Not every song needs a surprising moment, but a well-placed shot of excitement can be what your song is missing.
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When you ask songwriters what part of their songs generally grab listeners and keep them listening, they’ll probably answer with “the chorus” and/or “the hook.” Beyond the strength of their structure, songs often need something else to attract listeners. Hit songs, and particularly the choruses, tend to be quite hook-heavy, and it’s a way of presenting something attractive to the listener that ensures they keep coming back. Not all songs present hooks as front-and-centre elements. If you’re looking for a way to add a magical moment to your songs, you might consider what could be called a “musical surprise.” It can be every bit as effective as a hook.
The kind of surprise I’m talking about here can range from the subtle to the obvious. Some are the kinds of things you can add at the production level, during recording (a favourite technique of The Beatles), while others are the kinds of things you should be thinking about as you write your song.
Here’s a list of things that you might want to think about to add an exciting moment to your songs. Lots of song examples listed below, so do a YouTube search for any that aren’t familiar to you:
- The Time Signature Surprise. Most songs in pop music genres are in 4/4 time. But it can be pleasantly exciting to throw in a bar of music from a different meter. This can be a bar randomly thrown in, or you can try something like a verse in one meter, and the chorus in another (“Lucy in the Skies with Diamonds”)
- The Rhythmic Surprise. This can happen in a variety of ways. For example, you can try anticipating the beat, where the instruments, instead of hitting on beat 1, will all hit together on the pickup to beat 1. (The instrumental bridge in “I’m Easy”, by the Commodores, for example). You can also try inserting momentary silences. This can be very effective in rhythmically energetic music.
- The Key Change Surprise. Most songs start and finish in the same key, but you can try a verse in one key and a chorus in a different one. It’s particularly effective (though tricker to do) when the two keys are not closely related. That kind of harmonic surprise, when well done, can generate considerable song energy. (“Layla”, by Derek and the Dominoes, where the verse is in C#minor and the chorus is in D minor.)
- The Instrumental Surprise. An instrumental surprise is anything that suddenly appears that hasn’t been set up or prepared in the existing instrumentation. But really, any time you use an instrument that’s not normally used in your chosen genre can be a surprise, of sorts. So things like bagpipes (“Mull of Kintyre”, by Paul McCartney), ukelele (“Hey, Soul Sister”) by Train, or theremin (“Good Vibrations”, by The Beach Boys) might qualify.
- The Stylistic Surprise. This is an effect that works best when you move from one tune to another as you create a playlist. But it can work to suddenly change styles in the middle of a song as well. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” from A Night at the Opera is a good example.
People like being surprised when they listen to music, as long as the surprise supports the intent of the song. If it’s done sort of “tongue-in-cheek”, like another example from A Night at the Opera, “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon”, it can add a charming moment. But don’t get wrapped up in your own joke. Do the funny moment, and then move on.
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