Controlling the Energy Levels of Your Songs

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.

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It’s a standard principle of songwriting that the basic energy level of your song should increase as it progresses. There are exceptions to this, and most of those exceptions involve songs that start with a bang, and keep driving to the end. But you’ll find that you’ll have better success when energy ebbs and flows, generally building at key moments, increasing toward the end.

The Script - BrerakevenThink of “Breakeven“, by The Script, as a great example of control of energy that really works. There are a couple of things notable regarding song energy.

First, consider using the intro of the song to demonstrate the potential energy of the song. “Breakeven” alternates between two energy levels: the quiet, introspective calm, and the more boisterous drive. The intro demos both levels, and this is a great way to add a sense of form to your song.

Secondly, you should note that an energy map of a song should not be a straight line from subdued through to driving energy. In fact, the best songs use the “ebb-and-flow” method of controlling energy. This means that though most songs will exhibit a gradual increase in energy, they’ll do it in stages.

There are many ways to do this, so here’s one of many possible energy maps. You’ll find that it’s quite intuitive, and that it applies to the energy maps of many hit songs:

  1. Song Intro: Either display both the low and and high end of the song’s eventual energy before dropping down just before the verse; or give a generally upbeat intro that dissipates just before the verse.
  2. Verse 1: Generally low-key energy that allows the lyric to come forth and describe a situation or pose questions.
  3. Chorus: High energy level (which can start in the last bar or two of the verse). Build energy using busier/louder drums, more guitar, busier rhythms. Allow energy to dissipate as a connector to Verse 2.
  4. Verse 2: Like verse 1, with a slightly higher energy level (think of ways to enhance drums from Verse 1, or perhaps busier rhythm guitar, etc.)
  5. Chorus 2: Generally identical to Chorus 1.
  6. Bridge: Either allow for the highest energy levels here, setting up an even more energetic final chorus(es); or build higher energy that dissipates at the end for a quieter Verse 3, or a quiet statement of the final chorus.
  7. If creating a Verse 3, allow the Bridge energy to dissipate, have Verse 3 start quietly, building into the final chorus. If moving directly to a final set of choruses, either let the first of the final choruses be calm, the remaining ones energetic; or build the end of the Bridge to a high energy level matching the energetic final choruses.

As I mentioned, much of this makes common sense. What you’re trying to avoid, by having the energy ebb and flow like this, is having a situation where the listener gets no chance to rest their mind. Let the lyric and melodic shape help guide your energy. Use key words in the text as indicators for where energy should build, then dissipate.
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