Step 1: Get the basics of dance music down
The broader genre of dance music can be broken down into multitudes of sub-genres and sub-sub-genres or styles. From hip-hop to dancehall to techno to house to trance to EDM to grime, the list goes on and on. House can then be divided into deep house, tech house, Jackin house. You get the picture.
Each of these sub-genres have their own peculiar stylistic characteristics and production conventions, which when you apply them to your tracks will help you fit into particular genres or sub-genres.
Regardless of which genre you choose however, the main goal of dance music is always to make people dance. Repetition, beat and groove therefore plays a crucial role in all dance music.
A good starting point is to analyze dance music tracks and specifically those in the genre you want to produce in and get a good understanding of what works and why it works.
Now you're ready to have a go at it for yourself!
Step 2: Start with a solid rhythm and beat
Time to crack open your favorite DAW and start producing...
Now, it’s not essential that you start with your beat or groove. You can start with a melodic hook or chord progression. As a beginner it’s however a good idea to get the drums and bass down first as it gives you a platform to begin writing on. It's also the most important part of most dance tunes so you may as well start with it.
The following steps will help you create your beat:
- Set your DAW to the tempo you want. This will depend on the genre you’ve chosen and the feel you want. Reference tempos on sites like Beatport if you’re not sure.
- Add a drum loop or create your own beat using samples or synths and the MIDI editor or sampler in your DAW. Loopcloud is a fantastic tool for working with samples and loops if you're not yet familiar with sound design basics. A good place to start is to make sure you get the holy trinity of kick, snare and hi-hat working well. Start with an 8 or 16 bar loop at first.
- Once you have your basic beat down you can add interest and movement with different percussive elements.
- With your basic 8 bar beat ready you can then either start writing other parts or go directly to arranging the track by duplicating your basic 8 bar beat.
Once you've laid the foundation with your beat you can move on to some melodic and harmonic goodness.
Step 3: Craft your melody and add harmonic parts
The melodic and harmonic elements of your track will be what makes your track catchy. It’s usually the parts that people can hum or sing along to. This includes your bass line, any keys or synths and other instruments like piano, guitar, brass and wind. This is where a basic music theory vocab will be your best friends. If you want to learn the basics of music theory in a fun and interactive way then check out this review I did.
Here are the basic steps in this part of the writing process:
- Decide on a key for your track. The key is the tonal center the track will be based on.
- Write 2 to 3 different but complimenting melodies to be used in different sections of the track.
- Add harmonies with chord progressions and countermelodies.
You can of course do step 3 before step 2 in this case.
At this stage you should have a basic tune going and you're ready to add some sizzle into the mix.
Step 4: Create atmosphere and texture.
Atmospheric and textural sounds will help create the feel and ambience you want in your tracks. This can be done with samples or by designing your own sounds using synths and effects plugins such as reverb, delay and distortion, among others.
From atmospheric pads, rises, drops and sweeps to synth growls and stabs or even found sounds like bird sounds, vinyl noise or garden gates. This is a great place to experiment with more unusual sounds.
Step 5: Hone your tone and perfect your push and pull with effects
This may fall a bit more under mixing rather than writing, but producers will often mix as they go because mixing plays an important role in the sound of dance tracks.
Use compressors and limiters to create more impact on parts of the track like the drop. Reverb and delay can create a sense of space or add depth. Reverb can also be used in reverse to suck a listener into the next part of your track.
Use filters and equalizers to dial in the tone of your various parts and as way to create movement and interest with creative techniques such as filter sweeps.
Step 6: Keep learning and keep at it
Each of these basic steps, as you can imagine, require a range of skills to master. You won’t get it right straight out the gate. You learn how to write dance music little-by-little through trial, error and a whole lot of producing.
The process is one of trying, learning and improving. So, relax, have fun and hit up music production tutorials, courses and forums whenever you can or in case you get stuck in any part of the process.
Conclusion: How to Write Dance Music
Good dance music producers are made, not born and they certainly aren’t made overnight.
Getting better at the above steps and the entire music production process will take time and effort. There's no way to avoid it.
Focus on improving your skills and producing as much as possible and, in time, you’ll learn how to write dance music you can be proud of.