What is the DJ trying to do?
September 28, 2013 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand electronic music!

When I say "electronic music", I'm not just talking about anything made with synthesizers, but I guess primarily what people maybe call "EDM"? It tends to be more repetitive, focuses more on rhythm than melody, frequently samples, and is often played in DJ sets. I'm deliberately being as broad as possible, but you know what I mean.

There's some music that is essentially rock with synthesizers, and I can make basic sense of that -- verse/chorus/verse, key changes, harmonies, etc. But I don't have any of this basic vocabulary for electronic music.

Where can I find it? How are these songs structured? What are some musical conventions/tropes, and where do they come from (and what do they have to do with the crazy array of tiny subgenres)? Also, what do DJs try to do, and how do they talk about it? What is the difference between a good and bad DJ? (Likewise for producers.)

Books, articles and websites are all great. If you feel like just writing down what you personally know, that's great too. Super bonus points for tracks that demonstrate important ideas. Thank you!
posted by vogon_poet to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I would start with googling dubstep, since EDM can mean "electronic dance music" or "Electro house, Dubstep, Moombahcore" and dubstep is the most popular of the three at the moment. ( Sorry if I am not understanding the question very well. )
posted by xicana63 at 2:39 PM on September 28, 2013

My friend who knows the creator pooh-poohs Ishkur's Guide, but I found it really useful for understanding the different sub-genres of electronic music. Warning: Flash-based.
posted by Pomo at 2:46 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

One way in which such songs are structured is by layering of musical material. You might have a drum pattern, a synth baseline, a short sung or spoken vocal phrase, a rhythmic pattern of piano chords, a thick sustained synth chord, all of which fit together musically, in the sense that they could be played on top of each other and sound coherent.

These elements are then dropped in and out as the song progresses. It might start with, say, just a baseline and piano chords, which are repeated a few times, then a vocal line is dropped on top and the cycle repeated a few more times. Then, for dramatic tension, a song in full flow might drop down to a couple of elements for a few repetitions, before the other layers are reintroduced all at once.

This contrasts with many other forms of music, where tension and release are done through changes in harmony. Here the harmony is fairly static, but the addition and removal of musical elements sets up the emotional trajectory of the song.
posted by Jabberwocky at 2:48 PM on September 28, 2013 [6 favorites]

I am going to give my perspective on it, though by no means do I claim to be an expert on any of this. I began DJ'ing shows around the time dubstep got popular, so a lot of what I know is through that lens. There is a long rave/electronic music history that I am vaguely aware of but should probably know more about.

Firstly, on vocabulary: The most important thing I can think of in electronic music is the "Drop", which is easiest to hear in dubstep but is a common element around which most EDM is based. Instead of the song structure being verse/chorus/verse/chorus/break, with things revolving around the chorus, EDM is largely built upon layering loops, samples, and sound textures with a groove slowly and then quickly changing them or adding a heavy drum beat for the "drop". You're either building tension, or releasing it. The best example of this I can think of is Udachi's remix of M83's 'We Own The Sky'. The song slowly builds, playing the original sample to 0:50, where things start amping up to the drop at 1:04, where you start banging your head and going wild.

You can find the best music by digging through Soundcloud, but you have to sift through a lot of bad stuff to find the gems, especially gems that aren't super-popular. Which sort of brings us around to what DJs do, which is what DJs have always done, finding the best new music before anyone else. SoundCloud lets you have access directly to producers who are creating awesome stuff, so if you're in tune enough, you can consistently play really good stuff no one has ever heard before. In my opinion, the most important part of DJing is track selection. Combining the "hits" everyone knows, and knows how to dance to with new songs they don't know yet but would probably love is the best.

What DJs are technically doing depends on the DJ, but basically boils down to playing music in a way that makes people want to dance. There are simple rules/tricks to make sure people don't stop dancing, and the most basic is to never stop playing music. Blending the song that is currently playing into the song that you want to play next so that the beat keeps hitting at the same spot, and people can keep dancing without awkwardly jumping when the next song starts. This is the most basic DJ'ing, one song into the next, steady, for the DJ's set. For a lot of time this was really hard, as DJs would listen to both songs at once (that's what the headphones are for), adjusting the tempo on the songs by hand so they both end up at the same tempo/BPM, and all of the beats line up. Here's a pretty good YouTube video I found that shows how to beatmatch manually.

As music has moved onto computers, music stopped being played off vinyl. Lucky for us, MP3s can have information like their BPM included. So instead of having to manually beatmatch two songs, software like Traktor (which I use) you can just press a "sync" button, and the two songs are magically in time. This left DJs with a lot of time on their hands. Interesting things like controllerism where the DJ acts much more like a musician, playing sounds, using knobs/etc to control the effects. The DJ will often play a loop of a piece of another song, like a drum beat, and then layer on different sounds and samples or other parts of the song in real-time by hand. The best (and most extreme) example of this type of DJ'ing would be araabMuzik who plays literally every sound, every drum hit of every song by hand, and remixes everything in realtime.

In terms of musical conventions / tropes, there is a great 20-minute video on the history of the amen break, and it's prevalence as a drum sample in hip-hop and electronic music, that helped me better understand how samples are used and re-used creatively, which is at the core of everything.

Most of the sub-genres are built out of musical tropes that people like and then re-use, and little communities form out of them. Dubstep is basically anything with deep bass and two-step drums, and a lot of creativity came from rethinking ways to execute those simple elements. The self-imposed limits make people do more interesting things, if that makes sense.

I really like this series on internet culture / musical genres, and if you watch a couple of them I think you can get a really good sense of who is making this music and why.
posted by ejfox at 3:15 PM on September 28, 2013 [19 favorites]

This may sound silly, but you might want to check out DJing for Dummies; it talks about the structure of EDM songs a fair amount. One thing it highlighted for me (that I'd never noticed before): songs are usually broken up into 4-, 8-, or 12-bar sections. At the end of each section, *something* will change -- maybe it's adding a bassline, or bringing in or dropping percussion. (Kind of like how your standard pop song will have a 4-bar intro, followed by the A-verse, the B-verse, the chorus, etc.) The ability to play around with that structure is one of the things that differentiates good DJs from bad.
posted by asterix at 5:45 PM on September 28, 2013

The top three sites that I follow for music news are FACT Magazine, XLR8R, and Resident Advisor. All three regularly release free mixes/podcasts (!) and also feature reviews of albums and mixes, as well as artist/producer interviews. Resident Advisor even has a separate podcast that interviews artists and producers. And for funsies, you can start with this clickable genre map (most of the electronic music genres are in the upper right-hand corner).
posted by PaulaSchultz at 6:30 PM on September 28, 2013

Rick Snowman's Dance Music Manual is essentially a how-to, and it will answer all the questions you have.
posted by neroli at 7:56 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

EDM songs are still usually structured around 4/4 beats and transitions after some multiple of 4 bars. But since the main point is just dancing and there are usually no lyrics, beat/rhythm and basslines are key. Most EDM subgenres are defined by the tempo and rhythmic style of the beat (and to a lesser extent by the overall mood or the type of samples, i.e. disco samples for house music). Some styles are more strongly dance-structured like the euphoric build-ups of trance, or the intense bass-drops of dubstep, whereas more abstract/minimal/expiremental styles of techno/IDM focus on building textured sonic layers and creating atmospheres.

Beyond that, I'd second things like Resident Advisor, Ishkurs Guide, etc for getting started. Or just go to an online EDM shop (Boomkat, Beatport, Juno, etc) and listen to samples for the various subgenres to start getting a feel.
posted by p3t3 at 8:27 PM on September 28, 2013

Oh, and re: What are DJs trying to do? - Well, make people dance! But to that end, they usually try to build from slower, softer music to a peak of faster harder music, sometimes with smaller peaks and valleys along the way. It's really a matter of reading the collective mood of the crowd, and responding accordingly for maximum dancing.

A lot of the songs the DJ plays are EDM hits, but interspersed with tracks referred to as "DJ tools" which are a bit more stripped down or minimal and hence work well when layered over/under another track. Some DJs favor long blendy overlayed mixes, whereas others prefer quick transitions. Some like to go between many subgenres, while others only focus on one or two.. There's no right way to make people dance ;)
posted by p3t3 at 8:35 PM on September 28, 2013

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