What Is It That Keeps a Listener Listening?

Magical Mystery TourWhen it comes to songwriting, it’s possible to do everything “right” and yet fail to entice anyone to keep listening. Sadly, that’s quite common. For me, when I’m sent an MP3 by someone to assess, I ask myself a critical question: if I turned this recording off right now, would I care? And when I’m done listening, I ask myself if I want to listen again. In the majority of cases, the answer is no, and it’s not because there are obvious errors in the songwriting process. It’s just that there’s nothing in the song that keeps me listening.

So we’re actually talking about two things here: 1) what keeps a listener listening, and 2) what brings a listener back. [Continue reading below..]

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Especially regarding the first question, we’re actually talking about the concept of tension and release. I’ve written recently about chord progressions, and the value of ending verse progressions on tension-filled V-chords. To do so begs for the I-chord. That kind of tension and release acts as a musical endorphin, and listeners like it.

And so tension and release needs to feature prominently in all the various elements of your song. Verse lyrics build tension by posing questions and/or describing situations, while the chorus provides the release by answering those questions, or describing the resultant emotions.

And there are other forms of tension that songwriters need to use to keep listeners listening:

  1. Rhythmic tension from drum fills, rolls, crescendos, etc, all of which have specific release points throughout a song.
  2. Melodic tension from rising melodic lines, which partner together with harmonies to provide tension/release.
  3. Formal tension from a song’s bridge, which creates a type of “formal energy” caused by the bridge’s higher dynamics, alternate harmonies, and ultimate conclusion with a repeat of the chorus.
  4. A second type of formal energy which comes from shortening of musical phrases and “melded cadences.” A melded cadence simply means that the end of one section is the actual beginning of a new section. (Think of how the verse melds into the chorus in The Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye”, from “Magical Mystery Tour”.)

The energy that is created with tension/release moments keep listeners waiting, because there’s a very human desire for us, once we’ve been presented with conflict, to wait around for the resolution.

But what makes sure that a listener comes back to the song? If the tension/release events in your song have been compelling enough, and inspiring enough, and numerous enough, listeners will return.

Which brings me back to my original point, with a bit of an amplification of that point. You can examine your song, bar by bar, and miss the fact that nothing interesting is happening. The melody may work, the chords may be right, and the lyrics may even be moderately interesting. But if you’re missing the crucial element of tension and release, you’ve got a song where no one feels the need to return to it.

To get a better handle on this concept, try this exercise: take five songs that are your own personal favourites, and make a list of every tension/release event you can identify about each one. You’ll actually be listing every reason why you keep listening to those songs after all these years.

And you’ll be improving your own songwriting by reinforcing the need to have tension and release as a crucial element in the songwriting process.


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