One of my favorite EDM tracks to listen to is Slip, by deadmau5. In fact, Random Album Title is one of my favorite albums, and it showcases the high production quality that has made Joel a widely recognized artist and performer (Did you know that he was selected to be the ‘house artist’ for the VMA’s in a few weeks? That will introduce his work to quite a few new people I should think. details).
Slip is great because it is simple and complex at the same time. It has a catchy melody, a simple harmony, a repeated rhythmic figure. But the melody is slightly embellished here and there, and the harmony isn’t always even present. Most importantly, the melody does as the title suggests: it slips. The reason is because the melody is 9 sixteenths in duration. The track itself is your standard 4/4 dance number, but having this ever-so-slightly elongated melodic figure means that only 7 repetitions of it can fit in a standard four bar phrase. Take a look at the ‘flat’ version of the melody, as it is presented right after the track’s opening:
F minor—how often do you hear that at the club? Reminds me of a favorite Chopin piano piece, his Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55. Part of the magic that creates the “slipping” sensation is the use of those staccatos. The actual figure is expanded to two repetitions by their use, creating a feeling of stopping and going. Think of a drunkard spending too much time on one foot every few steps. Just listening to the track, it’s incredibly difficult to not hear these imaginary articulations and attacks when, most of the time, each repetition is the same. This is within the realm of music perception. The brain plays a trick on us, and it’s amplified by the rigid bass lines of dance songs.
As the melodic figure moves from being syncopated on the first beat to firmly on the third beat, we ‘slip’ forward. Take a look:
By the time it reaches beat 3 of the 4th bar, you really feel a strong “3, 4, 1” closing off the phrase and starting the next one. Take a listen!
Underneath the melody is a very subtle rhythmic doubling playing a single note. Here’s right after the opening, at around 0:14.
Looking at the picture, you can sort of see the slipping in action. The melody starts syncopated anyway, and continues to fall into and out of alignment with the 4/4 rhythm of the bass. Green is early, blue is lined up to an eighth note, red is late. As you can see, the melody only appears on the quarter note beat in two places: bar 2 beat 2, and bar 4 beat 3. The one in bar 4 contributes heavily as a phrase deliminator. Every time you get there it feels like you’ve reached some sort of conclusion in the chaos.
The pink note is a bit confusing. I couldn’t decide if this was early or late, and this beat represents the most “out of alignment” part of the phrase. Strictly through listening, I hear three logical divisions of the phrase, as 3-3-1 repetitions of the melody. At the beginning of the track the melody is what I’ve been calling ‘flat’, that is, not embellished. Later it takes on some new dimensions. These are either the reason for, or a consequence of, the divisions I hear. It’s hard to tell since I can’t go back and give it a fresh listen.
Melody solo at 1m23
So the changes in the melody create new tensions. The move down to B in the 3rd repetition is resolved in the next, creating a sort of sub-phrase. This establishes a three-repetition sub-phrase so that when we encounter the next tension note, the D in the 5th repetition, we don’t perceive the next sub-phrase as starting immediately after with the resolution. Or maybe we do. The subjectivity of these divisions is intriguing, with different listeners bringing different preconceptions and yielding different perceptions. I encourage you all to take a listen and write in the comments what you hear.
Interesting too is the placement of that little “noodle” figure: it’s right where the mysterious ‘pink’ beat is. At the nexus of confusion he puts a delicate little jump. Nice. With 7 repetitions, it was probably placed intuitively rather than in a normal division of time (there really isn’t one).
Later in the track the rhythmic doubling changes to something different, and this affects the grouping of the repetitions into sub-phrases. It also creates a beautiful palindrome across the entire phrase.
Changed background rhythm. 1m53
If you were to jump right in at this point, you might perceive a 2-2-2-1 division but, again, most of this analysis is subjective. All that can be said is that nothing is clean and simple. There are parts of the song when filter changes and panning effects alter the perceived articulation of certain beats, and I am sure that this is completely intentional. Perhaps not in a calculated, hands-wringing Mr. Burns-ian kind of way, but in that subtle, often imperceptible way that composers, while they’re working, find themselves saying, “this sounds right”.
Another thing I love about Slip is the way that the melody and harmony are constantly implied. As I mentioned, at the beginning there really isn’t an established harmony more than a simple bass line. Later we get a full, rich harmony in the background, then it goes away, and then it comes back, etc. The melody, too, starts off with the embellishments, then flattens, then picks them up again, then loses them. The sounds go from instruments rich in overtones with longer decays, to bubbly little sine waves with almost no decay. The harmony itself is rather simple, and has a rather dorian feel to it. Most of this I think is from the repeated use of the VII-i cadence. The entire track is decidedly minor in mode, but because so many of the chords are missing the 3rd or are widely spaced the music carries an ambiguously minor feel all the way through. The traditional uplifting break point, featured in so many EDM tunes, comes in the interlude at 3:38. But even here the heavy use of reverb blurs harmonies together and creates an ambiguously major feel.
So that’s all I have to say about that. Music cognition and perception is a fascinating area of research, and I think I would have loved to go into it, but 6 years ago your career options were pretty much limited to a university professorship. Now there are literally dozens of companies in the MIR area pioneering new technologies and directly hiring music cognition researchers.
I highly suggest you check out the song in question, wherever you normally listen to or purchase music (grooveshark, last.fm, whatever). I’m sure you can buy it on iTunes as well, but especially with dance music you’ll be losing a lot of fidelity in the upper frequencies. This album is so bright and wonderful, but you lose some of that with the compression. However, even I am willing to accept a less refined quality of sound: I’ll be seeing deadmau5 live in October. Can. Not. Wait.
UPDATE - I decided that this is a pretty solid case for fair use, so I prepared a few short audio clips and inserted them into the post. Also I wanted to apologize for not making nicer looking excerpts. My LilyPond installation is currently broken and I’m just not in the mood to deal with it right now. These were made with Sibelius.