Electronic Music Production Tips: Composition & Arrangement

electronic music production tipsSo, you’re looking for some electronic music production tips? Well, you might find these tips a bit different to what you were expecting. Today I’m not really going to talk about technical things, music gear or mixing. I’m sure there are plenty of tutorials about that side of things. No, I am going to look more at the composition and arrangement side of things. Of course, a lot of the tips I share here may sound a bit general and vague, which is why I have included examples.


Don’t Be Too Repetitive

When I first started making electronic music back in the 90s, my music tended to be a bit too repetitive. When the music is sequenced, and you’re therefore not performing it yourself, it’s too easy just to copy and paste so that things get repeated over and over again. Particularly with electronic dance music, the temptation can be to make it constantly repeat.

For example, the track Chime, by Orbital:

It just goes on and on, doesn’t it? I mean, there are some cool sounds in there and everything, but it’s just too repetitive. I think this is due to the way they do it live, with all the sequences pre-programmed and being triggered live. But I just find myself fast forwarding through a lot of it, and it only really gets exciting towards the end.

You compare that to something like this:

Yes, there is still some repetition there, because all music needs to have at least some repetition. But there is enough compositional variation within it to keep you interested, rather than it just being the same few notes over and over again endlessly.

Don’t Be Like Everyone Else

Don’t be afraid to do your own thing. It doesn’t mean everything you produce needs to be totally original and revolutionary. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t be deliberately trying to be the same as whatever is most popular, and you shouldn’t be scared to experiment with your own thing and find your own sound.

It could be that you like particular types of chord sequences, have particular ways of composing melodies, or favour certain sounds. Find out what works for you.

Use Key Changes

Key changes can add a bit of unexpected drama to a piece of music, or can just make an otherwise standard-sounding piece seem more complex. Of course, you don’t want to just have endless random key changes to the point where your piece of music sounds awful and confusing. But some cleverly-placed key changes can be just what your music needs to bring it to life.

Have a listen to my piece Dance of the Dream Cave, which has a good number of key changes through it. See if you can spot them:

Understand the Rules…then Break Them Slightly

It doesn’t hurt to learn a thing or two about the basics of musical theory. If you understand how chords work, what makes a good tune, or how harmonies fit together, you can then maybe start to push at the boundaries a bit and see which rules you can break slightly.

Here is an example I made a few years ago, called Two Suns:

I don’t know if you can hear what I did there. It was a bit of an experiment, and I think it shouldn’t work, but it does. The main chords you hear, they keep repeating through three different chords, then the bass progresses underneath that in a way that doesn’t quite fit with the chords. It’s hard to explain, but if you can hear what I mean then you will understand.

Of course, I realise I am being a bit repetitive in that piece of music, so I’m going against my earlier suggestion a bit, but not as badly as Orbital’s Chime.

Use Interesting Samples

I don’t think you need to spray loads of samples all over your music. Sometimes excessive use of samples can get in the way of composing a good piece of music. I suppose it depends on what type of music you’re trying to create really. But if you are going to use samples, use interesting samples that really add to the music in some way, such as by providing atmosphere.

Going back to my piece of music I shared earlier, Dance of the Dream Cave, you can hear at the end I have a weird sound effect. This was a sample I downloaded from freesound.org, and then added loads of reverb too. Then I faded it in slowly while fading out the music.

Be Clever…But Not Too Clever!

If you can be clever with your music, you are more likely to stand out. But it’s possible to try too hard to be too clever and end up producing awful music. I’ve heard a lot of alternative electronic music which is technically brilliant and very cleverly made, with lots of interesting sounds going on and it sounds really original and innovative. But there’s just one problem: it’s painful to listen to.

An example is Acid Steak Night by ยต-Ziq:

Not really pleasant to listen to, in my humble opinion…and that brings me nicely onto my next point.

Make it Enjoyable to Listen to

woman-977020_640Whenever you are making music, never forget the actual aim of music: it should be enjoyable to listen to. While I could give you all the tips in the world about how to structure your music and be original, it means absolutely nothing if the music you end up making is not nice to listen to.

You see, music that is fun to make isn’t necessarily always fun to listen to. Sometimes you can have a bunch of musicians jamming together, having a wonderful time messing around and improvising, but the whole time creating something that sounds awful for anyone not actively involved in the jam session. I’ve actually been in that situation myself when I have jammed with friends and recorded it. We will have had a great time while jamming, but then listen back to what we recorded and it sounds awful.

This is all fine if you just want the enjoyment of making music and aren’t bothered about other people hearing it. But if you want the satisfaction of creating music that you are really pleased with, sit back and try to hear it as if you are just someone listening to it as a piece of music. It doesn’t mean you have to try to make music that everyone will like. That’s not possible, and aiming for that will make your music just like whatever is most popular at the time. It just means when you listen back to it you can confidently say, “Yes, I think that’s a great piece of music”.

One Final Tip…Which Might Surprise You

No, I’m not quite done yet. I have one final little trick I can share with you. There is a way that you can steal from other music without being noticed. I don’t mean sample from them. I don’t mean use the same tunes. I don’t mean use the same synth and drum sounds. I’m talking about something far more “under the radar”, but which can work really well.

So what am I talking about?

I’m talking about using the same chord progressions as other pieces of music. What you do is, you find a song you really like, find out what chords it uses, then use those same chords in your own music, but do so in a way that makes people listening to it not realise that it’s the same.

This has been done repeatedly throughout the history of music. So many really successful songs have used the same chord progressions as other songs.

The most famous case of this is the classic “4 Chords”:

And here’s a guy showing how many songs use the 8-chord sequence from the famous classical music piece Pachelbel’s Canon:

Now, I’m not saying you should use either of those chord sequences. There are many different great chord sequences. I’m just saying that if you hear a piece of music that you really like, make your own completely different piece of music with the same chords. Almost nobody will notice you’re using the same chords, but you will probably end up with a really great tune.


So there you go, those are my electronic music production tips. Nothing really to do with synths or drum machines or mixing, just advice on how to put together a really great piece of music. I hope you found it useful, but if you have any comments or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments sections below.

Happy music making!
Marcus.

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10 Comments

  1. Lee Zhi Wei

    I love music but EDM is a totally new level for me. The beats & feel that it gives off is totally magical & one can simply dance to any EDM. I have no experience in composing 1 but I would love to randomly put together some sound on my brain & conjure up dance music. Love the way you guide users on composing their own music. Keep it up!

    Regards,
    Zhi Wei

    Reply
    1. admin (Post author)

      Thank you. I am glad you liked the article.

      Reply
  2. Kat

    Hi Marcus, I wish the people in music industry would read your article..specially the part of being yourself and not try to go for what is popular…just stay true. I remember like 10 years ago dnb and dubstep were super underground and now you can hear sissy bass drop whatever in every bloody song. It hits my nerve ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
    1. admin (Post author)

      Thank you, Kat. Yes, let’s hope some people from the music industry do read my article. That would be really great!

      Reply
  3. braxa0103@gmail.com

    This was a really interesting post.

    As someone who done some audio engineering training before, I think this post is incredibly valuable.
    To many newbies in our industry think they can achieve success with EDM and Urban music by simply listening to what is on the charts and just copying the arrangement structure without understanding the fundamentals of music theory and chord progressions.

    Thats why I like this post. It will give people a nudge to really understand the fundamentals of music as they embark on their journey to make music.

    Knowing why a producer/composer has chosen to use a major/minor key to stimulate a certain emotional response is what separates the men from the boys as far as music production is concerned and I really think your post will help a lot of aspiring producers.

    Great post.

    Reply
    1. admin (Post author)

      Thank you. Yes, although I don’t give step-by-step instructions, my hope is that by suggesting various approaches to people they will be able to find their own ways to grow as music producers.

      Reply
  4. Javier

    Just what I’ve been looking for. I love electronic music and I’m planning to produce it and see what happens. Your post will be very very helpful to anyone who is planning to get involved in this industry. Thank you so much for taking your time and share this valuable info to , I really appreciate it. I bookmarked this post to use it as reference

    Reply
    1. admin (Post author)

      Thanks, Javier. I’m glad you liked it.

      Reply
  5. Paul

    Excellent Article.

    Couldn’t agree with you more about not making the music too repetitive – however the fact that you are able to show Orbital playing to a massive crowd at Glastonbury shows that there is a market for this.

    However, that’s really not to my taste and I love your suggestions for adding more variety.

    Reply
    1. Marcus (Post author)

      Thank you for your comment, Paul.

      Reply

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