Lesson 3: Fundamentals of Electronic Music

1. Introduction

It’s a simple fact that your remixes will not sound good unless they sound musical. There are two common mistakes made by nascent producers. First, the producer will find the correct tempo for the song and create a decent beat, but the harmony and the melody will be so off from one another that it sounds, to put it bluntly, bad. Inversely, the producer will find the correct key, but their beat will be so of tempo that the harmony moves at a different pace, creating serious dissonance.

In the following sections we'll examine some of the most common musical pitfalls.

2. Harmony and Melody

Harmony and Melody are inextricably linked. Where one goes, the other goes. Hand in hand, two of a kind, birds of a feather...you get the idea. While it’s absolutely possible to create great music without knowing a lick of music theory, knowing some of the basics will save you a lot of time and frustration.

Melody is the main musical idea that generally exists as a single note. In pop and dance production this is often known as the top-line or the lead-line. For example, in a song with vocals, the lead vocalist will generally sing the melody of the song. The melody is where the hook comes from. When you have a song stuck in your head, you’re generally hearing the melody.

Harmony is a more interesting phenomenon. Harmony can be defined as all of the musical material that works in support of the melody. More commonly, the harmony is defined by the chords, key, and quality of the song. The key of a song is where the song is rooted, and what quality it is. For example, if a song is said to be in the key of C Major, then you know the root of the song is C and the quality is Major (Another example: if the key of a song is Eb Minor, then the root of the song is Eb and the quality is Minor). There are two basic qualities in western music, major and minor. In simple terms, the quality of major is associated with songs that sound “happy”, “hopeful”, and “bright” while songs that have a quality of minor can sound “sad”, “pensive”, and “dark”. For example, Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” is in a major key, while Linkin Park’s “A Light That Never Comes” is in a minor key.

What ties the melody and harmony of a song together are the chords and the chord structure. Chords are groups of notes that are played at the same time to create harmony. In popular music, chords usually manifest themselves in the form of stabs and pads. Stabs are quick chordal hits that imply more “space”, while pads are sustained chords that give the song a sense of “texture” and “atmosphere”. For example, much deep house music uses minor seventh stabs moving through different pitches to create its harmonic “sound”. Ambient producers like Aphex Twin make great use of pads to create huge sounding textures.

Remember, we’ve said that the melody and the harmony are inextricably linked to one another. For example, if you have a melody that is clearly outlining C Major, you wouldn’t want to add a harmonic element that had a root of C, but a quality of minor. There would be a terrible clash between the two, and the listener, even if not schooled in music, would be able to hear the melodic/harmonic rub. One of the most important things you can do as someone hoping to create music is to train your ears to hear when the melody is clashing with the harmony and come up with ways to fix the issue.

TERMS: Harmony, Melody, Top-Line, Lead-Line, Chord, Key, Quality, Major, Minor, Chord-Structure, Stab, Pad

3. Bassline

Bass deserves its own section because of how fundamental it is to music, and specifically dance music. Along with rhythm, much of a genre’s “sound” can be traced to how the bass is treated. Bass is the lowest portion of a song. In a well-treated room or club with an ample subwoofer, the bass is something that you’ll feel in your chest more than you’ll actually hear it. However, even though it’s that low, it’s still important that your bassline matches up musically with the song (i.e. correct key, following the harmony).

N.B.: One genre that uses bass as its main focal point is dubstep. In its original UK form, producers like Mala and Loefah used bass to fill up the space in a club without having to use much more than drum grooves, vocal samples, and a bass line. As the genre progressed and the producers in the scene experimented with the low end, the treatment of bass became more prominent as a front and center sound. The “wobble”, which has come to define the genre, is created by chaining an LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator) to a Low Pass filter which opens and shuts in time to allow the upper harmonics through. Taking cues and inspiration from Rusko and other producers who were using more and more experimental sounds, the American producer Skrillex incorporated dubstep halftime and basslines into his own productions, popularizing the “wobble” technique to a broader audience, and solidifying its place in the EDM toolkit.

4. Rhythm

In dance music, and most of the popular music genres today, rhythm plays an essential role. Rhythm can be defined as the placement of the music over a period of time. There are a few basic components to rhythm that help define its structure: tempo, measure, beat, and subdivision. Each genre of music, and specifically dance music, takes advantage of the different combinations of these building-block to derive their individual sounds.

Tempo is how fast the song moves over a period of time. Tempo is measured in BPM (or Beats Per Minute). In dance music, different genres are typically referenced by their BPM. For example, when you hear House music, it’s typically between 120-128 BPM, UK Garage and 2-step can push 135, Dubstep exists in halftime around 140 BPM, a lot of modern synth-pop is being made at 100 BPM, Hip-Hop is commonly found around 80-100 BPM, drum and bass is much faster at 160-180. Other genres have more variable tempos. For example, a rock ballad can be all the way down at 65 BPM, while the hit on a rock album may be around 120 BPM.

Most dance and popular music is written with a time-signature of 4/4. This means that there are 4 beats to the measure (which is the top number), with the quarter-note equaling one beat (which is noted by the bottom number). For our purposes, we’ll assume that the quarter-note is always equal to one beat. In house music, one of the most fundamental rhythmic elements is “4 on the floor”. This is a shorthand way of saying “the kick drum hits every beat”.

Parsing the general rhythmic elements of House music is a great way to wrap your mind around simple rhythmic concepts. There are 3 essential percussion elements that are present in almost all house: the kick, the snare, and the hi-hat. Let’s take is step by step. You begin with the “4 on the floor”, as we’ve seen. Next, you add the snare, which will hit on beats 2 and 4 of the measure. Finally you add the hi-hat. Each hi-hat hit in house music occurs on the upbeat of each beat. An upbeat is a beat’s first subdivision. When the beat is equal to one quarter-note, an eighth-note is equal to 2 quarter-notes with the second eighth-note being the upbeat. When the hi-hats are placed on each of the upbeats, you will have created your first house beat.

Two slightly more complicated subdivisions are the triplet and the sixteenth-note. A triplet splits the beat into 3 equally long partials, and the sixteenth-note spits the beat into 4 equally long notes. You can also think about sixteenth-notes as halving eighth-notes. While the technical explanation may be difficult to grasp at first, it’s very simple in practice. For example, if you’ve ever heard trap music, you’ve heard these sub-divisions ad nauseam. Trap producers like Lex Luger will breakdown the hi-hat and snare patterns into sixteenth-notes, triplets, sixteenth-note triplets, thirty-second-notes, and all other kinds of crazy patterns. Listen to Lex Luger’s production on “Hard In Da Paint” and Young Chop’s production on “No Heart No Love” for some excellent examples of subdivision and rhythm.

Subdivisions can also be used to create tension. While house music relies on a straightforward “4 on the floor” approach, there are other genres that use syncopation, or , to create a sense of motion. One prime example is UK Garage, which creates movement by shuffling hi-hats and off kilter sixteenth-note anticipations. Reggaeton is a good example of a hybrid which blends roots from caribbean music an more conventional dance music—the kick drum plays a “4 on the floor” rhythm, but the snare hits on the 4 sixteenth-note of beat 2 and the upbeat of beat 3, producing a club friendly visceral, tribal rhythm.

TERMS: Rhythm, Tempo, Measure, Beat, Subdivision, BPM, Time-Signature, Upbeat, Triplet, Quarter-Note, Eighth-Note, Sixteenth-Note, Syncopation

EXERCISE: Creating a House Music Track

Now that you’ve had some experience with the application, let’s get down to making a specific genre. House music was born in the early 80s (depending on who you ask) in Chicago from the ashes of the disco era. House gets its name from the underground Chicago club The Warehouse, where legendary innovators like Frankie Knuckles used to spin. House entered into the mainstream in the mid-80s when pop acts like Janet Jackson started to incorporate the sound into their own studio albums. Today, the influence of House can be heard in music by artists as disparate as David Guetta and Björk.

Let’s start with rhythm.

Open up the “House Tutorial” template in your Surface Music Kit application, which is at a tempo of 120 BPM. Like in the first exercise, the “loops” are on tracks 1-6 and the one-shots are on tracks 8-14. There are a few empty tracks we’ll save for later. You should see a full beat already loaded into the Song View. Take a listen.

Delete all of the notes, we’re going to make a House beat from scratch.

If there’s one common element across the whole of the House genre, it’s the “4 on the floor” kick drum pattern. “4 on the floor” is simply one kick hit on each downbeat or click.

Find the kick on pad 12 and record 8 measures of “4 on the floor”. After recording, zoom in and move any notes that aren’t exactly lined up to the grid so that each of the notes occurs exactly on the downbeat, or ¼ note on the grid.

TIP: It’s easiest to record with the “click” enabled and with one measure of lead time so that you can hear the tempo before you start to play your rhythm. Start with the Position Marker on beat one so that the SMK will give you a one measure count-in.

You should have something that looks like this:

The next basic element in a House beat is the snare or clap hit on beats 2 and 4. Find the snare (pad 13) or the clap (pad 14) and record hits on 2 and 4 over your “4 on the floor” pattern.

The final basic rhythmic element to any House track is the hi-hat hit on the upbeat. Find the track with the hi hat (pad 11) and record over your existing pattern so that each hi hat hit occurs on each upbeat.

Another element that’s found in much House music, and especially in Deep House, is the 7th chord keyboard harmony. Find the Rhodes Loop (pad 4) and the Rhodes sample (pad 10) and listen carefully. Is this a pad or a stab (stab)? Is its quality major or minor (minor)?

Record a rhythm with your Rhodes sample.

There are several elements that are melodic in nature. Can you find them (pads 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9)? Play around with these pads, and when you feel comfortable, record some of the sounds you like into your project.

Now for the hardest, but also the most fun part of the exercise. Pads 7 and 16 are empty. Find a few sounds from your sound library that you might want to fit into your project and play around with them to see if they work melodically. Listen closely to how the musical elements you’ve chosen work with the already existing material. If something doesn’t sound right to you, it probably doesn't sound right to other people. In that case, try a different sound.

Creating exciting music often comes down to intangibles like how it affects people on the dance floor and the emotional response people have to it while their listening. While each track exists in its own sonic space, and there is no magic formula to creating a great track, there are a few common “tricks” that you can use to create the feeling of tension and release. We’ll touch on one here.

A House pattern, repeated, in and of itself is, well, boring. You need elements in your tracks that break up the monotony and create the feeling of forward motion in your listener. After each 4-8 bars, it’s always a good idea to switch up something in the track so that your ears always have something new to latch on to. While dropping something new on the downbeat of measure 5 can sometimes be effective, it’s generally a good idea to ease into it with a transition. One way producers create this tension is with rising and descending effects.

Locate the Whitenoise Riser in your application (pad 15). Notice that as the sample goes on, the volume increases. You’ll want to place it starting on the downbeat of measure 7 of your loop, right before the loop cycles back.

Now, play around with what you’ve created! Drag some new effects into your project if you’d like and when you’re done, save and export.