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It’s important to hear things repeat within a song, but the danger is if something repeats so much that it becomes boring. The obvious answer is to have things repeat in slightly different ways, so that each time a chorus or verse happens, the listener hears something a little different. Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In The World)” shows how to give your song some variety by using implied harmonies and modified instrumentation.
An implied harmony means that only parts of chords are heard at any one time, but enough of the chord exists to imply the chord. To give an example, if the bass is playing a C, and the singer is moving around between the notes E and G, a C major chord is implied, even if no other instruments are playing.
The opening instrumental hook of “Only Girl (In The World)” demonstrates the concept of the implied chord. The dancing 8th-note figure outlines an F#m chord, and pitch memory allows the listener to put it all together to hear the triad:
The entire first verse is built over that hook, with a very subtle bass line implying different harmonies depending on where it moves. The hook implies an F#m chord, but only if F# is being played in the bass. Throughout the verse, the bass moves to D (implying Dmaj7), and B (implying Bm9).
The sparseness of the harmonies comes from the transparency of the hook; you don’t hear a guitar or keyboard filling in the chords. Fuller chords are saved for the chorus, where the synth and bass together make harmonies more evident. And because the chorus features fuller chords, we perceive more energy. And energetic choruses are exactly what we need in this kind of song.
“Only Girl (In The World)” also shows us how repeated elements benefit by making subtle instrumental adjustments. In this song, the bass is dropped at the start of the first chorus, brought in again for a second run through. It’s a great technique, because when we hear the bass disappear, we find ourselves wanting and expecting to hear it return. It makes a second run of the chorus practically mandatory.
In your own songs, look for ways to use implied harmonies and instrumental changes as a way of avoiding monotonous repetition. Follow these general rules:
- Implied harmonies and sparse instrumentation should precede full chords and fuller instrumentation.
- Don’t allow instrumental changes to be too dramatically different. In the case of “Only Girl (In The World)”, dropping the bass was the only significant change.
- Consider the kind of lyric as a guide for when to use implied harmony and sparse instrumentation. Emotional lyrics usually require fuller chords and instrumentation.
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