Slashing my way through the jungles of repetitiveness, wading waist-deep in the swamps of irregular rhythms, and trudging over the baron deserts of low dynamics, I finally reach my destination. Here lies the mighty pyramid of the elements of song arrangement structure. Its base is the solid foundation, followed by consistent chord progressions and rhythms, with interesting leads at its pinnacle.
Most songs that we are exposed to, especially in popular music, follow a particular format that many of us are conditioned to recognize. Usually, it is a combination of verse, chorus, and the bridge. It is a formula that most music styles like rock, blues, country, and many others have used for decades. We expect to hear those sequential steps, and then some of those steps repeated, like that catchy chorus that seems to dominate most popular songs. When these parts are not there, many of us tend to treat the piece of music with cautious apprehension.
There is a lot of music in the orchestral and electronica genres that you may have been exposed to through TV and cinema soundtracks that do not follow the expected structure. Usually, these musical pieces build emotions, like a sense of wonder, fear, or tension. However, these musical pieces share the same elements of song arrangement structure as more common musical forms. Think of them as the ingredients, like a musical chemist pouring different musical parts into a giant vat and then hoping for the best.
First, let me explain the elements of song arrangement.
Percussion: This element is at the base of that pyramid I mentioned earlier. The percussion consists of cymbals, drums, and other consistently rhythmic sounds. Usually, percussion oversees the pulse of the musical piece, the tempo measured in beats per minute. It could be the timpani drums of an orchestra, the drum set of a rock band, or a simple light hi-hat sound of an ambient electronica song. It is merely the beat or pulse of the music.
Bass: The bass occupies the low end of the frequency spectrum and, together with the percussion, makes up the musical piece's foundation. A consistent bass motif is known as the bassline and helps determine the key signature of the music since it usually consists of the root notes of the chord or note structure. Another part of the bass element is known as the drone. It is one consistent note usually played around the sub frequencies. This drone can modulate overtime or stay at that constant note.
Pad: The pad is usually played by a polyphonic instrument, meaning it can play more than one note simultaneously. Examples include a piano, synthesizer, or guitar. This element produces the underlying chord structure. It can be a group of monophonic instruments playing different notes to make up those chords in an orchestra. Usually, a pad's characteristic is a slow attack or initial playing of the chord and then a long sustain, which is the descend when the chord is released. This element is especially important in electronic music to build atmospheric sounds.
Rhythm: This element is the pattern that creates movement in the notes or chords. It can be played by any mono or polyphonic instrument. The notes are played with accents or different velocities at different times. Arpeggios are an example of a rhythmic component since it plays sequential notes in different patterns that create movement.
Lead: A lead is at the very top of the elements of the song arrangement pyramid. It is the element that sits upfront in the foreground of the music. It is what people notice the most about a musical piece. It usually is played at the higher end of the frequency spectrum since it needs to cut through the mix. An instrument generally plays it with a higher range, such as a guitar, violin, piano, synthesizer, saxophone, or flute, to name a few. In songs with lyrics, the vocalist is usually considered the lead.
Be aware that these arrangement elements are not confused with other aspects of a song, including the melody, harmony, time signature, tempo, and key signature. These are the music components that the music adheres to most of the time.
Now that there is an understanding of the song arrangement elements, let us look at how these elements create certain orchestral-type electronica. So, instead of thinking in the format of verse, chorus, and bridge. Let us simplify it into sequential parts with numerical values. If we layout in a grid pattern all the elements and their subparts in each numerical section, you will see that as we go through each of those sections, certain aspects are turned on or shut off; they are either played or not played. That is basically how any song works. Once each element is decided, it is just a matter of turning those elements on or shutting them off.
Of course, there is more to it than this simple explanation. There are transitions when going from one part to another. Musical styles that are often performed live like rock, blues, and country use parts known as fills, and EDM styles use what are known as builds, drops, and pauses to transition from one section to the next.
Music is an art, and it takes a lot of skill, knowledge, and the right timing to play through these musical pieces. To know when to go to the next section and smooth out that transition is a lot of work. The challenges of arranging a song often fall to an expert known as the music producer. This individual helps a band or individual musician construct their musical piece or song. They take the song idea, and they help turn it into a full song, whether all the parts are worked out or even if it is a sliver of a musical idea. It is up to the producer to make the song sound suitable to the target audience. Often, an EDM artist is called a producer because they craft their music the same way a music producer would construct a song, using the arrangement elements I have explained in this article.
Even though a song may not share the same format that you are used to hearing, all music should adhere to arrangement elements to construct the piece.
Brian Lundgren is a marketing professional, musician, and family man living in the Southeast region of Massachusetts.