understanding dance music


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Understanding Dance Music Structure

I am referencing demo mp3 files that can be streamed at each stage of the tutorial. These have been recorded in 8-bit mono to keep download times to a minimum so even if you are on dial up, and need some assistance it should be relatively painless. I have constructed them in a very simplistic manner to speed the learning of DJ-ing concepts and are purely for reference only. I would only recommend listening to them if you are unclear of my descriptions. Please forgive the fact that they hiss like a cobra at a snake convention but they serve their purpose! Simply left-click to open them at each relevant stage.

It should be noted that this is a general tutorial and is not the basis for every tune ever released on vinyl. However the principals can be applied to any form of dance music from ambient through house to hardcore and even as far as Gabba.

Each coloured square represents the Bar number which will each contain four beats.


So you want to get on your decks and mix away like the billy-o. However to ensure you mixes layer correctly you need to at least skip over this to grasp the very basics otherwise you won't know where to drop in a record.

Like a car, dance music is structured in a very ordered fashion. You start by making one part. This is developed and has other components added to it, for example a car engine. However this has no practical use on its own. It needs to be linked to other components and be built upon to create the whole car. The principles for dance structure is very similar. You start with a basic element that is then built upon leaving you with a dancefloor destroying anthem. hopefully.

A record can be split into six sections, which in some instances can be broken down further into stages:

Introduction Stages 1 - 4
Breakdown 1 Stage 5
Main Section Stage 6
Breakdown 2 Stage 7
Final loops Stage 8
Ending/Outro Stage 9

Stage 1

Open mp3 demo (1 bar)

Each bar of music has four beats, starting with the first beat of the bar. This is called a down-beat . This 4 beats/1 bar of music is represented diagrammatically in this tutorial as a silver square.

Stage 2

Open mp3 demo (4 bars)

Dance music works in multiples of 2. If you have 1 bar, this is repeated and will fundamentally be the same.

These 2 bars are "copied and pasted". However, this time a slight variation is added in the form of a short fill-in. This occurs at the end of Bar 4. This may only be an extra kickdrum, snares or cymbal. In diagrammatic terms, this subtle variation is shown as a blue square. In summary we now have 4 bars of music that looks like this:





While it is playing, count in your head the four beats in each bar with the first digit changing to the corresponding Bar number.

"1, 2,3,4, 2 ,2,3,4, 3 ,2,3,4, 4 ,2,3,4"

Stage 3

Open / Download mp3 demo (8 bars)

This is "copied and pasted" again, but instead of using a slight variation in bar 8, an obvious fill-in is used lasting for the whole of the 8th bar. This is represented a purple square.









As long as you can spot the beginning of these 8-bar patterns you are well on your way.
New instruments such as hi-hats, hand claps etc. are added from the first bar of these 8-bar sections. Because the 8-bar progression is uniform, it is possible to build up a tune, creating a fuller sound every 8 bars.

Stage 4

To get sixteen bars this is exactly the same as the eight bars but are two bolted together.
I refer to the start of bar 9 as the Repeat . It is simply the point where repetition of the first eight bars occurs (as featured in Stage 3).

















In total these 16 bars of music will be referred to as 1 loop. Most musical styles can be mixed only understanding this much. This as always can be expanded to give greater scope to the DJ

To do this the above would be copied and pasted to give bars 1-32 and generally speaking should be a rule of thumb when mixing. This whole 32 bar section (2 loops) are then copied again and bolted together to create a bars 1-64

The possibility of additional sounds could be introduced every 8 bars (hihat, handclap, snare, strings, melody etc.) on bars 9, 17, 25, 33, 41, 49 and 57 .
From the first beat on the record, there will usually be a total of 4 loops / 64 bars / 1 pattern (all are the same thing) of introduction.

As you may notice, two loops will be strung together as described above. The producer may decide at the very end end instead of having a fourth purple square, to add further variation they may make the fill in much more dominant as its likely to be introducing the first breakdown. This could be anything from the final bar or could be extended over a greater period of time with a rolling snare drum for example leading into the start of the next pattern and could be implemented over several bars.

The position of the first Kickdrum on the record is VERY IMPORTANT. We will reference this for later use as [VINYL POINT A]

Stage 5 - Breakdown 1

The first breakdown will then occur. Everyone stops dancing in this bit and usually wave their arms in the air or use it as a breather! This is the main riff of the tune (piano break / synth stab in house or the build-up to the main bass line in D&B usually with no beat and is the chorus to a song) It could that will last for a possible 2 loops (32 bars) or 4 loops (64 bars). This depends on what sort of music you are mixing. Trance and house breakdowns may be longer with more the bars being repeated (cut and pasted as in stage 3) to prolong the build up to the bulk of the main tune. D&B breakdowns could be shorter and build up much quicker. However, the physical length of a breakdown is relatively unimportant. It is unlikely you will be mixing over this anyway (more on that later). 

The beginning point to a breakdown is visible on the vinyl itself as it a much darker groove than the others. The main synth riff will be repeated adding more hi-hats, kickdrums etc every 8 bars. This part of the tune will be very obvious as all the sounds will gradually build until the main beat drops back in. . 

If you're a new "DJ" it's best not to mix over any breakdown! It will spoil the main effect of the breakdown and will generally sound pap.

Stage 6 - Main

Where the beat drops back in (at the beginning of the new loop) is a very important point in DJing. For later use we shall reference this point as [VINYL POINT B] . This represents the beginning of the "Main" section.

You will notice that the main tune will probably be the chorus or tune you heard in the breakdown incorporated over the beat that built up in the Introduction section of the record. It will loop (with possible variations) until the main riff appears on its own for the second time.

Stage 7 - Breakdown 2

This breakdown will be identical to Breakdown 1. Wait for the build-up! (increasing volume of kick drums, snares etc.). You should be able to predict when the beat will drop back in. If not it comes back in on the down beat of the 9th bar (start of repeat) and will build up until it all drops as it did in the first breakdown.

Stage 8 - Final Loops

Where the beat drops back in for the final series of loops is also VERY IMPORTANT. For later use we shall reference this point as [VINYL POINT C].

this section will be very similar to the main section or may even have a slightly more complicated bassline or a changed pattern but the bulk will be the same.

Stage 9 - Ending/Outro

Once the main riff had ended various instruments will be taken out, one at a time until there is nothing left, yes you've guessed it, at the start of every loop or on the repeat. The first to go is likely to be the main be the main tune, then bassline, then the components of the main beat. It is pretty much the the opposite of the build up at beginning of the record.
As samples are removed, the point where only the main beat (in its entirety) remains is important. For later use we shall reference this point as [VINYL POINT D]. This is your final chance to chuck in a mix or it's curtains for you, mate. The tune will end followed by silence and you grabbing the needle, bunging it the middle of the tune and having another stab. Not the best crowd pleaser!!!


Don't panic! All this mental counting sounds far more complicated than it is. Try playing your favourite tune from the very beginning. 

Things to remember from the above maths lecture:

  • If you hear a new sound come in, this will either be at the start of a loop or on the Repeat (bar 9 of the 16 bar loop).
  • If it follows a big kickdrum fill-in (and possible vocals e.g. Oh Yeah etc) it is the start of a new loop.
  • If it follows a small fill-in it is starting the Repeat
  • New samples are introduced into the tune beginning of loops
  • Use a tune that starts with a BEAT at the BEGINNING of the record. It makes the concept much easier to understand.

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