How to Build Musical Anticipation

In music, anticipation is a vital part of what keeps people listening.


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Rock concertWe all know the word anticipation to mean an emotion generated at the thought of something (usually pleasant) that is expected to occur. Time plays an important role in creating anticipation. Things that are anticipated are usually things that will happen soon. When you anticipate meeting up with your friends, for example, you usually mean that you’ll be meeting them sooner rather than later.

Anticipation plays an important role in music. In music, we often think of anticipation as being similar to musical excitement. The best songwriters are the ones who can create a sense of excitement and expectation of good things about to happen.

So how do you do that? How do you create a sense of anticipation such that listeners want to keep listening to your songs? Here’s a list of musical devices that do that. Not all of them need to be in every song, of course. But some should be present. Compare what you see below to your latest composition:

  1. Loud versus soft: Music that comes out all at the same dynamic level runs the danger of being boring. Make sure your music has a good blend of louds and softs. When music which was loud suddenly becomes soft, the listener subconsciously expects things to get loud again, and that sense of anticipation keeps listeners riveted.
  2. Low versus high: Melodies that linger around the same 3 or 4 pitches may become boring as there isn’t enough pitch difference to generate interest. The solution is to create melodic lines that move up and down. When melodies move downward, there is an expectation that they’ll move up again, and that creates anticipation.
  3. Minor versus major: Some kinds of anticipation are created by the verse-chorus form. If you have a verse that uses mainly minor chords, and then switch to mainly major ones for the chorus, a return to the minor for verse 2 creates anticipation of the arrival of major once again for the next chorus. the minor–to-major harmonic progression is very common in pop music of the past 6 decades.
  4. Lyrics: Creating verse lyrics that ask lots of questions creates anticipation in the listener because they expect those questions to be answered soon, probably in the chorus, and if not there, certainly in the bridge.

Anticipation is a very subtle emotion in music. When it’s done well, listeners aren’t really aware of its effect. For every song you write, you need to ask yourself, “What have I done to create a sense of anticipation?”

Remember, anticipation is an emotion that requires timely satisfaction. A listener’s anticipation will fizzle if it takes too long to hear where things are going.


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