Guitarist - songwriter

Musical Energy as a Songwriting Concept

Musical energy is a term that a lot of musicians use but find hard to define. You might use the word energy in a very nebulous sort of way, where it’s synonymous with intensity. With that usage of the word, most listeners of music would know what you mean if you said, “I really like the energy of this song.” They would take that to mean that the music is probably loud, rhythmically active, and is the kind of music that gets the blood pumping.

If you’re a songwriter, you can use a more sophisticated concept of energy to ensure that you captivate listeners, and keep them listening right to the end of your song. But specifically how?

Here’s a list of various elements we use as the building blocks of songs, and how they relate to musical energy:

  1. Loudness (volume) and instrumentation. This is the one everyone knows. Generally speaking, as a song gets louder, musical energy builds. An audience usually has a very positive reaction to this, and so it’s a common production technique: most songs are louder at the end than they are at the beginning.
  2. Lyrics. How does the term energy apply to lyrics? Lyrical intensity or energy rises when words express stronger emotions. Verses tend to use lyrics that are observational, and not so emotional. Choruses use lyrics that are more intensely emotional, and so lyrical energy rises. Throughout a song, therefore, you’ll usually experience the intensity or energy of lyrics rising and falling several times.
  3. Melody. Because melodies are usually conveyed via the human voice unless the song is an instrumental, the energy we perceive in music will increase as a melody rises. That’s because the human voice needs to be stronger as it moves higher. This usually goes hand-in-hand with lyrics.
  4. Chords. As chords move further and further away from the tonic chord, we feel a diminishing of musical energy or intensity. (Example: C  Am  F  G  Am  Bb  F…) Then, as the progression switches direction so that it moves back toward the tonic chord, musical energy intensifies. (Example:…Dm  C/E  F  Gsus4  G  C). Verses often use the I-chord as a kind of home base, wandering away from that chord. Chorus progressions are shorter, and target the tonic chord as an important endpoint.
  5. Rhythmic activity. Usually, the more actively an instrument plays, the more energy we perceive. In choruses, it’s not unusual for instruments to become more rhythmically active, and then scaling back for the return of the verse.

It’s fair to say, therefore, that musical energy is cyclical. Most of the elements within a song — lyrics, melody, chords, etc. — move up and down in intensity. Some of those elements will partner easily with other elements, and move up and down together, such as melodies and lyrics.

But others might move up and down in intensity in their own way. For example, volume might increase slowly over the entire length of a song, even as it moves from verse to chorus and back to verse again.

As a songwriter, it’s important that you find ways to allow the energy peaks of the various elements to coincide at various optimal times. This gives your song pleasant energy spikes. For example, you might find that you want a punchy sound to excite the audience at the beginning of your chorus. Therefore, you’ll want to have your chorus start with all instruments playing fairly loudly, the melody jumping up to a high note, and the lyrics to be highly emotional.

And in general (and this is an important songwriting principle), the energy we experience at the end of a song is usually more intense than the energy we experience at the beginning.

Musical energy is something you should think about as you write your song, but as you can see, there’s a lot you can do at the production level as well. You should use your time as a songwriter to craft melodies that move upward toward the chorus, write chorus lyrics that are more highly emotive, and chorus chords that focus on the tonic chord.

Then, as you begin the recording process, think about ways to enhance the instrumental approach to your song so that you support the energy you’ve already built into the song’s structure.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Singer - songwriter

Songwriting Tips For Writing Melodies… If You Can’t Sing

It’s fair to make the assumption that most songwriters are singers, but that’s not exclusively true. So if you’re trying your hand at writing songs and you aren’t a singer, how do you write melodies?

The inability to sing usually means the inability to sing well. In other words, you may be able to manage to grunt out a melody, even if no one wants to hear you do it! Most songwriters can manage to sing more-or-less in tune, even if their voice is shaky, or the tuning isn’t spot-on.

If you don’t consider yourself a singer, here are the ways in which your voice tends to let you down when you try to use it. Some or all of these might apply to you:

  1. You find it hard to locate and sing the first note of a melody.
  2. Even if you can locate and sing the first note, you find it hard to keep a melody in tune.
  3. You have a constricted usable range. (i.e., the spread between your highest note and your lowest note is small, perhaps only a 5th (e.g., from C to G) or so.)
  4. The quality of your singing voice is feeble, breathy, or quiet.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle: DreamingFor years I taught sight-singing at Dalhousie University. Some of those classes were for non-music majors who were picking up an extra credit trying to improve their ear and their ability to sing in tune. It was clear to me that most of the students who couldn’t sing in tune were dealing with a technical issue, not a musical one. In other words, the reasons they couldn’t sing in tune had nothing to do with their level of musicianship, but more because they lacked technique. That probably describes you as well.

So let’s deal with this issue in two stages. I want to start by giving you some ideas for how to write song melodies even if your voice feels weak or otherwise unusable. Then I want to give you some advice for how to deal with your lousy voice in the long term.

WRITING MELODIES – Tips for Bad Singers

If you find it hard to rely on your voice to the extent that you can’t trust it enough to write a song melody, try the following:

  1. Learn to rely on an instrument as a first step. Try to get some ability to play either a piano or guitar melodically. To improve your abilities, try the following:
    1. Using your guitar, or the right hand on a piano, play melodies from well-known songs. If you’re playing a piano or other keyboard instrument, learn to use several fingers on your right hand — don’t just “hunt & peck”.
    2. Hum the melodies as you play them. Don’t worry so much at first if your tuning isn’t strong. Eventually, your voice will lock in to what your fingers are doing. Humming you play is a powerful teacher in the long-term. Be patient. Abilities will come.
  2. Compose simple melodies, and play them as you sing:
    1. Compose a short progression, such as C  Am  Dm  G. Record and loop that progression so that it plays over and over again. Choose a slow tempo. When you do the next steps, a slower tempo will allow your voice time to settle in and find the notes you’re looking for.
    2. Improvise a melody by starting on a note in your mid-range, one that’s usually reliable.
    3. Sing that one note over and over again, using a rhythm that results in you singing long and short notes. Change the pitch as the chord dictates. Keep things simple.
    4. Now change progressions to something new (perhaps C  Bb  F  G), and improvise a new melody. If you find it hard to play and sing at the same time, try just playing for a minute or two, and then echo what you just did by singing. Over the days that follow, you’ll find your abilities to do both at the same time will improve.
    5. As you gain confidence, start working on progressions you really like, ones that will lead to a song you’re going to want to keep. Work slowly. Create melodies with a wider range. If the melody you like moves too high for your voice, try switching into your falsetto voice. That’s when you can make your voice “break” to find much higher notes. Many pop singers make use of their falsetto voice to reach higher notes than their range normally allows for.

As long as you’re singing more or less in tune, your voice will be good enough to compose melodies. You might actually find that you’ve been singing in tune all along, and that you simply don’t like the sound of your voice. Fair enough; but practically any voice can be used to compose melodies.

IMPROVING YOUR VOICE

In the long term, it will be useful to improve the quality of your singing voice, particularly if you want to be singing backing vocals with your band, or composing more interesting melodies. In that regard, here’s some advice:

  1. Contact your local university or college, and seek out voice students who offer lessons. A student will often be able to teach for a lower fee than a professional, and it’s great experience for them.
  2. Join a local choir. True, many vocal groups will require you to sing an audition. But most of the time, they’re simply checking that you can sing in tune; the beauty of your voice is not usually a big concern. If you tell a choir director that your main motivation is to learn to sing reliably in tune, and if the choir is a large one (100 voices or so), they can sit you next to a good singer, someone who can help you stay locked in and in tune.
  3. Record, then sing along to, simple melodies. Record yourself singing a simple tune, either one you’ve written or a favourite one you’ve known for a long time. Then play the recording back, and sing along to it. You’ll get better at locking into pitches with your voice as time progresses. Use an instrument to play along with your voice at first if you find this hard.

Most musicians have a voice that’s good enough to compose melodies. Don’t be too hard on yourself. By practicing every day, you can get your voice working to a level that makes it easier to compose melodies that singers will enjoy and that audiences will love to listen to.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”. Learn how to take your chords beyond simple I-IV-V progressions. With pages of examples ready for you to use in your own songs! READ MORE

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Jason Aldean

Don’t Go Overboard With the Contrast Principle

Musicians and psychologists hold slightly different practical definitions for what is known as the contrast principle. A good description of a psychologist’s use of the term might be something like the following, which comes from the JackMalcom.com website:

If you put your left hand into a bucket of cold water, and your right into hot water, and then plunge them both into a single bucket of room-temperature water, a funny thing will happen. Your sensations will reverse: your left hand will feel warm and your right hand will feel cold. There’s no magic in it, it’s simply the contrast between the starting and ending points of each that makes the difference.

In music — and in fact most other art forms — the contrast principle, at least in common usage, refers to opposite qualities being in relatively close proximity.

For example, a verse melody might feature melodies made up of downward-moving phrases, contrasting with a chorus melody that features upward-moving ones. A verse might be quiet, and a chorus might be louder. Or a bridge progression might feature mainly minor chords, switching to mainly major for the chorus.

But as a songwriter, you might be well advised to think about the psychologists’ use of the term, especially when you think about how much contrast is needed.

Here’s a quick look at what I mean.

Melodies

We know that a chorus melody will usually be higher than a verse melody. (Example: “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele) But if a verse melody dwells on lower notes, the chorus does not need to be much higher in order to come across as being higher. In other words, a chorus that’s only a note or two higher might give the impression of being a lot higher than it really is. Moving slightly higher might be all that’s necessary.

A good example of this is Jason Aldean’s “Big Green Tractor“, the verse for which spends considerable time sitting in and around G#. The chorus moves up to dwell on the note B — only a minor 3rd higher. But that minor 3rd interval higher, with a louder and busier instrumental accompaniment, gives the impression of being a lot higher, and so the chorus achieves considerable energy because of it.

Chords

A bridge will often dwell on minor chords if the song’s chorus features mainly major chords. But in reality, a bridge often only has to start on a minor chord or two to give the impression that the entire section is minor. Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” uses a mainly major verse and chorus. The bridge doesn’t change key at all — staying in Bb major. But the first two chords are Cm and Gm, two chords that come naturally from that same key. But starting the bridge with these two chords makes it sound as though the tonality has switched completely to minor.

Instrumentation

We know that a chorus instrumentation tends to often be busier, higher and louder than the verse and/or pre-chorus that precede it, and a good example might be Fun’s “We Are Young“. In fact, there really doesn’t need to be much of a change at all to give the impression that a big change has happened. Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” shows how just a slight build in production/instrumentation at the chorus is all that’s often needed.

Your Own Songs

For your own songs, the benefit that comes from holding to the “slight-change-is-big-change” technique is that you have a better chance of having your entire song glue together a bit better. When a chorus is higher, but not all that much higher, than the verse, there is a stronger sense of continuity that runs through the entire song.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packagesGet “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBooks, and take your songwriting to a new level of excellence. The 10-eBook Bundle comes with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions.” READ MORE

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Gary Ewer

Skype Songwriting Sessions

Occasionally, I find that I have time to offer private video (Skype) songwriting sessions to interested songwriters. If you’ve been working on songs that you’re finding hard to finish, or songs that have problems you simply can’t identify, I’d like to help. My schedule will allow for me to work with 5 songwriters.

Rather than give all the particulars here, please visit this page for details.

Please note that in these sessions with you I’ll be working mainly from a recording of your song(s) for which you’ll be sending me a link to a streaming service you use. So the assumption is that interested songwriters should have recorded their songs (even if in rough form), and that they are being streamed from some online service.

So if working in a private Skype session sounds like a method that might work for you, I’d be happy to schedule sessions with you.

INFORMATION PAGE for SKYPE SONGWRITING SESSIONS

-Gary Ewer

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Open-air Concert

How a First Impression Can Be More Important Than Clever Writing

It’s an instinct that most songwriters have: to take a song beyond what you’d normally hear in the genre, creating something innovative and unique. You don’t want to give your listeners something so unique that it sounds strange and uninviting, and you don’t want something so much like everything else that it simply bores people.

It’s all a balancing act, and every songwriter worth their weight knows that.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” - Can't get past the hook?But it’s important for songwriters to know this: regardless of style or substance, and more important than any cleverness you might incorporate into a song’s design, a first impression is the most important aspect of any piece of music.

It doesn’t matter how shrewd or intelligent a song’s lyric might be, nor how astute you’ve been in putting all the elements together… if you haven’t made a powerful first impression, you’ve not really done anything.

We know that pop music thrives on the power of the first impression, but that quality has always existed in music no matter which genre you examine. Mozart was known as a genius of musical composition, and an analysis of any one of his symphonies could fill a book. And yet even with his music, it’s always been the power of the first impression that’s been the most important quality. People loved his music from the very first note.

The very best songwriters can give you music that will offer hours and hours of satisfying analysis: what did she mean by that line of lyric? how does that chord progression work? how does this verse melody relate to the chorus melody? But no one would wonder anything at all if the song wasn’t enticing from its very first note.

All this is to say that it’s extremely important to think about how, as a songwriter, you can and should entice the listener right from the opening chord, the very first word, the very first line of melody. And it makes all the following true:

  1. Before anyone does an analysis of anything you’ve written, they need to have been interested enough in the song to become curious. That requires a poignant first impression.
  2. A song won’t stand on its cleverness alone. But a song can stand on its first impression.
  3. Clever lines of lyric become meaningless if they are delivered using a boring melody or boring instrumentation.
  4. You need to provide something enticing to a listener within the first 10 seconds of a song. If your intro isn’t doing it, consider starting right in with verse 1, and no intro.
  5. Good songwriting is all about building song energy over time. So melodies should work their way higher, instrumentation should get busier, and the end of a song should be, even if barely, more exciting than the start.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleGood songwriting is not the result of a random process. It’s the result of instinct mixed with knowledge. If you’ve got good instincts, but you need to know more about what you’re doing, get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle today. It comes with a free eBook, “Creative Chord Progressions.” READ MORE

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Hi, I'm Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You'll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the page.

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