Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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When someone gets me to listen to their song to assess it, I always use that first listen to determine one thing: does the song have forward energy? What this question really means is: Do I want to keep listening? Do I find myself wanting to hear what happens next? That kind of momentum is lifeblood of the song. Without it, listeners will switch off, and they won’t come back.
Whether we realize it or not, most listeners are always assessing the energy of a song. Without energy, songs will simply lay there and die in front of you.
When I talk about that kind of energy, I don’t mean that your song must have high energy; the fact is that very gentle songs also have an energy level, albeit a low one, that still needs to ebb and flow.
How that energy ebbs and flows will determine if your listeners stick with it and listen to your song all the way through.
Generally speaking, when you compare the end of a song with the beginning, you should probably be noticing higher energy at the end. Choruses really do need more energy than verses, and bridges require more energy than choruses to really work.
The rise and fall of energy is important because it’s what makes listeners feel that something important is going to happen. So when I give a song that first listen, I’m simply trying to determine if I find myself wanting to keep listening.
Energy should build through the verse, connecting smoothly to the chorus at a higher energy level. That building of energy will not be a smooth line, because energy is affected by a number of things: vocal range, instrumentation, even specific chord choices.
So when you control those elements, you are also controlling song energy. Here are some specific ways to do that:
- Dynamics (loudness). As a general rule, the louder something is, the more energy the listener will perceive.
- Instrumentation. The more instruments you use, the busier it becomes, and so you can use number of instruments as a way of controlling sound energy. Try adding a guitar on a counter melody/solo, or add a second or third chording instrument to boost energy. Also, consider reducing instrumentation to a vocal melody with bass in the first verse as a way of starting with low energy, and bring in other instruments at the pre-chorus or chorus.
- Range. Music often sounds more energetic if the accompanying instruments are playing in a high range. This is not always true, though, so be sure to judge for yourself. Also, adding distortion and other effects to backing instruments will increase energy.
- Rhythm. You’ll sense a much more intense energy coming from busier rhythms.
If you find yourself being bored by your songs, and can’t figure out why, it’s often due to a random energy plan. Try making a map that plots the various energy levels of the different sections of your song. Here’s a typical one that comes from page 26 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”:
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