Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Songwriters know that energy should build as a song progresses. Song energy is one of those musical terms that is difficult to define with any exactitude. Suffice it to say, if you find yourself feeling more excited as the song moves along, you’re experiencing an increase in song energy. This principle is a vital one, because increasing energy is what keeps a listener listening. If you’ve written your tune, and you’ve been performing it for a while, but it’s not getting the audience reaction that you’ve been hoping for, there are a few simple things you can do to modify it, and they all relate to song energy.
- Add instruments. This is an obvious way of building energy, but should be done with a measure of subtlety. Take a lesson from Classical composers on this one. Composers write for a certain ensemble comprised of a certain number of instruments. They won’t use all those instruments all the time, because that results in too much of a sameness throughout the composition. With subtlety they add and subtract instruments, all in the name of contouring energy. In your songs, let the instrumentation of your chorus be subtly more than the verse.
- Add vocal harmonies. Harmony has a way of opening up the overall sound of music. Adding vocal harmonies commands more attention, so be careful when you use it. Generally, you’ll want to use vocal harmonies more in choruses than in verses. In verses, save vocal harmonies for verse 2 or 3, and use it sparingly, such as on key emotion-laden words.
- Move melodies upward. If your song follows a verse-chorus-bridge format, you should ensure that your chorus melody lies in a higher range (or plateau) than your verse, and that the bridge is placed at least as high or higher than the chorus. Upward moving melodies generate energy.
- Modulation (changing key) should generally be in an upward direction. Downward modulations are tricky because they tend to kill energy. Whenever you change key, it can be startling, so use modulation sparingly, and more in the last third of a song than near the beginning.
- Let later lyrics answer questions and resolve situations presented in earlier verses. In other words, there needs to be a natural and obvious progression of what you’re singing about. It’s the old “tension/release” concept: your earlier lyrics need to present the issues, and it’s the later lyrics that need to provide answers. In that way, listeners will stick with the song in order to hear the resolution of the conflict.
Even the calmest of songs have energy. Think of energy as being like the price of a stock on Wall Street: it’s not about how much the stock costs, it’s how much it’s moved. In the songwriting world, the best way for energy to move is upward, and with subtlety.
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