How EDM is Changing the Form of Song Structure in Pop Music…and Maybe Congregational Music

Zac HicksHistory of Worship and Church Music, Songwriting6 Comments

The New EDM “Chorus”

Anyone who has been listening to pop music especially the last five years can note the spilling of electronic dance music (EDM) into the mainstream. More and more collaboration is occuring between major EDM artist/DJs/producers (think David Guetta, Avicii, Skrillex [I’ll lump him broadly in]). Songs like Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” and Guetta/Usher’s “Without You” are the kinds of things I’m talking about.

One notices, though, a clash of forms as the two genres of vocals-driven pop and instrumental EDM collide. The chorus becomes a battleground where the sensibilities collide, and the more ground EDM takes, the more we’re noticing that the climactic “chorus sections” of songs are instrumental, preceded by various EDM mutations of builds and drops.  Current radio hit “Blame” by Calvin Harris (feat. John Newman) is a great example. The “Blame it on the night” section “works” like a Chorus but in actuality, it functions as a Pre-Chorus. It’s really the instrumental section that follows (at about the 0:56 mark) that feels to be the Chorus:

Pop music perhaps began with either a strophic (verse by verse) or Verse-Chorus form (inherited from folk and blues). Then Bridges were introduced. Then Pre-Choruses. Then alternate endings. Over time, pop strucutres have complexified. Most people say, though, that the reigning pop form is still, roughly, Verse1-Chorus-Verse2-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Chorus. Many, many songs are structured this way. It is the “sonata form” of modern music that most composers/producers in the genre are striving for and aiming toward.

But now, with EDM, more and more “choruses” (perhaps it’s debatable that we can call them that) are not sung verbally but felt instrumentally.

Complexification in Recent Worship Music History

Moving on to worship/congregational music, we’re noticing this phenomenon on the latest “young” worship records, like Hillsong Young & Free’s weeks-old, This is Living (EP). Here’s the title track:

The drop and ensuing chorus are instrumental, with interspersed “This is living now” phrases. (The second time, there is a “you take me higher” section that contains more words, but the effect is still the same.)

It’s too early, in my opinion, to see what this shift will do to both pop and congregational music inside and outside the church. Some may say it’s heralding a move further away from a word-based culture and more into a post-literate, perhaps more feeling-based (therefore less concrete) sense of truth, which could have consequences for the never changing Christian message. (It might be a tad ironic that the second track on Young & Free’s EP includes the phrase “Your Word rewrites my destiny.”)

So why point this out? Contemporary worship historian Lester Ruth has noted that shifts in congregational singing have occurred with the introduction of new song form structures. He observes a turning point in 1994 when, on the top CCLI reports, we witness the first song that contains more than a Verse and a Chorus: “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” complete with Verses, Chorus, and Bridge. (Worship songs certainly did this before, but this is the first instance on a CCLI top-25 report.)

From there, we notice in the charts (based on Dr. Ruth’s forthcoming research) more and more songs that have Bridges:

  • “Better is One Day” (1995)
  • “Days of Elijah” (1996)
  • “Open the Eyes of My Heart” (1997)
  • “The Heart of Worship” (1997)
  • “Trading My Sorrows” (1998)
  • (It goes on with increased frequency)

Then, the first instance of a Pre-Chorus hits the top CCLI records: Chris Tomlin’s “Forever” in 2001. What follows in the charts are an increased number of four-part songs. Quickly we’ve seen, too, the rise of “regularly scheduled” instrumental sections and surprising new sections (new melodies/progressions altogether) at the end of songs.

Many, in answer to the question, “Why aren’t people singing anymore on Sundays?”, have said, “Well, if it looks like a rock concert, and smells like a rock concert, of course people will know that they’re there to listen and not sing.” Perhaps another reason people struggle to sing is because of the “complexification” of worship music song-structure. It simply takes more effort for the congregant to learn, imbibe, and sing forth a modern song with four and sometimes five different sections. As one friend recently quipped over email, “A worship song isn’t a worship song unless it’s a maze.”

EDM’s Answer: Hopes and Hazards

Suspending judgment on some of the things I’m poking at above and going back to the task at hand, perhaps on the positive side, EDM could be giving a two-fold gift to worship music right now.

First, perhaps it could force some of the worship songwriting back in a more simple direction, when it comes to texts and melodies. An instrumental chorus means that there’s one less of the five potential sections where congregations are having to learn a new melodic and rhythmic pattern. 

Second, because EDM stands at the top of musical genres which evoke dancing, it just might break open a part of our souls (and bodies) that gets locked up when we gather with the people of God. I’m a firm believer in full-throated, whole-bodied, “shalom-y” worship, and I notice EDM tapping into a realm of the human affections of which worship music tends to only tiptoe on the borders (at least in my contexts and traditions).

On the flip side, EDM might carry with it some baggage that we need to receive with wisdom. First, though the genre doesn’t have to, it is culturally associated (often) with some not so wonderful human practices that we can all guess based on EDM’s connection to “club life.” (Though check out this countercultural “morning rave” practice happening in the UK.) Second, again though the genre doesn’t have to, it’s associated often with text-less triviality. For most EDM songs, you can really take or leave the scant vocalisations that are interspersed here or there. DJs and Producers don’t so much use them to send a message through the text as “sample” them as another kind of instrumental sound. This can have a trivializing effect on text in the genre.

Finally, I might say that, in addition to checking out Hillsong Young & Free’s engagement with the genre, check out what my amigo Alf Bishai is thoughtfully doing up in New York.

Oh, and check out my “exegesis” of EDM over at LIBERATE, too, for some reflections on the intersection of the music with the gospel.

6 Comments on “How EDM is Changing the Form of Song Structure in Pop Music…and Maybe Congregational Music”

  1. Zac, this is good. You're connecting some things that are really important.

    I've been thinking about how bridges have changed in the last few years. They've moved away from the old model in which the bridge was a contrast to the verse and chorus, and have now become repeated, Taiz√© style choruses–a song within the song that is usually the most singable section (a la "Oceans"). I was thinking that the evolved because of the increasing complexity of worship songs, but after reading this blogpost, I'm wondering if it's more due to the "drop" in EDM.

    One concern: EDM tends to be simple in its chordal structure and complex in its production. For example, the Hillsong Young & Free song above uses the A, B, C#m, F# over and over again throughout the song with different dynamics and instrumentation. That's all well and fine if you've got the gear, but what about small churches? Plus, its compositionally monotonous. (I'm not saying I don't like it, but the song itself isn't interesting. All the action is in the production.) Whereas hymn or early praise songs used simple forms, but packed a lot of melodic and harmonic interest into 16 or 32 bars, an EDM style praise song could easily be 10 minutes of the same four measures.

    Kind of makes me long for the days of Gershwin. (But maybe I just need to be satisfied that some say "potato" and some say "potahto.")

  2. Greg: GREAT observations. Much to ponder. Interestingly, they have an acoustic version of this very song on their album, as well. It was interesting to hear the contrast.

  3. Being that I've loved EDM before it blew up (it started in the late 90's and really caught me with Justice's "Cross" album) I've longed to have worship songs with the unique celebratory energy electronic music brings to the table. At the same time I want theologically rich songs.

    I really like the observation of song complexity and the lack of participation. EDM is definitely lyrically simpler, which then got me thinking as to why we believe songs have to be theologically rich. If the creatures can just say "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty" on and on isn't a lyrically simple EDM song fully acceptable?

  4. Thanks, Jonathan. Great thoughts AND questions. A lot of guys like me DO harp on the idea that songs should be theologically rich, but you're right. They don't NEED to be. The just need to be theologically true, whether simple or complex in words, meaning, and theology. And…I think it's healthy to have a balance of "theologically dense" songs and "theologically simple" songs. They serve different (and equally important) functions in worship in the continual tethering of what we often separate–head and heart. EDM could certainly be a help in this regard in aiding correctives back to some simplicity where we've become too complex.

  5. Zac, thank you for your excellent article. The connections you have made between EDM and some recent worship music trends are very interesting. One trend that I have noticed in some modern worship music but hadn't yet recognized the link to EDM: the idea that a section of a song is more felt instrumentally than sung verbally. One could even broaden this to include extended sections of songs with vocal melodies but no words, such as Hillsong's "With Everything." These sections are charged with emotion, but I often become concerned about where those emotions are headed, or what their foundation is. I am fully in favor of having our emotions engaged in our worship of God. I believe they are essential and valuable to fully worshiping Him. However, I also believe they can be deceptive if left unchecked (Jer. 17:9), and the only safeguard is for those emotions to be in response to truth, rather than simply going unguided and getting "lost in the moment." There's a lot to think through here, and it will be interesting to see how the trend develops. Thanks again.

  6. Thanks, Bill. I think your thoughts are spot on. The cautions are things we need to keep before us…the connection with "With Everything" is helpful, and it's one that I hadn't thought of before. Thank you!

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