Coaxing the Listener to Keep Listening

The most important effect of a properly-written song is that people who start listening to it want to keep listening through to the end.


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AudienceWhen you analyze hit songs from the past several decades, you learn important things that apply to the music you’re currently writing. For instance, a “typical” hit song has an intro that lasts about 15 seconds; most hit songs get to the chorus by about the 45th second. But beyond that, how do you ensure that people who start listening to your song will keep listening? How do you make sure that they won’t simply click on to some other song and abandon yours? That part is tricky, but a large part of success in musical composition has to do with song energy. Energy usually ebbs and flows as a song progresses, but should generally be in an upward direction when comparing the beginning of a song to the end.

When we use the term song energy, most people immediately think of the loudness of the music, the tempo, the drums, and so on. But that’s really only just a part of what gets counted as contributing to song energy. We don’t usually think of things like a lyric as contributing to the energy of a song, but it does. And other things as well: key changes, instrumentation, and instrumental range, for example.

The energy level that a listener experiences at the end of a song is usually higher than at the beginning, and that’s a large part of what pulls listeners in and keeps them listening. But many things contribute to song energy, and it’s common to use several different contributing elements.

So here’s a short list of the kinds of things that happen in songs that build energy. Some of these happen at the songwriting stage (lyrics, key change and tempo choices), while others are aspects that are addressed at the production stage (instrumentation, range and rhythmic backing):

  1. Lyrical energy. Lyrical energy is generated when situations or people are described. So verses, where these kinds of descriptive lyrics are usually found, generate energy through the natural process of story-building. The culmination of this kind of energy happens in the chorus, where the most emotion is generated. It’s then normal for the energy to subside a bit as the chorus ends and the second verse starts (hence the normal “ebb and flow” aspect of lyrical energy).
  2. Instrumental energy. If instrumental accompaniment changes throughout a song, it’s normal to use a larger instrumentation in a chorus than in a verse. Later choruses will likely use an even greater number of instruments (for example, adding percussion, strings, brass shots, etc.) In addition, instruments will explore higher ranges as a way of generating energy.
  3. Rhythmic energy. You can generate energy by increasing the rhythmic activity of your backing instruments as the song progresses, particularly during the bridge and into the final chorus repeats.
  4. Key change. Moving the key upward generates energy, but it needs to be done with care as it can come across as a bit trite, especially if done too often. A typical place for a key change is at the end of the bridge, for the final chorus repeats. Upward key changes are common, and downward-moving ones are rare.
  5. Tempo change. Most songs start and end with the same tempo. But one way to give the impression of an energy build is to allow energy to dissipate with a slower bridge, then re-build at the end of the bridge with the return of the original tempo. (Think of Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds”).

Songs that maintain a horizontal energy line, such as many ballads, typically rely on strong lyrics to give the impression of energy development. So in the absence of most energy builders, a lyric needs to be strong enough to pull the listener along and keep them listening.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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