Building Song Energy is Usually an “Ebb and Flow” Thing

Musical energy should build and die away several times throughout a song’s length.


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KeyboardThere aren’t many musical compositions that start at a low energy level, and then build energy in a straight line to the end. For most songs, energy is something that ebbs and flows constantly. But even with the ups and downs of the basic momentum of a song, you’ll want the end to be at least as energetic as the beginning, and probably more so. That ensures that listeners keep listening.

One notable exception to the “ebbing and flowing” guideline is the French composer Maurice Ravel’s famous “Bolero.” Approximately 14-18 minutes length (depending on the conductor’s tempo), Ravel carefully adds instruments to the orchestration, resulting in what can be described as quite possibly the longest uninterrupted crescendo in musical history.

But in popular music genres, the building up, then dissipating of, musical energy is an important way that we keep listeners listening. Why? Because when someone hears energy dying away, their innate musical instincts tell them that it’s going to build up again, and that entices them to keep listening.

It’s important not to confuse the term “energy” in songwriting to necessarily mean “liveliness,” though it may be that. Energy, from a songwriter’s perspective, is any aspect of music that creates the need for some sort of resolution.

For example, some songs sound largely the same at the end as they do at the beginning, with an unchanging instrumentation, temp0, basic beat, and dynamic level. (Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote”, for example). The sense of energy build (i.e., forward motion) comes from the lyric, which tells an enticing, metaphorical story.

There are many obvious ways to build energy through a song: get louder, play/sing higher, and so on. And there are some less obvious ways, including:

  • temporarily eliminate an instrument from the mix. Listeners know that you’ll end with at least the instruments you started with, and this triggers a natural instinct to keep listening;
  • write a lyric that asks questions, or only partially describes a situation in the verse. Listeners will feel the need to hear the rest of the story;
  • write a verse melody that substitutes a high note for an increasingly higher note for each verse;
  • include a song section (bridge, solo, or other miscellaneous kind of segment) that strays significantly from the verse/chorus sound. This might include changing key, changing tempo, or even changing the instrumentation. Any departure from a song’s norm usually needs to be followed up by a return to something familiar.

You’ll notice that the commonality here is that all those features rely on the listener’s instinct to hear things repeat, to hear aspects return. That “tension/release” approach to songwriting is an essential part of the art of composition.

In most cases, you’ll not want to try a Ravel approach of building energy in a straight line. It works well to allow energy to build, then die back a little, then build it again, and so on until your song’s end. In other words, think of a stock market chart for a successful company. The line moves up and down, but over time you should see it generally rising.


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