The Role of Song Energy: It’s All Relative

Energy is what propels your song forward and keeps listeners interested. But it can be a subtle quality.


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Sufjan StevensIt’s a basic principle of songwriting that energy should increase as your song progresses. The energy at the end of a song will usually exceed that of the beginning. On the face of it, it seems like a simple concept. But when you think about song energy, you’re probably thinking about “energetic songs”, which is not really what we’re talking about here. Even very quiet songs with a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment need to consider energy to be a crucial ingredient. In fact, it might be true to say that the less energetic a song sounds, the more important the concept of energy is to its success.

For songs that get noticeably more energetic as they proceed, song energy is easy to create:

  1. Build the instrumentation (Simon & Garfunkel: “Bridge Over Troubled Water“)
  2. Allow instruments to become louder and rhythmically busier (Peter Gabriel: “Solsbury Hill“)
  3. Move the key upward (Theme from “Gilligan’s Island” 😉
  4. Increase the tempo (Chicago: “Oh, Thank You Great Spirit“)
  5. A mixture of almost everything! (Led Zeppelin: “Stairway to Heaven“)
But what about songs that seem to stay pretty much at the same energy level from beginning to end?
  1. Joni Mitchell: “Coyote
  2. Madeleine Peyroux: “Dance Me to the End of Love” (written by Leonard Cohen)
  3. Sufjan Stevens: “Abraham

What role does energy play in the success of these three songs? It could be argued that energy plays an even more important role than the first five listed above. Because the fluctuations in energy are so subtle, so almost nonexistent, even the smallest build or reduction becomes a big deal.

You’ll notice that with “Coyote”, “Dance Me to the End of Love” and “Abraham”, the instrumentation, tempos, rhythmic energy and key all remain the same from beginning to end. The musical arrangements do not rely on manipulating those standard qualities in order to generate energy.

So if the principle still holds, that song energy should increase as a song progresses, how do you do it with very quiet songs that seem to generate almost no energy in the first place?

A lot of the responsibility for manipulating song energy in very quiet, ballad-like songs lies with the lyric. You need to create a lyric that generates that vital aspect of tension and release. In that sense, the principle of song energy intersects with the contrast principle: songs without contrast are likely to come across as boring to the listener.

“Coyote” may seem uninteresting to the casual listener, but following the lyric carefully gives you a great story, full of metaphor, plays on words, and other poetic devices. Discounting for the moment the energy that comes from the melodies themselves, those lyrical manipulations are largely responsible for generating the song’s sense of energy and forward motion.

The poetic structure of Leonard Cohen’s lyric, “Dance Me to the End of Love” is even subtler. The evenness of the lyrical approach requires an evenness of musical affect. And the energy of “Abraham” is carefully sculpted with very scant instrumental effects as the song progresses.

The point here is that when it comes to song energy, everything is relative. For quiet, introspective music, most of the job of building energy comes from the lyric, and the unfolding of the storyline. And a little goes a long way.

Try this mini experiment: take your latest song, record it, and listen to various isolated moments along the timeline. If you find that instrumentation, key, tempo, and rhythm remain relatively stable throughout the length of your song, you need to be sure that you’ve got an excellent lyric that’s helping to generate energy. It’s what will keep it from being boring.


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