Music theorist shows how EDM broke pop music's chorus

Calvin Harris at the 2012 Rock in Rio festival in Madrid. Credit: Carlos Delgado.

LAWRENCE – Your ears are not fooling you. Electronic dance music DJs-turned-producers have affected the very form of popular music in the past decade, essentially breaking the chorus in half, a University of Kansas music theory professor says.

Brad Osborn, KU professor of music theory

In “Formal Functions and Rotations in Top-40 EDM” in the latest edition of Intégral, the Journal of Applied Musical Thought, Brad Osborn shows how electronic dance music producers like Calvin Harris who have recently dominated the Billboard magazine pop charts have broken apart the old rock top-40 songs' verse-chorus-bridge structure.

Instead, Osborn writes and shows in diagrams, these producers have substituted “a hybrid section” he calls the “riserchorus” and paired that with a beat-heavy “drop” section that provides the release of psychic tension that the old-fashioned chorus did.

Osborn writes that the riserchorus “blends the anticipatory sonic functions of a riser (including rising pitch with a rhythmic build) with the lyrical-melodic memorability of a chorus.”

In retrospect, Osborn said, he began to notice this change in structure around 2014.

“All of a sudden, I heard music in which it was really unclear what the chorus was,” Osborn said. “Essentially, instead of one big section that we could all point to, you had two sections. In the first one, you had the memorable vocal hook that we all love in a chorus — the title of the song — but there's no beat. And it's quiet.

“I was like, ‘That's not what a chorus is supposed to do.’ And then the next section would have the big, thumping beat, but no vocals. That’s the drop section.

“And so the question becomes, ‘Is there a chorus in this music anymore? Or have we split the idea of chorus into two separately functioning sections, such that one of them has the catchy hook, and the other has the beat, but never the two shall meet?’”

Osborn believes this stems from producers like Harris, David Guetta and Skrillex bringing their club-pleasing ways to their recorded collaborations with pop singers, then condensing that into a three-minute package.

“You've got these producers behind the boards now working in pop music, but where they all started were sweaty clubs in Detroit and Berlin. And that music was not about melody at all. That music was about beat. Building up textures slowly and then taking them away and then dropping the beat. So what we hear starting around 2014 is some of that being made more radio-friendly in these collaborations with vocalists. So now, all we're really doing is putting a catchy melody on top of that stuff.”

That’s if you bother to build at all, Osborn said.

“A lot of times what you'll hear now are songs starting right on their chorus, because we have such short attention spans. There's no time for an intro, no time for a buildup, no time for verse. We start on the chorus. And we still get three choruses. But usually that comes at the expense of only one verse.”

Image: Calvin Harris at the 2012 Rock in Rio festival in Madrid. Credit: Carlos Delgado.

Inset: Video of “Wolves” by Selena Gomez and Marshmello, 2017, featuring the “riserchorus” and drop sections Osborn describes in his paper.

Thu, 11/02/2023


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service