Do Standard Songwriting Principles Apply to EDM?

Writing EDM (electronic dance music)? What are the principles that guide the creation of the music?


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Darude - Ville VirtanenSay the word “songwriter” and the standard image is someone cradling a guitar, a pad of paper on their knee, scratching down lyrics and chords while tentatively grunting out bits of melody. But the times are a-changin’. These days, a songwriter is just as likely to be someone with an iPad on their lap, creating or otherwise acquiring loops, and piecing a song together that way.

EDM (electronic dance music) is an umbrella term for many genres of dance music. It began its evolution in the late 70s, with Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” as one of the early examples. Today, David Guetta is one of the most recognizable EDM producers, at least to mainstream pop audiences.

The history of EDM and its related styles is interesting, but what’s more interesting is to consider is this question: Do the same songwriting principles, the ones that usually guide music we consider mainstream genres of pop, rock, country, folk, etc., apply to EDM?

Or another way of asking that question: Would creators of EDM benefit by listening to music of other pop genres, and/or studying songwriting manuals directed to the mainstream?

To answer the question, we likely have to make a distinction between music that’s intended for EDM fans (like perhaps “Sandstorm” by Darude (Ville Virtanen), from his 1999 “Before the Storm” album), as opposed to EDM that is essentially a crossover to pop (“commercial” EDM, i.e., pop music that uses EDM techniques), including the likes of The Black-Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”

In the first example, something you might think of as a more “pure” form of EDM, there are some obvious similarities to pop music, particularly:

  1. Keep chord progressions simple, with the tonic (key) chord playing the most important role.
  2. Make melodies that are comprised of short, repetitive phrases.
  3. Make melodies that come primarily from the chord of the moment. (Though pop uses far more passing tones and other non-chord tones).

No need to mention the over-arching importance of rhythm and prominent bass. Both work together in pop, but especially in EDM, to give it much of their characteristic performance style.

For songs that are essentially pop songs with EDM influence (besides “I Gotta Feeling”, think of “Where Have You Been“, sung by Rihanna and written by Calvin Harris et al), you start to find that more of the standard principles of songwriting still apply:

  1. The contrast principle. In EDM-pop crossover, as in most genres, juxtaposing opposite-leaning musical elements (loud/soft, beat/no beat, high/low, etc.) plays a vital role in keeping listeners focused and interested.
  2. Repeating hooks. You’ll find the hook is a crucial structural element in most EDM and its sub-genres. Most songs will feature several different distinct hooks, all of which are repeated and layered as an important part of a song’s basic formal design.
  3. A repetitious, easily recognizable and easily singable melody. As in standard pop music, repetition of a melodic idea is prominent. In many EDM-pop tunes, you’ll find that once a verse is done, the structure that most resembles the chorus amounts to a repeated rhythmic groove with a simple bass line, with a fragment of an oft-repeated melody.
  4. Rhythmic interest. Rhythm is an important feature of every aspect of the song, with several ideas created to contrast each other.

In purer EDM forms, you’ll find that repetition is a more constant feature, and perhaps the extent to which a rhythmic phrase is repeated marks one of the most noticeable differences between pure EDM and pop crossover forms.

So to answer the question: do standard songwriting principles apply to EDM? The answer is yes, to the extent that any principle applies to any music. When describing the difference between two different genres, you’re essentially describing the difference between how two different genres apply (and the extent to which they apply) the various common principles of music.

This article is not meant to tell you how to compose EDM. You’ll need to get your advice on this from experts in the genre. But if you do compose EDM, you might ask yourself the following questions once you’ve finished a song:

  1. Is there strong, easily recognizable and enjoyable bass and rhythm groove?
  2. Is there melodic interest of any sort?
  3. Have I provided short moments of contrast, where rhythm and bass are minimized, in order to allow for a returning build-up of those elements?
  4. Are the chord progressions primarily strong, pointing to one chord as being a tonal focus (i.e., a tonic chord).

Composing EDM means lots of listening to the music that makes the strongest impact on you, and emulating what you hear. And you’ll find that the basic principles of music of many genres still apply: contrast, short, recognizable hooks, an easy-to-replicate melody, and lots of rhythmic interest.


Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by all_10_newJanthousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.  (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “Creative Chord Progressions“)

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  1. This is great, love how you have incorporated the sort of edm-pop crossover as a couple of years ago (maybe a bit long) that was really big, and I used to listen to it when I found out I liked edm! Now I’ve kinda dropped the pop and I’m sooooooo into edm, I don’t know whether it’s a phase, but I don’t want it to end !!

  2. This is a good article Gary. As a songwriter myself, one of the concerns I have with some modern music makers is the need they have to work within a certain genre. I think writers should focus on creating great music regardless of style.

    While I’m no expert on the subject, I like to mix my writing up a bit, sometimes starting in a traditional way with the guitar or piano, other times taking a more EDM approach beginning with a drum and bass groove. I find that this adds variety to my writing and production and always keeps my ideas fresh.


  3. Great post. It is SO hard to find any sorts of articles or tutorials on the actual songwriting aspect of EDM. but you have some good guidelines right here. Looks like some other good posts here too so I’m going to go read those too.

  4. Pingback: FEATURED LINK: Do Standard Songwriting Principles Apply to EDM? | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

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