Let’s face it – most of us are guilty of having too many unfinished tracks sitting on our hard drive. We lay a solid foundation with an 8 bar loop that sounds amazing and happily close the project assuring ourselves that it’ll one day grow into an amazing song. But that day never comes.
To stop sending our ideas to a virtual slumber, learning how to turn a loop into a full song is the single most useful skill to have, and that’s exactly what we’ll discuss in this article.
Why We Get Stuck In The Loop
Layering samples and piecing them together into loops is one of the most interesting parts of making music. I’ve got to be honest, this is my favorite part of music production, as something is exciting, experimenting and creating new ideas, especially if you like sound design.
Sometimes it’s easy to create several different loops and think each one has the potential to grow into a new track, and it can be hard to commit to a single loop and expand it into an arrangement once the initial excitement wears off.
If you’re feeling stuck, I’d like to assure you that it’s completely fine to be so – it’s just a normal part of the creative process. But there are certain things we can try to do and spark our creativity when it needs a bit of help. I’ll try to offer some useful tips that I use almost every day while making music on a tight deadline when you can’t really allow yourself to have the dreaded writer’s block.
Tip 1: Start With Something Simple
When writing a new song, it’s useful to start very sparsely. Perhaps a simple drum loop will be enough to get you going. A good thing about this approach is that every bar of music contains endless possibilities to grow into something more interesting, which is more likely to inspire you to expand the song.
A simple yet effective idea is the perfect way to open your song with. Interesting just enough so the listener will hang in there waiting for the development of sections but still a fertile ground for endless possibilities.
Having a congested and rich loop right from the start can hinder your motivation to continue working on it because you might feel like the song has reached its peak right away.
Since this is often the case among producers, I suggest taking the loop apart and breaking it down into its core elements. Let the loop you’ve just created be the pinnacle of your track and build up to it.
Tip 2: Gradually Introduce New Parts
Many producers feel like the next part coming out of the initial loop should be something completely new and even more exciting than the previous section. But the song doesn’t have to develop in this way for it to become engaging to the listener. Simple changes can sound very dramatic and effective.
It’s also important to know when these changes should occur. Most of the music is organized into sections consisting of either 8 or 16 bars. This isn’t set in stone, but most people base their expectations around this idea. Sometimes having that expectation shattered is a great way to invite the listener to pay more attention, but too much of it will disappoint most people.
Having said that, you’ll want to time your modifications of the loop around these time increments. You can choose to loop a section for longer than 8 bars, but after 24 or 32 bars, the loop usually starts to feel a bit too repetitive and boring, so we need to introduce something new to keep the song’s momentum. There are various ways to do this.
The first and most dramatic change we can introduce to our audio loop is an added rhythmic idea. It doesn’t have to be something spectacular – a single well-placed snare hit can lift the loop to a whole new level of excitement. The other thing to try out that’s also very effective is double the rhythmic feel of your looping idea. If the hi-hat plays 8th notes, switching to a 16th note pattern can really pump things up.
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Generally, thickening up your rhythmic texture always infuses your track with energy. Instead of having the kick play only downbeats, adding an offbeat in your kick pattern after 8 or 16 bars gives the song a sense of flow and continuity.
The same logic can be applied to the melodic and harmonic content of your loop. Try to introduce new parts after each repetition gradually. These changes can either be very intense, such as the lead vocal singing the first line in the song or a subtle synth part complementing the groove.
Whatever you choose to do, it’s important to keep the feeling of the song expanding and going places.
You can reverse this method by patterning out your busiest loop section, then removing elements.
Tip 3: Plan Out a Simple Song Structure
Once you’ve developed your seamless loop and heard where it could lead, you can begin imagining the song structure. Every genre of music has its own set of patterns that work really well within the aesthetics of that particular style. You can either use these tried and tested structures and base your song on that or go with what your instinct tells you.
Feel free to embrace the clichés since you’ll be better equipped to break the rules once you know them inside out. A usual EDM song structure goes something like the Intro, Breakdown 1, Drop 1, Breakdown 2, Drop 2, Cool Down, Outro.
In Ableton’s arrangement view, I’m a massive fan of creating a template and setting out marker points to see where each section of the song should be. Seeing this, especially the endpoint, can really help me keep moving the track forward.
You shouldn’t go for this type of song structure all the time. If you feel like the song asks you to develop it differently, by all means, do so, but schemes like these can really help you get past the psychological barricade we often experience once we come up with an 8-bar loop.
Even pasting your 8 bars across 3 or 4 minutes can help in changing your perspective on things. It’s all about looking at the forest and not the trees. We tend to get stuck in perfecting our little loop until it sounds just right without realizing the benefits of working in broad strokes first and then focusing on the little details to finish it off.
Tip 4: Learn Your Music Theory
A basic understanding of how chords and melodies work together can help you quickly develop parts that will glue the whole song together into a solid structure. Music theory isn’t a must, but it can help you immensely.
For example, a common tool that musicians use when coming up with the inner parts of the song is relative keys. If you have a song in a major key, starting your bridge in its relative minor sounds very intuitive and smooth, so it’s no wonder many people use it. The same logic applies when working with minor keys – start a new section in its relative major key. This little trick can help you get things going in situations when you are unsure what to do next.
Learning about modulations is also very useful if you want to make something new in the next section of your track. Figuring out how the tension and release work in music and which keys give you smooth or abrupt modulations can bring your songwriting skills to a whole new level and ultimately improve your workflow and quality of your music.
For a great pop song, you only need a couple of powerful musical statements. 2 or 3 good sections can really quickly turn into a full song. If you have an 8 bar loop that you feel pretty good about, you only really need a bridge to connect the sections. If your initial loop sounds huge and fits a chorus, taking elements out can effectively turn it into a verse. Try removing some instruments to create a more relaxed atmosphere or reduce rhythmic and melodic complexity by making lines and grooves sound more straightforward.
After that, your music theory skills can really shine, as coming up with a proper bridge to connect the verse and the chorus won’t be a problem at all. Once you get that down, turning your material into a full song is just a matter of polishing the existing material in instrumentation.
Alternatively, if you don’t feel like learning any theory at all, you can analyze the chord progression of your favorite songs and figure the pattern by which it sounds so good. You can freely use the same chord progressions and try to make it your own by coming up with a different melody line. After doing it for a while, you’ll naturally develop an ear for certain sets of chords to fit the vision of the track you’re working on.
Tip 5: Use Your Favorite Song As a Reference Track
I’m a firm believer that learning from the best is the ultimate way to grow as a producer. There’s nothing wrong with trying to imitate your favorite artists at first until you form your own musical identity.
Start by imitating the song structure of your favorite song. Try and come up with your own parts that are similar in feel and atmosphere. If you’re struggling with creating something of your own, you can always change the original parts a little bit – add a different kick drum pattern, add or subtract notes from the melody or change just one chord in the progression.
Create the same parts in terms of the number of bars per section and follow along until you finish an entire song that way. In fact, set up your marker points as discussed above to emulate the reference track’s structure.
You might not notice any improvement in the beginning. Still, after a while of copying other people’s work, you’ll get much better at coming up with your own songs and doing it effortlessly, without the fear of spiraling down the 8-bar loop void.
How To Turn A Loop Into A Full Song – FAQ
How can you create an intro for your song?
If you already have a certain material written, it’s pretty easy to develop an intro. There are many ways to go about doing it; I’ll list some of the most common ones.
You can create an intro by removing all of the rhythmic elements from your loop, so you are just left with vocal and background synths. Another way is to make a simpler version of the last 4 bars of the chorus and use that as an intro.
Also, try and keep it relatively short- 8 bars of intro is usually plenty.
What makes a melody catchy?
It’s hard to explain what constitutes a catchy melody. Still, a thing that is characteristic of every single one is a repetitive motion that sounds fairly interesting and hopefully not too annoying.
How do you make a happy melody?
If you are going for a happy vibe in your songs, working with Major or Mixolydian scale is the way to go.
What parts of the song structure do you struggle with the most?
I’d say that a good chorus is the hardest to come up with. Once you get that down, all the other sections are just a matter of developing the material already found in the chorus.
How early on in the track do you want to introduce your theme?
There’s no right answer here, but by listening to lots of songs, I’ve found a recurring pattern; it’s either at the very beginning of the song or right after the first verse.
Why should you use templates?
Using a template is a fantastic way to help move your productions forward. Most listeners enjoy songs structured similarly, so sticking to that format is the best way to go, in my opinion, especially when starting.
It also helps having something visual to work towards.
How to set the foundation for your song?
When working with dance music, starting with a solid and interesting beat seems like the most natural way to write a song. Afterward, you can add other elements such as vocal melody, harmony, and bass lines.
How do you write a hit song?
Well, to this day, I haven’t written a charting hit, but I imagine it has to do with being very lucky and prepared to make the most out of that stroke of luck through years of hard work on your songwriting and music production.
How do you make music loops?
The key thing about making a music loop is to create a cohesive musical statement that makes sense when played on its own. It can be any idea in any musical setting as long as all the parts work together musically.
The single most important piece of advice I can give is to keep moving forward. Try not to sweat the small stuff, as it’s much easier to go back and tweak things once you have patterned the track out. Set out your marker points, or follow your reference track and keep copying and pasting sections and move forward. You’ll be surprised how quickly a track can come together this way.
I wouldn’t worry too much about mixing the parts at this stage, as I find it best to keep songwriting and mixing stages separate. Focus on the song’s structure, and you’ll soon have a library of finished tracks instead of an ideas junkyard!