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Quora Answer : What principles of ClassicalMusic don't apply to electronic dance music?

Sep 12, 2019

It's not really about chords or scales or things like that that people seem to get hung up about. EDM can use any kinds of chords, melodies etc. you like. From simple triads to the most complex "coloured" chromaticism you can dream up.

Unlike music played by "real" musicians, complexity isn't even a barrier. A beginner can just click in chord sequences which contain 9ths and 13ths and which vary from one key to another almost as easily as they can click in simple triads in C major. You can be as tonal, chromatic, atonal, microtonal etc. as you like.

It will still sound like EDM.

The real difference between classical music and, say, EDM is what the music is used for and how this influences overall structure.

A classical piece is intended to be listened to as a whole. That means that it contains its own narrative arc. It has a beginning, a middle, an end. It has contrasts between light and dark. Fast and slow. Happy and sad. Possibly it has a build up with a crescendo. It may have one theme, then development of the theme. Or two themes in a dialogue which come together.

Whatever clever / skilful tricks the composer uses to create this structure, the composer is writing with the assumption that the audience will listen to the whole piece and follow its narrative arc. From the beginning, through to the end.

It sets its own rules. Defines its own identity.

Whereas ...

most EDM type music (from the beginning of the disco era up until today) is written with the assumption that individual "pieces" are actually components of something larger : the mix that the DJ assembles in the club.

EDM tracks are not there to tell their own story, but as supporting characters, or supporting colour, scenery, energy, in the story that the DJ is telling over the course of the set. EDM tracks are like Lego bricks. They might have different sizes, shapes, functions. But their most important characteristic is to be easy to plug together into other bricks. To build up a structure which is greater than themselves.

THIS is why EDM tracks don't have an interesting narrative arc, or dynamical structure which changes subtly over time. Because we don't know how much of the track will actually be played. The track won't necessarily start from the beginning but be mixed in from the previous track. We may have two or three sections : a loud energetic one, a quiet beat-less one, a medium sustaining pulse. And we care about a good transition from one of these moods to another. But we don't know if the DJ will choose to use all of these sections in the set. Or just one, to make an interesting custom juxtaposition with a different track. Even playing something else on top of ours.

Because EDM composers don't really control the amount of time, or the context of what is coming before and after themselves, they can't make ambitious structures that evolve over time. Their job is to create music that has a very strong personality, in terms of its melody, energy, rhythm, which comes in and gets to the point and shines as quickly as possible. Then stays around long enough that the DJ can keep that message going for a couple of minutes. Maybe that vibe has its own internal contrasts .. the dramatic builds and drops which are now mainstream. But they can't disrupt the mood of the overall set too much. We can't just wander off, trying to turn the DJ's high-energy party into a melancholic lament. We have to leave the mood more or less where we found it, so that the DJ can fit the next record, within roughly the same genre, in.

This is the real "principle of classical music" that doesn't, and - when you think about it - can't apply to EDM. "Larger scale narrative structure". Because EDM artists are making music for a context where that large scale narrative structure is out of their control. And the DJ themself, while having control over that larger scale structure, typically doesn't have full control over the microstructure within the individual pieces.

It might be interesting to see how this evolves in future. For example, we might see "DJ"s playing not just with pre-rendered tracks from other artists, but with subcomponents that are "tracks" that offer more generative options. Possibly we can imagine in future that a DJ will have third-party plugins in, say, Ableton or Fruity that act more or less like a "track" (eg. they are bricks to build the larger structure out of), but also allow more parameters to be controlled. Perhaps even allowing common chord sequences or melodic material or motifs to be threaded through them. So that the large scale structure that the DJ builds up, does have the kind of thematic unity of a great symphony.

That's not where we are yet, but it's getting technically feasible. And if it works aesthetically, might well be where we're going.