored and unique your techniques are, the more interesting your music can be.



Contour is the overall ‘shape’ of a song. While structure refers to the order and length of sections within the song, contour refers to how those sections relate, how they react to each other, and how they flow.

Contour  includes the rises and falls in energy level, the establishment and return to main themes, and the development of musical elements. When a song has a well-defined and sensible contour, the listener will better understand the music and feel the anticipation and excitement as intended. When a song has a poor contour, the listener will feel lost and alienated.

Energy level

A song with a good contour will have variations in energy level. Periods of high energy energise and excite the listener, whereas periods of low energy provide relief and anticipation for the listener. Effective placement of high energy sections and low energy sections is an important consideration when designing the structure of a song. If the changes are too slow, you lose momentum and the listener’s attention. The changes are too fast, you don’t give the listener enough to recognise and latch on to.

Main themes

Musical themes give your listeners a way to remember parts of the song – not just after listening to the song, but during it. By establishing one or two main themes at the beginning of the song, you can then guide the listener through familiar material and unfamiliar material. A good song needs both, for similar reasons as needing different energy levels. Familiar material provides reassurance and recognition for the listener, whereas unfamiliar material provides excitement and development. Of course, too much of either will make for a weak song (too much familiarity becomes boring, too much unfamiliarity sounds like randomness). A good contour will require effective placement of familiar and unfamiliar material to guide the listener through the song.

Traditionally, musical themes are entirely melodic (or harmonic) – recognisable motifs, melodies, chord progressions, or other such material. Depending on your own approach to music, however, thematic material may also include characteristic sounds, or even distinctive effects processing.


A song with good contour will unfold and grow over time and take the listener along with it. Not only that, but the development of the song will occur in a deliberate way throughout the song – working together with the flow of energy and the placement of musical themes. I’ve written more about development here:

With a good understanding of contour, you’ll be able to make your music more engaging and enjoyable for your listeners. More than simply being a collection of musical ideas, good contour will give your song shape and cohesion.


Development and momentum

Development and momentum are two concepts in composition and production. They make longer term structure effective. They are the difference between a collection of sections in a logical order and a complete unified song that tells a coherent story.


A song having a sense of development means that the listener hears the song grow and unfold as it progresses. This makes for a more compelling and engaging experience for the listener because there is a level of intrigue and surprise, simultaneously with a feeling of being taken along for a ride. When there is new musical material, it is not like changing the channel – it builds on previous material, appearing as the next extension. In some cases, this can come across as the original material growing out and becoming larger or more complex than before. In other cases, it can come across as additional detail being revealed – as if the listener is ‘zooming in’ and seeing more.

To give your music a sense of development, you need to think beyond musical structure being a collection of sections in a logical order. You need to think about each musical element. Not necessarily instruments or tracks – but musical elements. This includes:

  • Characteristic sounds
  • Melodies
  • Rhythms
  • Chord progressions

Think about ways in which they can be extended or expanded, and see how those extensions work as developments of the original material.

Another approach is to take a musical element that’s already quite complex, and reduce its complexity. The reduced version becomes the ‘original’ – the form in which the listener first hears it. As the song progresses, bring the complexity back in.


Momentum is a sense of moving forward. Think of it as using development with a deliberate rate of chance. The rate of change is key here.

Beginning composers often make music where the rate of change is too slow. This can be the case if each section is too long – even if the song has a good contour, and even if there’s a good sense of development. When the sections are too long, the listener gets bored and stops anticipating the next section. In other words, you lose momentum. This happens regardless of how ‘exciting’ rhythms or loops are. Even if it’s 150bpm high-energy techno – a minute of the same bar over and over again has no momentum.

At the other extreme, a rate of change that’s too fast will confuse and disorient the listener. Instead of excitement, you’ll end up with randomness. If the listener cannot understand the music, there’s no anticipation and no momentum.

What rate of change is right? This is a matter of judgement, and different sections of a song will require different rates of change – depending on the contour of the song. As a composer (or producer), you have to develop your own sense of pace.

With a bit more work in giving your music a greater sense of development and momentum, you’ll make your music more compelling and keep your listeners coming back.