Forward motion grabs listeners, and keeps them listening. Here are some ideas for how to create it.
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There are several words and terms relating to songwriting that get used almost interchangeably: forward motion, momentum, energy, power, and so on. They all relate to the attempt to create excitement in a song, the kind of excitement that keeps listeners coming back. No two songs are the same, of course, yet whether you’re talking about a driving, dynamic performance by Foo Fighters, or a quiet, introspective ballad by Bon Iver, all songs need forward motion.
Forward motion is the sense that whatever is happening at this very moment in a song will need some kind of response or resolution. Forward motion therefore is whatever keeps people listening. As you listen to your own songs, if you find that you feel bored, you’re likely noticing the absence of forward motion.
For some kinds of music, forward motion may be less important. For example, many dance genres feature a relatively static sense of energy. Ambient music concentrates more on an overall mood than on energy or momentum. But even in such music, forward motion is still necessary. That need is usually fulfilled by lyrics, harmonic progressions and subtleties of instrumentation, etc.
In standard pop music, forward motion relates to the principle of stress and release. As the musical elements you use create a sense of stress (i.e., something left open or unresolved), listeners instinctively want to hear a resolution.
So how do you do that? Here are five standard ways that songwriters of popular music genres might create stresses that are then needing resolution:
- Create chord progressions that avoid the tonic chord. You especially see these in verses, because the point is to entice listeners on to the chorus, where the tonic chord appears more often, and is often (or usually) the goal of the chorus.
- Create melodies that avoid the tonic note. Audiences don’t usually have the musical knowledge or vocabulary to even know what a tonic note is, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t “sense” it. There is a feeling of repose and resolution that comes especially when the tonic note and chord coincide. So creating melodies that purposely avoid that situation means that listeners instinctively wait around until they hear it – usually at the end of a chorus.
- Create chord progressions that move into a different tonal area. There are times when we change keys in music, and it’s done to build energy or to simply create harmonic interest. I’m talking about moving everything up a semitone, or a tone, for example. Those kinds of key changes build energy. But I’m talking about something a little different: moving a song into the relative minor (i.e., moving from the key of C major to the key of A minor). Such a change will seem different enough to a listener that they’ll instinctively expect to hear the original key return. This creates, therefore, a strong sense of forward motion. This is typically what happens in many song bridges.
- Describe situations or people in such a way as to require some sort of emotional response. In lyric writing, when an audience hears a singer describe a situation using words that are not overly emotional, they naturally anticipate an emotional response. It’s what usually happens between verses (mostly descriptive) and choruses (mostly emotional). It’s why being overly emotional in a verse can kill the forward motion of the song: they’ve already heard your emotional response, and there’s not much reason to wait to hear more.
- Drop important instruments from the mix. If your song uses a standard guitar-bass-drums instrumentation, choosing a moment during the song to drop one of those instruments creates an impression of a musical vacuum. Listeners inherently know that when an important instrument is dropped, it will return. It’s a strong inducement to keep listening.