by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:
You might say that songwriting is a study in energy. Most songs feature fluctuating energy levels, with higher intensity occurring more toward the end of a song than the beginning. So how does chord choice help?
When we think of increasing or decreasing a song’s energy, we usually think of controlling dynamics (loudness), instrumentation, and vocal tessitura (basic range.) But it’s also worthwhile to consider ways of modifying the chords you choose for your songs. Here are some ways that chord choice can control the basic energy level of your song:
- Add tones to basic triads. Basic triads generally speaking will have a lower basic energy than added tones. For example, even the addition of a suspension to your chord progression can increase energy. Take a simple progression like this: C F G C, and modify it with the addition of suspensions, like this: C F Gsus G Csus C. Try other added tones, like added 9ths, 6ths, etc.
- Modify the frequency of your chord changes. This is called harmonic rhythm, and generally the more often your chords change, the higher the energy output. If you take the basic progression: C F G C, and play each chord for eight beats, you’ll notice a higher energy level if your change chords every two beats.
- Experiment with chord voicings. Similar to vocal tessitura, higher voicings will produce higher song energy.
- Use deceptive cadences (but not too often). A deceptive cadence occurs when the final chord of a phrase is unexpected. For example, C F G Am is considered “deceptive” because a C was expected at the end of that progression. The unexpected Am at the end provides a little shot of energy. Be careful not to do this too often; it can become trite and actually somewhat predictable.
- Use “implied chords.” Sometimes, it works to sing against a simple bassline (check out the first verse of Rihanna’s “Disturbia”). The bassline produces what we call implied chords. The listener imagines the chord structures even though the only notes present are the bass notes. Implied chords are a great way to contain the energy; you can then allow fuller chords for your chorus.
Keep in mind that in general, you want the energy level of your song to increase as the song progresses, but not as a straight line graph. Choruses are usually more energetic than verses, and bridges are often more energetic than choruses. You’ll always want to consider basic volume, instrumentation and vocal range, but never forget that manipulating your chords is a great way to manipulate energy.
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