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The second crucial characteristic of disco chords is their timing. Syncopated rhythms and subtle interaction with other musical elements play a vital role in creating the distinctive sound of classic disco arrangements.
Syncopation describes a musical part accentuating a beat which would otherwise not be accentuated. Sticking with ‘Lost In Music’, we’ve lined up the playhead below on a snare beat in the first bar. The piano (yellow) and bass (red) play on the half beat either side of the drum hit. The same thing occurs at the same point in the third bar of the phrase.
In our reconstruction below, we can hear how this rhythmic interaction subtly accentuates both the snare and the instrument parts, creating the simple yet effective syncopated rhythm.
The way the chords, bassline and drum elements interact with each other here is the perfect reminder of a fundamental principle to bear in mind when composing music of absolutely any genre: focussing on just one instrument in isolation only tells a small part of the story. There’s no point creating a bassline which sounds incredible on its own but doesn’t work with the drum pattern or the chords. It might sound obvious, but we’re all guilty of focussing on small details at times rather than considering the more important issue of whether the piece of music works as a cohesive whole.
Theory Into Practice
Combining the principles we’ve examined here with the ideas we looked at in this earlier Passing Notes on disco house basslines, we’ve created a short example of a retro disco pattern.
The first 8 bars of the 16-bar example look like this (note that the bassline has been transposed an octave lower in this screenshot so it can be read more easily with the chords):
The chords are Bm7, Gmaj7, A.
The second 8 bars look like this:
The second half uses exactly the same chords, just voiced and positioned differently. Notice how the different inversions of the same A major triad at the end create a lift into the next section of the track.
In the second half, the bassline and chords are also shifted to land on beats not accentuated in the 4/4 drum loop.
Of course, while techniques like this are key characteristics of genres like disco or funk, it’s important to remember how applicable they also are to other genres. Below we’ve put together a dub techno loop as a basic example.
Dub techno’s harmonic, melodic and rhythmic minimalism places the emphasis on sound design and subtlety of programming. Note the inversion of the E minor chord and the position of the chord stabs creating the syncopation with the four-to-the-floor drum pattern. The techniques used in disco chord progressions apply equally as well here as they do in virtually any dance genre.
If you enjoyed this tutorial you might find our book ‘The Secrets of Dance Music Production’ a helpful resource for similar tutorials.
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