Gearing up to that moment
The drop is the climactic moment of the track. It’s when the strobes flash, the smoke machines blast and the bass hits hard. The term comes from the idea of dropping things back into the track – with most electronic music, this means the core rhythmic elements, and of course, the bass.
Over the years, the arrangement of electronic music has become quite uniform, dance music particularly so. We’ve all heard so much of it now that we expect things to happen at certain times…
Typically, things start off with minimal elements to set the tone, then move forward in 16-bar sections, adding elements every four or eight bars to ramp up the power. This building continues until the breakdown, which typically falls right in the middle of the track and can last from anything from eight to 32 bars, or even more. The breakdown leads us into the drop, the ultimate high point of the track. After the drop, the intensity gradually declines until the track ends. It’s a tried and tested structure that works well in most situations.
Powerful drops rely on subverting our expectations. For example, if you’ve heard a tune’s catchy chorus, you’ll be expecting it to come back later in the song. When it does return, it’s the same but typically in a stronger format than before, increasing the payoff. While a lot of electronic music doesn’t typically employ the verse/chorus arrangement style, the principle of priming the audience then rewarding them with a payoff is exactly the same. Our goal is to establish a core idea, then take it away, then bring it back in again stronger than ever.
Turn up the contrast
“When the bass comes back, the track suddenly comes alive again”
A sense of contrast can help really maximise a drop’s impact. One section of a track will sound bigger when it’s placed next to a section that’s comparatively ‘small’ or low in power. We’ve all heard DJs high-pass filter out the bass, only to throw it back in again. When the bass does comes back, the track suddenly comes alive again, thanks to this contrast. It’s this idea that makes the drop hit harder, after having the power pulled back in the breakdown for a triumphant reintroduction.
Combining contrast with tension and release is the route to truly epic drops. Our brains tend to favour orderly, repeating patterns to latch onto. In the final stages of a build-up section, everything becomes chaotic – rhythms start to speed up, and patterns starts to blur together. You might also start hearing rising synth tones. Any pitch that rises upwards will create the impression of building and a rise in intensity, but it also adds a feeling of chaos into the music.
Suddenly, we don’t have that stable pitch anymore – our tonal centre (ie, the musical key of the song) has become lost and muddied, creating tension. When the drop hits, the chaos is reined back in, and the track seems to stabilise, providing welcome relief and restoring focus.
Arrangements are very similar across electronic music, but there’s room for variation