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Understanding Trance Music
What Trance is
There is no easy way to categorize trance. The genre of music we call “trance” has very few rules or patterns that must to be followed in order for it to be considered trance. This being said, trance is arguably the area of electronic dance music that has more branches and sub-genres than any other. However, in the eyes of a producer, this is a great thing. Instead of being limited by a strict pattern of conduct, the possibilities in this type of music are almost endless. This article will give the producer a greater understanding of what trance is.
Setting trance apart from other forms of EDM (Electronic Dance Music)
As we will see in most of this article, the boundaries of trance vary from person to person. So, what makes trance different from house music or techno will also vary. However, we can establish some simple guidelines to help us distinguish trance from other types of EDM. I find that three areas separate trance: the atmosphere, its use of repetition, the particular use of synthesizers, and the associated “scene” surrounding trance.
First, and probably the most nebulous way of describing trance is by the overall atmosphere established by the music. Trance is supposed to be hypnotic at times, with the repetition and atmosphere putting the listener into a meditative-like state. Unlike other music styles, it is many times the subtle changes to repeated elements along with a “windy” distant atmosphere that make trance both unique and give it this “deep” sound filled with feeling and even “simple complexity.”
Next would be the use of synthesizers in trance. It has several synthesizer sounds that are almost completely unique to its genre. One of these sounds is the supersaw. This waveform was made famous by such classic trance synthesizers as the Roland JP-8000/8080, the Novation Supernova, and the Korg MS2000. The electronic aspect of trance tends to make it more synthesizer-heavy than the (sample-heavy) comparable house genre while not sounding as dry or strictly computerized as techno.
The last area of trance that sets it apart from other forms of electronic dance music would be its associated, although somewhat stereotypical, “scene.” No other area of EDM finds itself so tied to a party movement as trance is to a rave. The history and evolution of both are intertwined, and without the rave scene, we would most likely not have trance in the form that it is today. Many artists have tried to distance themselves from the negative connotations. Many generations of trance artists and listeners alike have those negative relations with the rave scene, but a debt of gratitude must be paid to the early ravers and club kids that brought early trance to the level of popularity it has today.
The History of Trance
Trance has its initial roots in the late seventies from the onset of the first synthesizers and the disco to house movement. It did not really exist in a form we would begin to recognize as trance until the end of the 1980’s. As techno and then industrial music reigned supreme, the end of the decade saw the rise of trance as artists first began to experiment with layering and repeating elements. Much like industrial music at this time, early trance music was taken more as a form of post-modern art than as music to dance to. It was not until trance moved to Europe where the trance scene began to explode and later fully developed into the music we know today.
As Trance crossed the Atlantic, it fused its techno/industrial roots with elements of chicago house and first began to sound like the somewhat anthem-driven dance music. Two German DJs, Dag Lerner and Rolf Ellmer are said to have coined the term “Trance” as well as to establish the ground rules for the genre in their 1991 combined project “Dance2Trance.” (There is debate, however, that the term “Trance” actually arose from “Tantra” music of the mid-80’s [an offshoot of hip-hop at the time in LA]).
It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s that trance really began to gain popularity as the rave movement reached its “time of becoming.” Not to skirt around the issue, we must mention that trance found a perfect fit in the drug-fueled electronic music fests. As its popularity rose, so did the amount of Trance sub-genres. Deep trance, dark trance, psy-trance, and the progressive trance we know today are among the few that have their roots during this time period.
It is also important to briefly look at another path in the development of trance found in the depths of India: goa. This subset of trance, still found in numerous nightclubs today, has its roots in the late 1970’s during the waning moments of the hippie movement. As techno ******ed into the goa region of India and fused with the existing music, “dance trance” music evolved. Used in yoga meditations, the New Age movement of the area and parties of the time, goa flourished. It contains many of the same elements as the trance scene found in a continental away. Today, goa is synonymous with the trance that developed in South Central Asia, and is still popular in many areas of the world, most notably Israel.
The current major styles of Trance
Although there are many, let’s outline some basic definitions of the popular sub-genres of trance.
In this form of trance, many anthem qualities of earlier trance have been stripped away, but to say that progressive trance totally removes the notion of a melody goes a bit far. Many times there will be no memorable melodic line. Instead the emphasis is put on gently evolving sounds and layered parts leading to a very strong and musical sense of atmosphere.
Modern Goa or Psy (Psychedelic) Trance
Psy or goa is probably the area of trance most closely associated with the drug culture. Although hard to define, it is filled with rich analog sounds and psychedelic-patterned tone colors. If hippies listened to trance, this would be what they listened to. Many argue that this is the oldest original form of trance. If any differences are most noticeable, they would be that goa seems to have a more cultural and middle-eastern feel to it, while Psy holds a stronger fusion of nostalgic and energetic sound sets.
Dark or Deep Trance
Dark trance has a sadder, more melancholy feel to it. It tends to borrow from earlier techno elements and contains heavier, darker pads and strings. It’s often themed as “evil-Trance” but does not always have to sound that way. Some will argue that it should seem a bit scary to be classified as Dark trance.
Breaks is simply a form of Trance that gets away from the standard “four on the floor” drum pattern. Instead of having a kick drum sound on every quarter note of a bar, it is often broken up into a funkier or even Pop/Hip-Hop style percussion patterns and styles. Other elements of the percussion are often mixed differently from standard Trance. Many standard Trance pieces are mixed into Breaks form and vice-versa by adding new percussion only.
Probably the most common form of trance and most often the route taken by a budding producer. This is what your Alphazone’s and Airbase’s just love to output. It will consist of a thick atmosphere, bass (commercial trance will almost always have an off-beat bass), and a phat lead playing a great melody (this is where that new $2,000 piece of hardware will REALLY come in handy). Generally it will have a percussion and bass combo in the intro and will slowly bring in a sub melody that will lead into the primary melody. The primary melody is generally brought in during a breakdown where the percussion and bass are turned off and some melodic pads are playing.
Of course, as stated earlier, trance really has no rules or set patterns so feel free to experiment to your hearts desire. Combining genres is very often the best way to get “your sound.” So now that you know all the glorious sub-genres that make up trance, and where Trance came from, go out there and produce!
Understanding Basic Trance Structure
In this article, we will go over the basic, and I emphasize “basic” sections of a standard/ general trance composition. As much as the history of trance is up for debate, as is the definition of the musical form we call “trance”, so are the parts that define it. I will give what I consider, as well as many others, to be the fundamental components of trance. However, depending on the song or sub-genre you are listening to, there is always room for exceptions.
With that said, we can move on to the meat of the issue. A trance composition can be divided into four major parts: the intro, the breakdown, the release, and the outro. These parts don’t necessarily have to come exactly as I listed them, but nine times out of ten they will. It is common, however, to have more than one breakdown with transitional sections in between the breakdowns. It is also common to have another major part after the breakdown (the climax) where in epic or uplifting trance the composition musically hits a peak of energy and what follows is the release and the outro (many other combinations exist around all of this, of course).
In its simplest form, the intro is the first part of the song you hear. It gives the DJ time to mix out of the song he was previously playing and into the one he wants to play next. For the most part, it will have a fairly well defined beat, but (usually) there is not much going on melodically. You may have some chords or harmonies in place to set the mood, but too much in the terms of melody and chord changes increases the chance that what the DJ is mixing out of will clash with what he is mixing into. First impressions are important, and a strong intro that is both driving and unique are important to keep a listener hooked throughout the song. Along the same lines of first impressions, it’s best to make trance that is DJ friendly. Then again, you could also just make a “club mix” of your work to make it more DJ friendly which would have a longer intro and outro and more bass to pound the sound system.
Following the intro, after the DJ has had ample time to mix fully into your song, we usually form some sort of breakdown or break. By break I mean the amount and intensity of the percussion and other elements drop sharply. This is used to create anticipation as well as tension. The anticipation part is easy. Even the most casual trance listener will know that following the break, the song will once again “kick in” and the intensity will be at a level that is hopefully above that of the intro. In aiming to please crowds, one should aim to make the intensity of the song at a level that induces dancing, but that has more to do with your style of production. The tension part of the break is what is generally more difficult.
Creating tension in the breakdown is a balance act. The more of a contrast you can build throughout the break, the more tension you will also create in anticipation of the release. However, if you build your break too quickly, it will feel rushed and the release will occur too soon. If you build too slowly the listener looses interest.
Although some will disagree, I believe it is the break that makes trance as amazing as it is. Without a good break, even the most brilliant of releases will seem dull. Don’t get me wrong, the melodic elements and percussion must also be there, but without anything to setup your release, you’re just listening to pop-dance music. This tension is best created by using low pass ******s and volume drops on instruments. Creating the contrast has to do with making dynamic changes in levels so that the listener almost forgets how huge and loud the powerful part of the track could be. This surprise and difference in energy is what people tend to love so much about trance music (although they think of it as far less complex than that).
The release is the part of the track that people will probably remember the most. It is also the part that DJs look to in order to get the crowd going crazy. It has the highest amount of energy and is in direct contrast to the beginning of the break. It will have the melody or hook line, as well as the incorporation of elements found in the intro and breakdown.
Creating a release that does not disappoint is a challenge. It is possible to create intensity by piling layers of percussion, bass lines, and melodic elements into the release. But, this tends to make it sound muddy and hard to listen to. It is also possible to go the other direction and not have enough elements occurring during the release to create the kind of energy trance is known for. When you do this, the listener is left feeling that the buildup of the break section led to a level of intensity not in line with their expectations. It is a very fine line between these two extremes and takes practice and skill to find. The worst thing to end up with is a release that disappoints and does not live up to the expectations that your breakdown created.
The outro exists primarily as a tool for DJ mixing. After the release has hit its plateu, it will fall to a level fairly consistent with that of the intro. Remnants of the melody may still be in place, as well as parts of the bass line and usually scaled down versions of the percussion. The elements of the track will gradually taper out, usually leaving only percussion until that too fades out. As a help to DJs, the outro will have occasional builds, cymbal crashes, or sweeps in order to give places in which the DJ can fully cut out from the track. As a last resort for the DJ, the very end of the track also generally contains one final build or splash of some sort to give the track a last means of smooth exit. Those of us who don’t DJ may not be able to relate to the sheer need for such elements, but listen closely and you’ll realize how they assist in mixing tracks.
I hope that this basic introduction to trance structure has helped you come to a better understanding of the fundamentals of trance. As you produce, listen to other trance works closer. Music is not an individual activity, even if you are a lone producer. It is the action of building upon the works of other musicians before you. By listening to other producer’s music, you will be able to give your own tracks the insight of those who came before you.