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Electronic Music In Theory and Practice… …Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love structure.

Updated: Jan 3, 2019

sicilian frog or toad, totally electro

One of the frustrating things (I’ve discovered in the past few days) about putting one’s music up on a website, is the fact that the super-duper automated and helpful music-vending app allows listeners to hear a 30-second snippet of one’s songs (This is 30 seconds you don’t get to choose, either). And I guess with pop-style song structures, typically short, with their own well-defined (AB or ABC) forms, this works just fine, in general, and can give listeners a fair estimation of what is going on in the music for pretty much the whole thing (30 seconds is maybe a quarter of the song, after all).

But if I had to liken today’s modern electronic music to anything (including the kind of weird stuff I’m doing here), in terms of overall structure, it’s probably much closer to classical music than it is to anything else. No, really — indulge my pontification for a moment — I want to take this seriously, and talk about song structure.

I’m not saying (necessarily) that the amazing DJ you saw last night has been secretly studying the circle of fifths and the intricacies of sustained Operatic themes during his downtime… but then again, he might have been. Or he (or she) might have a wide appreciation of music, and a trained instinct for what “works”. And by works, I mean, what connects on a physical and emotional level. I find that the layers of structural device that “work” in classical music are as strongly present in electronic music, and are driven by the same motivations: artful emotional manipulation.

Yes! You’re being manipulated! And that’s why you listen! That’s why stuff sticks in your head. That’s why, in odd moments of life crap, a song, or part of a song, will present itself to your mind. Instrumental music is a language that crosses hearts without words, and without misunderstanding, a kind of modern-day mystery initiation for an open heart. And there is a “received wisdom” for this kind of thing, built up and transmitted through time, through many hearts and souls. Our human physiognomy, and our cultural inheritances (conscious and unconscious) create and respond to this wisdom, whether it’s created instinctively or by design. You could say it bubbles up out of our collective unconscious, maybe. And that amazing DJ, that Master of Ceremonies is the acting Heirophant in these rites.

And that’s why a 30-second preview is frustrating. You wouldn’t assume, from 30 seconds of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor, for example (a fine example, by the way — the Stalin motifs in this one always remind me of my mother), that the whole thing sounds like those 30 seconds. And if you choose 30 seconds at random, towards the beginning of a well thought-out piece of electronic dance music, you’ll see the same thing happening. You’ll hear maybe part of a build-up, out of context. You might be able to feel what’s going on, before and after, but you’re not “in” it in those 30 seconds. Which is a pity. It’s like getting a cube of slightly stale white bread shoved into your hand down a dark alley with the whispered promise, “Psst. Body of Christ.” It’s lost its meaning and connection to something larger. Who knows what the hell that is… So yeah, all of this is actually a bit of a disappointed rant… nevertheless! Onwards!

Now, believe it or not, there is something of the symphonic structure about this music — that’s to say, there’s generally an unfolding, the presentation of a motif or theme, an exposition (exploration and variation) of that theme over a course of time, and then generally a return, at some point. There is a mood set, an intention, and a build-up and release of tension on several different levels. There are underlying rules that make it work.

You know that point where you feel the music swelling, you feel a tingling sense of anticipation because you can feel it coming, and then boom! Boom! BOOM! The strong beat powers in and makes your heart leap, and you have to just dance? It’s unbearable if you don’t? That’s a build-up and release.

You know when you don’t know how long you can keep dancing, and some soothing, ramp-down washes over you, even oh, so briefly, and seems to speak to you, saying, “don’t worry, I know… but get ready to bear up again and dance even more fervently…I will sustain you!” Maybe it even gives you chills. That’s a kind of resolution, and emotional build-up and then bam! That surprise return to a newly ecstatic, energised onslaught. And there’s you, all a-panting and right there with it.

The same thing, when you feel, with relief, exaltation, and a tinge of regret, that a song is coming to its natural end… that’s another cycle of unfolding, the return and resolution.

And in this emotional journey, there is often a strong element of point-counterpoint, and periods in which texture is varied by a sudden, surprising use of a change in tone or rhythm to “keep you there” on that path. As freely-evolving as it sounds, and as much as you’ve never really thought about it, maybe, the underlying structure is paramount.

You are participating in a Grand Mystery that spans millennia, civilisations and cultures. Enjoy it with your whole soul. And next time someone says to you, “I don’t know how you can listen to that garbage,” you tell ‘em what I just told you.

Live that dance.

(and here’s some online internet search manipulation: #musictheory #initiation #practicalmagic #electronicmusic #dancemusic )

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