The Science Behind the Drop

You want to hear a killer drop? Mark McCutcheon, Associate Professor of Literary Studies at Athabasca University recommends listening to the choral symphony in the second part of the fourth movement in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “Allegro assai vivace”. According to McCutcheon this piece has “one of the most stupendous drops in the history of music”.

Maybe that’s not the kind you’re used to since the advent of EDM, where sets are rife with bass drops. So technically speaking, what is a drop? Postdoctoral Fellow of Communication Université de Montréal, renegade-theorist and pirate-techno-turntablist, tobias c. van Veen explains.

“The drop is just one part of a three-part structure. First, the rhythmic assemblage of a track ends, and some sort of breakdown of elements, ambiance, or slew of samples initiates. Depending on the track, this can be a bass cut or a complete upsetting of the track’s previous themes and rhythms. In more commercial genres, some sort of build, either with drum rolls, hi-hats, or a conglomeration of screaming, simplistic chords (as in trance or brostep) then builds to the point where the bass and rhythmic assemblage drops in once again.”

So how did we get from Beethoven to Brostep?
The term, ‘the drop,’ comes from hip-hop, says McCutcheon, which is a direct reference to the lowering of the needle arm onto the turntable deck. Think the Beastie Boys’ call to ‘let the beat drop,’ Maestro Fresh Wes’ track ‘Drop the needle,’ or even Snoop Dogg’s ‘Drop it like it’s hot.’”

But let’s go further back. McCutcheon’s friend, Brooklyn DJ-producer, Bob Kim, points to “funk music’s emphasis on ‘the one,’ the first beat in a measure of four, the beat on which James Brown calls out to his band to give it everything they’ve got: ‘Get up offa that thing’ starts with twenty seconds of drums, horn stabs, and calls before everything comes together - beats, bassline, and chorus - on the one.”

In the meantime other cultures were also getting busy with the bass. Since the 1940s in Jamaica, crews had been battling it out for “sonic supremacy where the crew with the lowest, loudest bass - along with the shrewdest selectors and deftest DJs - would win by popular acclaim,” says McCutcheon. He also points out that the drop can be found in musical genres like rhythm and blues. In particular to old-time blues, McCutcheon adds, “with its hard-won transformations of yet-more-ancient structures of tension and release that you might say are fundamental to music as such.”

Drop Evolution: Back to the future
This kind of tension and release, or the breakdown of rhythm, as van Veen calls it, “is inherent to musical forms across cultures from West African drumming to Indian tabla, and jazz, from improvisational bebop, to Duke Ellington, and Sun Ra.”

Of course drops are also embedded across electronic music genres like “dub, funk, and disco, and found their way into Chicago / New York house and Detroit techno, usually as what was then called a ‘breakdown’,” says van Veen, who hypothesizes that “Arguably it was in the mid ‘90s that progressive house and melodic trance started to focus the entire aesthetic attention of the track on the breakdown with a stereotyped “build,” incorporating drumrolls and 16th note hi-hats; it was this copycat and rather banal and unsurprising aesthetic (because the rest of the track often deployed simplistic rhythmic and melodic components from factory drum machine and stock software settings) that then found its way into the commercialized juggernaut of EDM-styled brostep.”

However McCutcheon has a different take on the bass drop’s evolution. He points to the early ‘90s UK hardcore as a style that massively influenced today’s EDM scene. “The bleep and bass of LFO and the Warp label; the pre-jungle ‘ardkore of DJ Massive, SL2, Acen, the Suburban Base label; the jump-up jungle of Aphrodite, Moving Shadow, Congo Natty,” states McCutcheon, “and then the first re-absorption of jungle back into house, the speed garage of 1996-97, Double 99, 187 Lockdown, the Ice Cream and Satellite labels.”

In the late ‘90s, McCutcheon says the drop was a regular feature in the jungle room at parties, while remaining relatively unknown in the house and trance rooms. “The first time I heard a DJ play a speed garage tune in the trance room (wish I could remember who, but I do remember it was a woman DJ) was an instructive moment. When the bassline dropped, all the dancers stopped - everybody looked like they simply didn’t know what to do with the intrusion of this sinewy, distorted jungle bassline into their house groove. I call that an instructive moment because it shows how new sounds and techniques can take some getting used to, before, with time, they start to impose their own disciplinary techniques on the dance floor.”

Why do we love a good drop?
Now here’s where things get even more interesting. Meet Valorie Salimpoor, neuroscientist at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto. Recent developments in brain-imaging technology have made it possible for scientists to see what’s going on inside the brain when we listen to music. What Salimpoor and her colleagues found is that music is connected to the emotion and pleasure centres in the brain, as well as the motor areas, responsible for movement.. Which, put simply, music is all about anticipation and climax - just like sex and food - and our brains respond to it in a similar way. “Whether you’re at a nightclub or you’re in your car, when you hear the first few seconds of a song that you really, really like, all of a sudden you just get this intense excitement because you know that the part that you like is coming up,” says Salimpoor.

During this anticipation, our brains release dopamine, causing a rush of euphoria - a natural high. “Music is obviously not a chemical substance that you’re ingesting,” observes Salimpoor, “It’s entirely abstract. It’s just fleeting sounds. And if you think about it, what is music? Music is really just a bunch of sounds and each of these sounds individually isn’t considered pleasurable, but then when you put them together in some kind of sequence or pattern – as DJs and composers do – your brain then tries to interpret these patterns, and experiences as a rush, or a high when you’re listening to them.”

- photo: Andre Gaumand

Composers, producers and DJs tread a fine line in terms of progression and build up. “For example, some classical pieces are able to accomplish anticipation on multiple levels because they are so complex; they can build up different expectations on different layers. So you can have sort of micro-expectations that apply note for note (this applies to all music of course), second by second – those things that are changing, and then you can have overall structural anticipation elements – so then you start to anticipate things more generally,” explains Salimpoor.

DJs and composers use a range of different techniques to build excitement like changes in frequency, timing, delay, and flanger , which create multiple opportunities for anticipation and excitement on multiple levels. But unlike food or sex, music isn’t necessary for survival or the survival of the species, and scientists still haven’t figured out the correlation between dopamine release and music, although maybe the connection lies in finding a suitable mate on the dancefloor.

Oh and by the way, just listening to the drop by itself – without the build up - won’t give you that dopamine hit. “Think about your top ten favourite pieces of music and there’s probably one section in there that you really, really like and if you take that, the 10 seconds around it and then just listen to that, there’s nothing really exciting about that because there’s no anticipation and build up. You’re just listening to the climax and what was the point of that?!,” says Salimpoor.

"...the drop produces a chance for dull DJs to wave their hands in the air as the track does all the work..."

DJ Drop Motives
So we’ve established that drops have been around for a long time, and that we crave anticipation and excitement, but what is the DJ’s intention? According to van Veen, there is a difference between commercialized and underground genres. He says that for example, “Detroit, hard, and minimal techno deploy breakdowns differently, often making strategic use of silence, an echoing chamber or noisespace in which the rhythm dissolves, only to bring it back unexpectedly, without any build or obvious sonic ascension toward the coming beat.” He says this kind of breakdown is a chance for the DJ/turntablist to perform a more complicated treatment of the mix/track by incorporating EFX, EQ, cutting/scratching/mixing, something he reckons that Ritchie Hawtin used to be the master of until he stopped beatmatching around 2006.

Like others who are critical of the current drop-tastic EDM trend, van Veen makes a couple of observations. He says that “a commercialist aesthetic of the drop produces a chance for dull DJs to wave their hands in the air as the track does all the work, and audiences who enjoy being spoon-fed their muzak all scream in drugged-out delight as the expected convention kicks in while the DJ does little or nothing to facilitate the packaged experience.” He contrasts this to people who challenge mainstream drop conventions, saying that such DJs will often use tension and release in a different way, instead surprising, shocking or destabilizing the dancefloor. van Veen isn’t averse to a little deep dancefloor academic theory: “it is this dialectic of expectation to rupture that kicks the audience into a collective and energetic engagement with the return of the infinite beat, producing a shift in tranceformational body consciousness.”

Has EDM destroyed "the drop" - or is it the way of the future?
Writing for The Atlantic, Jonathan Bogart remarks that “The drop" has become an indicator of crass vulgarity, both in the sense of being commercially popular and in the sense of being something for the unwashed masses. The class connotations of this criticism are both inescapable and depressingly familiar: The early criticisms of jazz, rock, and hip-hop were couched in precisely the same terms—crass, vulgar, commercial, populist—by self-appointed arbiters of taste. Today, the drifting or blissful or spiky pleasures of don't-call-it-IDM are designed to appeal to the same graduate students, media industry professionals, and cultivated music junkies who champion indie rock or modern classical. Meanwhile, EDM's forcefulness and emphasis on movement is pitched at a broader audience more interested in using music as an aid to dancing (or, when rhythm is taken away, to losing their shit) than in analysing it.”

Mass entertainment has been around for centuries. Bread and circuses, people. Maybe EDM is just the latest incarnation. There are so many parodies of the genre, but van Veen’s critique is scathing. “What is called EDM — i.e. derivative versions of dubstep structure that have been stripped of their South London existential dread, all noise and signifying the great nothing of pop consumption — has, like regressive house and cheezed out trance before it, focused its entire aesthetic experience on the drop, as if the crowd can only experience its mindless abandon of selfie-taking as a kind of repetition of the expected rise-and-fall structure. In short, like previous genres, the drop appeals to entry-level listeners and audiences, and thus has more in common with pop music forms (such as Katie Perry, say) than with (post) subcultural forms that incorporate drops as part of a more complex sonic and music structure that often is trying to message its unique encounter with science fictional imaginaries and interstellar diasporic tensions, as in the case of South London dubstep and Detroit techno.”

McCutcheon weighs in, “As for whether EDM has destroyed the drop, then, all I would say is that by now I have lived through too many proclamations of the death of rock, the death of rap, and the death of rave to understand them as anything but symptoms of looming revitalization. Has the drop become a gimmick? Maybe, if a track like Squire of Gothos’ “Triple drop” can cram in three of them - it’s like a self-conscious parody, a hint that maybe the drop is overdone among today’s reigning dance genres. But maybe the next EDM sub-genre might be tracks made entirely of drops. So if EDM has destroyed the drop, it’s only doing so in order to make it all sound thrillingly new again, I’m sure.”

As you ponder the drop, in all its myriad forms, we’ll leave you with arguably the worst drop in history.