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Most of the time when we think about song energy we think about fast tempos, loud dynamics, and busy rhythms. Any single one, or combination, of those elements will usually pump up the power of your song. But there’s another way to generate song energy, and that’s to delay giving the listener what they were expecting to hear. An example of this might be to end a chord progression with a vi-chord instead of the tonic. The listeners’ senses heighten as they even more “need” to hear that tonic chord. Though subtle in effect, this kind of “delayed gratification” has a way of generating song energy, and is definitely worth experimenting with.
So chord progressions that move in directions that are unexpected, and especially end up in places that weren’t predictable will cause a small boost in song energy. It’s related to the stress/release phenomenon. Hearing something unexpected creates a moment of “stress” (good stress, of course), and the listener is more likely to stick with the song to experience the eventual release.
There are other ways you can incorporate delayed gratification moments in your songs. Here are some ideas to consider:
- Elongate a bar of music. Putting in a couple of extra beats, especially before a chorus, has a way of increasing energy because the listener is expecting the release that comes from hearing the first beat of the chorus. The delay, particularly if it’s filled with something like a drum fill, or an instrumental crescendo, increases energy.
- Create rhythmic syncopations. This works well especially if your song uses a typical straight-ahead beat pattern in the drums. Creating syncopations (i.e., displacing the expected beat by having a strong kick drum or snare hitting in between beats) increases energy because listeners feel a desire to hear the syncopation resolve to a regular rhythmic pattern within 1 or 2 bars.
- Add non-chord-tones to your chord progressions. A non-chord-tone is, as the name implies, a note that normally doesn’t belong to a chord. Probably the most common type is the suspension, where a tone you expected to hear is late in arriving, replaced by the note above it. So the progression C F Gsus4 G C generates more energy than C F G C.
- Drop an instrument from the mix. Listeners instinctively know that as music progresses, the norm is to add instruments to, not subtract them from, the mix. So when you remove an instrument, like a bass, drum set, or chording instrument, the listener assumes it’s a temporary change, and energy increases as they wait for the instrument to be brought back in.
Any one or mixture of those ideas will increase song energy, and the nice thing about them is that their effect is subtle. While pumping up the volume and adding more complex backing rhythms are obvious ways of stoking the fire, it’s the subtle ways listed above that listeners may find more intriguing and effective.
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