One of the biggest challenges facing musicians today is keeping listeners engaged in the music they're listening to.
The world of social media and streaming has given us millions upon millions of hours of content and music, all of it vying for that couple of seconds it takes to win or lose our attention. Things can seem overwhelming amidst all of the often chaotic content that's saturating our social media feeds and our music streaming services.
And it's in this landscape that we, as music producers, are trying to get our music heard by people. Not only that, we're trying to get our music to be loved by people. It isn't enough for someone to hear it, they need to have a connection to it, and want to come back and listen to more of it.
After all, that's the entire goal of making music isn't it? To have people connect with it? It isn't enough to make music that someone can listen to once and then move on from, the ultimate goal is to make music that has a connection with people.
But how can you translate these lofty concepts into the world of making and writing music?
Well, there are a few concepts we can talk about, which are going to be the focus of our article today. We will look at tried and tested techniques you can use to keep your music interesting and engaging.
We will cover Structure, Energy, Automation and Humanisation, as these are all things that can take a good idea and turn it into a great one.
So let's dive right in.
Creating music that people want to listen to.
That's the name of the game here isn't it.
As a producer you want to create music that is engaging your listeners, and that brings them back time and again.
If you're creating electronic music, one of the easiest traps to fall into is repetition. The structure of many types of electronic dance music is repetetive by nature, so you need to ensure you're adding variations in your production to keep the listener engaged. Especially in certain genres where the track length can be over 5 minutes, how can you ensure the listener doens't get bored? We'll come back to this later.
So here are a few techniques to help you start thinking about how you can apply variation, and avoid making your music repetitive:
- Rearrange melodic or rhythmic patterns to play slight variations in various sections. If you have a loop playing for 16 bars, varying the rhythms or melodic intonations can help to make it feel fresh.
- Repeating the same melody, progression or drum pattern with a different instrument or sound. This can be a great way to keep the feel of your music consistent, while changing the way in which it's delivered to the listener.
- Make use of Euclidean Rhythms. We recently did a guide on these, and it's a fun way to inject some 'calucated randomness' into your music. Essentially it splits rhythmic patterns across a specified time, equally spacing them out. Adding different combinations of these can add some really interesting rolling patterns, which only loop together every few bars. It makes it feel random, but in a predictable and ordered way.
- Play with adding or removing elements. Drop out your kick for a couple of bars, and you can hear the difference straight away. This applies not just to your kick, but to any parts in your track. You can hear subtle changes in the arrangement if you play with adding and removing different things.
One of the biggest ways you can keep your music fresh and interesting, especially in an electronic dance music setting, is by using Automation.
In most DAWs, you can automate pretty much any parameter you can think of, and the limit to what you can do with this is really up to you.
Consider a single track within Ableton; you could have your synth, a compressor, some creative effects like reverb or delay, as well as EQ and filters.
Now, consider how many parameters each of those individual devices has, and you can hopefully see the possibilities for automation changes.
Similar to how adjusting velocity in MIDI notes adds humanisation to your playing, adding automation changes to different parameters across your devices can create dynamic and effective changes in the music.
There are near endless possibilities for automation, so the more you think about it, the more possibilities for your music you'll be able to conceive.
One of the best concepts to get your head around with your music is the energy of the track. All music has energy, regardless of genre. So identifying what the energy in your track should be, and then figuring out how you can achieve that, is key.
The things we spoke about in the previous section are all about how you can adjust and change the energy in your music, and getting a broader overview of the concepts of energy in music can help you know how to apply the above techniques.
Check out the image above. It's a representation of the differences in energy across the structure of a typical pop track. We're all familiar with this type of structure of energy.
The song builds energy up until the chorus and drops it down in the verse, and then after the second one it drops even further in a bridge section to a huge final chorus.
If you're not much of a visual learner, then consider the drop in many genres of EDM. This is a different structual tool than is typically used in pop music. It's a rise and a building of tension, to create this moment which releases a huge amount of energy for the audience.
This is a great example of how energy can be manipulated in music.
When you break it down, music is an artform which is measured in time. No single point of audio on its own is as compelling or emotionally moving as a full piece of music is. It's the context that's really important; how your audio is manipulated over time that allows the music to connect with people.
The key point you need to take away from this is that each new section should have a different level of energy than the previous one. This lets your music 'breathe', and makes it feel like it's moving somewhere.
So what are some steps you can take to adjust this level of energy?
Manipulating Energy in your music.
The first decision you need to make when you're moving from one section to another one, is whether or not you want the energy to increase or decrease.
A track I aways love to dissect when it comes to this topic is Galactic Ecstasy by Fantastic Man.
Have a listen to it above, it's a masterclass in shifting energy and using subtle changes in production to drive the listener's attention.
In this type of music it's typically a mixture of increasing and decreasing the energy between sections to take the listener on a journey.
So let's examine some of the techniques used in this track:
- Regular dropping out of different parts. Both the drum parts and the various synth melodies drop in and out to keep the energy moving. When the 303 line comes in at around the 1 minute mark, the drums drop right back to just a kick and some background synths.
- Filter controls. This is a great way to adjust energy levels. The 303 line is the driving force behind this track, and the filter control is constantly adjusting throughout the music. This links back to what we mentioned earlier about automation. This will have either been recorded in live or automated to change throughout the track. But do you notice how it adjusts the energy throughout the music?
- Introducing new sections and elements. From around 3:40, the 303 is still doing its thing, but then everything but the kick and ambience drops out, and we get a new melodic section, which omits the 303 line altogether. This then brings a totally new direction for the music, from which it can be brought back to the familiar section again. This middle section is much more stripped back, with lots of weird sounds and vibes going on in the background.
These are only a few of the techniques used by Fantastic Man in this tune. I consider it a masterclass in longform dance music, because it's using such similar elements throughout the track, yet it still retains your interest for the entire duration, which is just shy of 8 minutes.
Think about that for a second, how do you create music which lasts almost 8 minutes, uses one almost continuous element throughout it, and still retains the listener's interest?
The answer is by subtly making changes to the energy of the track. Using all of the techniques we've discussed above, you can make things change without the listener realising there are changes taking place.
It almost plays into the subconscious perception of the listener; they aren't turning it off because they're not bored, but they're not conscious of why things are changing.
A gret way to achieve this, and to direct the listener's attention accordingly, is through transitional elements.
Transitional Elements come in many forms, but I'm betting your familiar with this one.
A white noise riser, or any type of reversed transient effect which helps build energy from one section to the next, is a great technique to use to direct the listener's attention to an incoming change in feel.
It makes them anticipate the changes, so they're subtler and more nuanced, than all of a sudden going from one section to another.
But again, this isn't the only way to do it.
You can use automation changes to create transitional elements, and also by introducing 'single event' elements, which are sounds that play only once during the track.
These Transitional Elements can be anything you want, so play around with things to lead the listener's attention and guide them on the journey you're trying to create with your track.
If you're an electronic music producer, one of of the biggest drawbacks of unprocessed MIDI and electronic music is that it can sound so robotic and inhuman.
Compare this with when people play real instruments; there are subtle variations and imperfections in timing, level, pitch and note length, which - because the majority of music history has been people playing instruments - makes it sound natural.
So when we hear the rigid and robotic sounds of unprocessed electronic music, something sticks out in our ears.
But obviously, electronic music has been around for a long time now, so there are a lot of techniques you can use to humanise your music, and we're used to electronic music that doesn't sound super rigid all the time. We've come a long way from Kraftwerk.
But injecting some human character can add emotion, expression and other qualities to your music that makes it more interesting and engaging. So here are some techniques you can apply to humanise your music.
- Velocity changes. This is a great one for MIDI, and applying various amounts of velocity to individual notes can drastically change the feel of it. Many instruments even have different sounds depending on the velocity. Also, you can try using a velocity randomisation device or an instrument’s velocity feature to add continuous changes to the rhythm.
- More Automation. Automation can be used in so many contexts, and one of those is to make instrument or drum tracks sound more dynamic and natural by controlling various parameters with subtle amounts of modulation or automation. For example, automate or modulate reverb amounts, ADSR envelopes, volume, panning, chorusing, pitch, and anything else.
- Add Swing. Even the world's best drummers can't play perfectly in time, every time. So humanising the timing is one of the best ways to give rigid sounding music some groove. There are loads of great tutorials on YouTube for how to add good swing and rhythm to your music. Also, in Ableton, the Groove pool has some really cool options for randomisation of a groove to give it some real human quality.
- Broken Chords. We covered this technique in our recent guide on music theory. Breaking up the order or velocity of the notes ina chord will make your progressions sound much more organic. Slight note crescendos is another technique that will give your chords realism.
- Vintage Vibes. If you've got a tape emulation plugin, chances are it has some subtle (or not so subtle) drifting controls built in. Subtle drifts in timing, pitch, and amplitude are some of the characteristics that make vintage analog synths sound really nice. Mimicking these imperfections is a great way to make your instruments come alive. For example, try adding a slow LFO that slightly modulates pitch, detuning, filter, envelopes, or level parameters. Even sticking a tape emulator or similar LFO effect on your master bus very subtly can add warmth and character to your mix.
- Use Real Instruments. This one is straightforward. Nothing humanises music like the sound of a real human playing a real instrument. But the same can be true of any 'organic' sounding samples. Try using real hand claps instead of electronic ones, or adding some real world ambience to your music to give it a sense of space and real life.
- Play in your MIDI! If you have a MIDI keyboard, you should play in your MIDI plarts as often as you can, rather than programming them in. Drawn in MIDI notes always sound rigid, and you will save loads of time if you play things in. Also, turn off your DAW's quantization when recording melodies, pads, and basslines.
All of these are ways you can make your music sound varied. So try them out and I expect you'll be pleasantly surprised by the results!
So, hopefully from this guide you got some useful insights into how you can sculpt your music to guide the listener on a journey. The important thing to consider is that you need to capture their attention, as well as guide it so they can subconsciously expect what's coming.
The interesting thing about the psychology of music is that there are so many genre conventions and styles, that even in wildly different music, the same phenomena are happening. Because of this, an audience will, whether consciously or not, begin to expect certain things in your music when they listen to it.
So in general, you want to adhere to these conventions, make the listener go on your journey, and only put in surprises when they're justified.
In this guide we covered Structure, Energy, Automation and Humanisation. All of these are crucial parts of your music making process, but it's easy to forget them. They aren't the immediate super creative part where your ideas are flowing, they often require more thought and consideration, so that's where using the tools and techniques from this guide can help.
Thank you for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts, and while you're here, be sure to check out our collection of Ableton Live Project Templates. They're a great way to see all of the techniques we've used here in action.
We have a dedicated team of producers working around the world to bring high quality, professional standard recreations of some of the biggest tracks in the EDM world. So go check out what deals we have, and you can get some amazing invaluable insights into what makes a professional track tick!