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Introduction to the Instant Effect of Electronic Dance Music (Part I)

In this article, I am dealing with the question what allows a song to have instant impact, leading to an optimal musical experience.

But before I can cut to the chase, I must touch on a few related topics for the overall picture. I will deal with these subtopics in more detail in later articles, as well.

Taking Us Higher

This overview examines the high-level processes leading to the effect a new song can have on mind and body; electronic dance music offers a perfect example.

Taking us higher

It turns out that we do not listen to great music passively, letting it work its magic on us; our active involvement is key. Music can induce trance states of varying intensity, but we have to consciously allow ourselves to be open to its power.
So on one hand, we have to let go. On the other hand however, we have to be willing to sing along to a piece of music mentally to set off the mechanism I call "neural resonance".
A good song directs our focus to certain elements in a more or less deliberate order. We wander through different hierarchies of its compositional structure. If the arrangement is well crafted, it will draw us in instantly, and even more by every iteration of listening, willing us to consciously follow the path through its structure level after level.

Here is a list of basic examples for an optimal musical structure. Time designations refer to the same trance tune [1]:

  • A distinct and steady beat for the most elementary temporal segmentation, the most basic and efficient example being "four-on-the-floor". A steady beat serves as the central carrier for all other tonal and rhythmic structure in a piece, such as loops.
    Listen at 0:55. Kick drum on every beat, with a bass sound on every second half of the full beat.

  • A very clear separation of instruments and frequency groups, low range (e.g. kick drum, bass), mid range (e.g. ambient pads, chords), and high range (e.g. melody).
    Listen from the beginning.

  • Never more than one salient sound element at a time, as you can only focus on one thought object at a time. Your attention gets occupied by that one element while your subconsciousness keeps processing the rest.
    Listen at 5:11. Short motifs, no overlapping of elements.

  • Loops for temporal segmentation and "neural oscillation" to induce a trance state.
    Listen at 1:37.

Trance States

The trance I'm referring to is not to be confused with the music genre of the same name, even though the two are closely related. The term "trance" is derived from the Latin for "passage". "Trance" originally referred to the passage from life to death.

Trance states

Trances are very common but hard to define. I’ll even go so far as to say that it’s impossible not to exist at any given moment in some kind of trance state, at least a mild one. Such an altered state of consciousness is nothing to be afraid of, as the media or skeptics would suggest.
I am not addressing ritual or religious trances here. We constantly enter trances through commonplace activities such as watching TV, concentrating on a conversation, thinking a problem through, dancing, or listening to music. In a trance, our thinking processes shift between different levels of consciousness. Our concentration narrows, as does our focus, and we no longer perceive what's going on outside of it. In this sense, a trance is a kind of intensely focused concentration.

We constantly shift among different intensity levels of trance states. Paradoxically, the onset of a trance can only happen through conscious desire, however externally controlled its onset may seem in retrospect. In other words, we have to allow a trance to start and unfold.

Most trance states are not very deep and recede easily. Sometimes trances stabilize and persist.

Feeling Good

Feeling good

In a hypnotic trance, you feel a strong sense of well-being and you willingly execute whatever suggestions you receive. A show hypnotist can most certainly persuade you to do things in front of an audience that you would never do (or be able to do) outside of the trance state.
Deeper trance states always evoke a sensation of well-being in general. In a deep trance state, consciousness is directed inwardly and in most instances is perceived as absent to the outside world. Voluntary action and normal bodily functions are diminished, and sometimes even supressed, often to such a degree that the individual can appear to be in a deep sleep-like condition. The new reality you enter in this state can seem strange but is considered highly desirable by the person in a trance. You exist in a state of deep concentration and unconstrained imagination which allows you to think and do things you wouldn't normally do.

This is where music comes into play. Music can hypnotize listeners who consciously let this happen, if they concentrate on the music, let go when the trance sets in and takes hold, and allow themselves to be drawn in.
A good indicator that a trance has taken hold is an experience of mild addiction to the music along with a feeling of euphoria: You keep listening to a song over and over, turning it louder and louder in order to more fully immerse yourself in it.
But trances disappear as quickly as they occur when the energy influx needed to keep it stabilized (i.e. the right music) gets disrupted. This can happen if the music ends or requires a more analytical thinking instead of neurally ("hardwired") subconscious responses.

I refer to this type of trance, directly induced and disrupted by compositorial structure and sonic design, as a "functional trance" because music serves as a rather precise control element for the quality of such an induced altered state.

Read more about understanding trance logic and how to create an optimal music experience in the second part of this article.

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