Singing higher and louder is a pretty obvious way to make a song more energetic. But playing around with the rhythms can be a better way to go.
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You’ll probably notice that I write about song energy a lot. For me, energy is what it’s all about. And I don’t mean “Is your song energetic enough.” I simply mean “What happens to your song’s energy over the 4 minutes of its existence?” Even quiet songs have energy that must be carefully sculpted and controlled. Songs where the energy level moves up and down seemingly randomly just don’t cut it. Such songs leave listeners feeling lost.
There are obvious ways you can control the apparent energy level of your music. Singing and playing higher, louder and faster usually does it. But that’s pretty obvious. As a songwriter, you need to equip yourself with tools that can nudge energy up and down with a bit more subtlety. For my money, playing around with a song’s rhythm gives you great opportunities to configure the energy of your music.
Songs should generally increase in energy as they proceed. That’s a basic songwriting principle. But that augmentation of energy is rarely a straight line; usually, energy will increase, decrease, then increase again as the song advances.
Linkin Park’s “Numb” is a great model for the typical way song energy does this increase-decrease pattern. Give it a listen, and you’ll see that the verse is relatively quiet, followed by a chorus that suddenly really pumps it up. The intro that starts the song shows both of those energy traits. As the song moves forward, there’s a typical quiet-verse-louder-chorus pattern.
But those energy fluctuations in “Numb” don’t make great use of rhythm as an implement for shaping energy. For that, check out the following ideas:
- Layer syncopation against a beat. Syncopation means the purposeful displacing of the beat. So listen to the intro of “Moves Like Jagger.” The rhythm guitar plays a syncopated rhythm that generates a particular energy level. The energy suddenly increases (but only subtly) when the kick drum comes in with an on-the-beat pattern.
- Switch from syncopation to on-the-beat. This is a variation on the first idea, and it works really nicely if your verse uses lots of syncopation in the rhythm of the melody. Eliminating the syncopations for the chorus, switching to a more on-the-beat approach causes a nice energy rise.
- Start a musical phrase on the pick-up-beat to beat 1. This is a favourite technique for choruses, where all instruments will start together on the upbeat to the chorus, rather than right on beat 1. With everyone diving in before beat 1, there’s a momentary energy surge.
- Drop beats occasionally. This amounts to a time signature change. Most songs will be in a typical 4/4 time signature. It can cause a brief energy rise to eliminate a beat. Listeners often aren’t even aware that the time signature change has happened, but the resulting energy works well, especially in choruses.
- Shorten one musical phrase, and add it to the next. Listen to the instrumental bridge of The Commodore’s “Easy” (around 3’03”), and take note of the subtle increase of song energy that that kind of syncopation causes.
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