When too many ideas are vying for attention, the result can be musical chaos.
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There’s a good reason why most of the walls in your house are off-white. Pale, featureless walls provide the perfect backdrop for more interesting things to grab people’s attention, like pictures. A colourful wall with catchy patterns might be visually stimulating, but it would be next to impossible to have any other aspect of interior design work with it.
In successful music, some elements will move to the foreground and demand attention while other components stay in the background, assuming a supporting role. Sometimes that positioning of elements can fluctuate quickly, with a bit of sung lyric being quickly answered by a guitar lick that suddenly appears.
When there are too many elements vying for attention, the audience doesn’t know what they should be listening to, and the result is confusion.
Much of the time, getting foreground and background elements in some sort of balance is the job of a good producer, who can listen to a recording and suggest ways to clean up the recorded performance.
But sometimes, the imbalance between song elements, where too many features are trying to grab the audience’s attention at the same time, can be solved at the songwriting stage before you ever get into a studio to record the song.
Here’s a short list of ideas to think about as you compose your song. They’ll help you keep all the various aspects of your song in balance.
- Consider the natural rhythms of your lyric when creating your melody. In the end, your melody (specifically the melodic rhythm) needs to allow the words to sound natural. Syllables should usually get the stress they are supposed to get.
- Allow backing instrumental rhythms to fit in between melodic (vocal) rhythms. This means that the backing guitar, for example, should stay out of the way of the vocal line. While the singer is communicating the message of the song, the backing instruments can and should be content to be rhythmically supportive, but possibly even uninteresting. Listen to Jason Mraz’s “93 Million Miles“, from his Love Is A Four Letter Word for a fantastic demonstration of this kind of balance. In fact, the entire album is a treasure.
- Establish a regular pattern to chord changes. This pattern, called the harmonic rhythm, is an important part of a song’s overall energy. For most of the duration of a song, chord changes should happen with planned regularity. In most cases, that will be every 4 or 8 beats. Every time you switch that up and change a chord at an unexpected time, that can have the effect of drawing attention from the vocal line. This can have an exciting, pleasing effect, but it can also be disruptive if the regular pattern is disrupted too often.
- Build a background accompaniment that uses ideas from the foreground melody/lyric. One reason that backing instruments might sound intrusive is that they sound too independent of the foreground. An easy solution is to create backing rhythmic or melodic patterns that borrow important ideas from the foreground. An example of this can be found in John Denver’s “Fly Away“, where the intro presents melodic ideas that are borrowed from the vocal line, but in reverse. So when John Denver begins to sing, his rising melody is paired with a descending guitar line, and vice versa.
- Be careful accompanying a vocal line with a backing instrument playing the same line. In other words, a vocal line rarely needs to be supported with an instrument playing the same melody. That kind of technique can create a powerful effect if you’re reaching the climactic moment in a song, but otherwise can cause confusion as a background instrument sounds like it’s trying to compete with the foreground melody. Most of the time, a singer doesn’t really need that kind of support.
When you get the background and foreground in proper balance, a song truly becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Remember, it’s an important songwriting principle that no single component of a song acts in isolation from the other elements. Everything is considered together by the listener, and if there is an imbalance, the result can be musical chaos.
Written by Gary Ewer
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