Mulligans and Trance Tropes

Hey everyone! As discussed, this last week was a mulligan so no track this week. I intend to make one this week though, so we’re going to get back to the new choonage again this Saturday! I don’t have any great ideas yet, but in the process of working on that remix I’ve been mulling over, I’ve been revisiting other classic trance era tracks and thinking about them with a critical ear and mind. Critical in the sense of not finding fault, but in the sense of coming to a deeper understanding of why and how something works (or doesn’t).

I’ve been thinking about “what makes a trance track a trance track?” Those of you who know me know how I feel about “genrefication” (and I’m not alone!) and especially genre gatekeeping. Arguing about what is trance and what is not often devolves into elitist music snobbery of the type where mystically the music you liked when you were a teenager is inevitably the best.

But genres can be useful and there has to be a border somewhere, right? I think that saying Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achey Breaky Heart” is not a trance song is uncontroversial. But it’s not derisive to say that in any way (my opinions on “New Country” I will judiciously leave off in this post). But when people say “Armin doesn’t do trance” you can almost always detect some animosity in the context. It’s because Armin van Buuren is known for making trance and still produces the “A State Of Trance” show. I will save my “artists don’t owe you shit” rant for another post, but there’s a part of me that also has a little sympathy. However, “Mr. Navigator” may not be trance, but it’s still a fucking banger and I’ll die on that hill!

Speaking of Van Buuren, here’s a little two bar excerpt of “Exhale”, a classic trance track he made with Ferry Corsten working under the “System F” alias (aside: I’ve been listening to electronic music on and off for 35 years and I’m STILL finding aliases that I didn’t know were Corsten!). This is core trance from the turn of this century, when trance was trance, men were men, and little furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were little furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.

The first two bars of “Exhale” in the uplifting section
Listen if you so desire! The two bars transcribed hit at around 2:57

Here’s the Wikipedia definition of trance music:

Trance music is characterized by a tempo generally lying between 120–150 bpm (BPM), repeating melodic phrases and a musical form that distinctly builds tension and elements throughout a track often culminating in 1 to 2 “peaks” or “drops”. Although trance is a genre of its own, it liberally incorporates influences from other musical styles such as techno, house, pop, chill-out, classical music, tech house, ambient and film music.


Okay, let’s go through the list: 120-150 bpm? 138. Check. Repeating melodic phrases and a form that builds tension culminating in 1 to 2 drops? Check and check. I guess it’s trance. But there are many tracks like this! My own track “Porlock” is at 127 bpm, has repeating melodic phrases and a form that builds tension and has two drops. It’s trance, right? Except I don’t think it is. I think of this as a melodic techno track (whether it’s “good melodic techno” is a completely separate issue). When I set out I wasn’t specifically sure of the genre I was going to make, but once I got on that polyrhythmic noise beat, it pushed me into a darkish techno direction. The key is in that second sentence. “Liberally incorporates influences”. At what point have you so liberally incorporated influences that you cease to be influenced and become what influences instead?

This snippet I show is something you will be unlikely to see in a techno track though. It’s part of what I think of as “uplifting trance” that I think needs to include some melodic figure that attempts to elicit some sort of euphoric/happy emotional response in the listener. Frankly I think of this as a more core feature of trance than anything in the Wikipedia definition, and yet a track without it can certainly still be trance in my opinion.

I think things like these are 100% trance when there are these 16th note octave+ jumping melodies with the staccato bursts and quick 16th rests with the general step up melodic motion, along with the bass notes slightly syncopated so that when that kick comes in right on that 1 downbeat (check out the track around 3:43), you feel it in all its fury. Of course, playing with the timbral characteristics of the sound for variance without changing the melody adds interest. If you played this on an acoustic piano it would be much more difficult to sustain listener interest.

Anyhow, I bring up all this pseudo-intellectual wankery to basically say that I’m going to try and explore this and other “trance tropes” in this upcoming Saturday Sound. I hope you will like it!

2 thoughts on “Mulligans and Trance Tropes

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