Digital Music - Lesson Three: Form

Typically, songs or tracks have more going-on than a simple loop repeating over and over again (though sometimes it is amazing how much mileage you can get out of a good loop). Often tracks are composed of a number of different patterns, contrasting and complementary: intro, verse, chorus, bridge/break, ending. Fruityloops allows users to create an unlimited number of patterns, making possible the construction of rather complicated forms, if one so desires.

Just as certain conventions are important for creating hip-hop, dancehall, techno, and other genres at the level of the loop, conventions also exist for arranging these loops and patterns into coherent, dramatic songs. By creating and arranging a number of different patterns, we build form.

Below are some basic guidelines that I have learned in my own experience listening to and producing dancehall rhythms and hip-hop beats. Often times producers depart from such conventions, but the conventions are a big part of what makes a song recognizable as familiar. Individual creators will have decide for themselves how much to break the "rules." I simply provide these guidelines as a way to get people making music they like in a short period of time.

Basic Song Form: Duple Groupings, Layers, and Breaks

One of the first "rules" to keep in mind when arranging one's patterns into song form is the familiarity of duple-based structures--that is, groupings of 2, 4, 8, etc. Most songs are structured in even-numbered groups of bars or measures (i.e., four-beat units). For some reason, we really like the sound and feeling of symmetry. Whether or not this is an innate disposition, most of us are strongly conditioned to hear music this way at this point. So, if you want to build an effective track--one that makes people bop their heads or tap their feet, or better yet, want to dance, and one that has some musical drama to it--then you should always keep this convention in mind.

As a reminder of the duple-grouping convention, Fruityloops makes it easy to see the "playlist" (which we will use to put our patterns together) in terms of four-bar sections by alternating between dark and light shades of green:

Before learning about the playlist, however, let's examine the concept of form in more detail by looking at a conventional dancehall song-form. We'll begin with a single pattern, "pattern 1," which is always accessible in the pattern box:

Pattern 1 will hold a basic dancehall pattern: the kicks and snares provide the distinctive 3+3+2 rhythm (count the boxes between each hit) while a hi-hat subdivides each beat:

Sometimes a dancehall rhythm will continue without much change to the beat itself. Instead, producers create a sense of form by bringing in and taking out various different layers. For example, we could add a number of new sounds to our basic rhythm, making it a fuller, more interesting, and probably more distinctive track:

As one can see, I have added a bass, some strings, a synthesizer, a shaker, and a bongo to the drum pattern. But I can integrate these new layers more effectively, and build a more dynamic rhythm, if I add the layers more gradually. It might be a good idea, therefore, to remove some of these layers and place them in other patterns. It is easy to cut and paste in Fruityloops. First, select the channels one wishes to cut from and/or paste into. (In the pattern above, the channel containing "synth00" is highlighted--as indicated by the green button between the channel and the grid--and is ready to be cut or copied or pasted into. By right clicking, one can highlight multiple channels.) Then, from the edit menu--

or using keyboard shortcuts (as in many other software programs, <CTRL X> cuts, <CTRL V> pastes, and <CTRL C> copies)--cut or copy the selected channels. Next, use the pattern box to select the appropriate pattern to paste into. Once you have reached the desired pattern, paste.

As you can see above, I have pasted the bassline from pattern 1 into pattern 2. (Often it is helpful to keep the bass in its own channel, as one might want to control the bass individually, bringing it in and out of the song's texture without affecting anything else.)

Next, I will cut the strings and synth and paste them both into pattern 3. Then I will place the shaker and bongo into pattern 4.

In order to hear the patterns together in the playlist (as opposed to the single pattern contained in the step sequencer), click on "song" in the control/tempo box:

In the playlist window, I can arrange these various patterns into a kind of form.

What I have done in this case is to bring in each successive layer, each new pattern, two bars after the previous pattern began. This kind of even-numbered, gradual building is an effective way to create form. While it is important to maintain the duple-grouping feel, however, one should not feel too restricted about the addition or subtraction of layers. Sometimes it is effective to build in a little aesthetic asymmetry by removing layers here and there, adding a degree of surprise to the form. For example:

Although I sometimes remove a pattern for only a single bar (e.g., bars 8, 12), I still uphold the very important duple-grouping rule. Look closely and you will see that the patterns I have subtracted (except in the very even-subtraction of four bars of pattern 3) are always the fourth-bar of a four-bar unit. If we begin on bar one, that means bars 4, 8, 12, 16, and so on, will be the final bars of each four bar phrase. A good way to increase expectation is to remove certain layers in these fourth- and final-bars, letting everything come back in on the downbeat and the beginning of a new four-bar phrase. When this happens, it is often called a break--which describes the sudden silence and the return of the main pattern.

Another way to add a break is to modify the actual drum-beat from pattern 1. If we remove the drums shortly after the pattern begins, and bring them in at the very end, we can create a pretty powerful break.

Then, all we have to do is substitute pattern 5 for pattern 1 whenever we want to throw in a break. The fourth-bar of a four-bar phrase is usually the best place to add a break. For example:

The Turnaround

As you can see in the last figure above, the four-bar phrases--at least in terms of the drum line--can be represented, once we add a "break" pattern on every fourth-bar, as 3+1 (i.e., pattern 1, pattern 1, pattern 1, pattern 5). In a sense, what we have set up with such a regular occurrence of breaks is what we might call a turnaround. (In fact, if one uses a "break" this often, it can no longer really be called a break. A proper break is one that occurs more infrequently and therefore more strikingly--perhaps only once, or a small number of times, in a song.)

A turnaround is a common musical device in dancehall rhythms and hip-hop beats alike. We could define a turnaround as a figure that answers or rounds out an initial pattern by providing a sense of departure and return, elongating the phrase as a whole. 3+1 is a common way to structure phrases, as is 2+2.

One common turnaround figure in dancehall simply changes the rhythm toward the end of the pattern:

x 3

x 1

Thus, for example, a song might be based on a one-bar pattern that proceeds for three bars before being "answered" on the fourth bar with a turnaround like "pattern 2" above. Fruityloops makes it easy to arrange patterns in time using the playlist. here's how a basic turnaround rhythm might look in a playlist:


A typical verse-section of a song might continue like this for some time. Sixteen bars is a common length for a verse. When it is time for a chorus, something else needs to happen musically to set it off. Sometimes more voices come in, or a recognizable melody returns, but usually there is some signal in the underlying patterns that create the excitement or release of a chorus. The pattern will typically change for eight bars or so during the chorus section. A verse/chorus based song will thus proceed like so:

The verse and chorus sections of a song are often closely related. Thus, one simple way to create a chorus pattern is to copy the entire pattern for the verse, paste it into a new pattern, and change it somehow. Fruityloops makes it easy to copy and paste an entire pattern. In the edit menu you will find the command "copy whole pattern":

After copying the whole pattern, one can paste it into a new pattern and add something else--more percussion, orchestral strings, horn blasts, etc.--to set the chorus off.

Intros and Endings

Introductions and endings are important, and often quite powerful, sections of a song. There are no rules for creating intros and endings, but there are some simple and effective ways to generate them.

For example, drawing on the dancehall example above, we could imagine making an intro for the rhythm by beginning with an isolated bassline for two bars, bringing in the drums and everything else with a bang. Here are the basic patterns once again--note that pattern 1 contains the full rhythm while pattern 2 isolates the bassline:

Creating an intro with these two patterns is easy. Let's try the bassline (pattern 2) for two bars, followed by the entrance of the full rhythm (pattern 1) on bar 3 of the playlist.

Another simple but effective way to build an intro is to bring in the rest of the pattern just before the big downbeat, at or around beat 4. The easiest way to do this is to cut and paste from the main pattern. In the pattern below (pattern 3), you will see that I have deleted all but the last few "attacks" of the main pattern (pattern 1, above).

Note also that I have removed the bass, since the bass is already included in pattern 2. Beware of duplicating the same sounds in different patterns and playing them simultaneously. This usually produces unwanted noise and distortion. As you can see below, since they have no common "attacks," I can simply juxtapose patterns 2 and 3 to give the intro some punch:

Endings are a bit trickier. Often producers will avoid the challenge of composing an ending with a simple fade-out (an option which Fruityloops does not make very easy). Once again, one can sometimes find the seeds to an ending in the main pattern itself. The important thing about an ending is to provide some sort of closure, which may or may not mean resolution (sometimes one may want to leave some tension in the air).

One satisfying way to end a song is to create a pattern that has little in it but the final downbeat:

As one can see, I have copied the main pattern and erased all the "attacks" but those on beat 1. Next, all I have to do is make this pattern (here, pattern 4) the final pattern in the playlist:

There are, of course, many other--and more creative--ways to end a song. Often it depends on where the song itself seems to want to go. Use your ears and decide what you like.