When songs work well, it means that all elements are partnering well with each other. When it comes to good music, nothing in music happens in isolation. That’s one of the important principles explored in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle. Read more..
In music, forward motion is the sense that musical tension is about to be resolved. It’s a bit of a complex concept, but it’s an important one for songwriters to get a handle on. Forward motion is largely responsible for keeping listeners listening. Without forward motion, music can come across as stagnant and uninteresting.
In song melodies, forward motion can be created in a number of different ways, including:
- avoiding the placing the tonic note on a strong beat.
- using instrumentation as part of the formal design.
- using the overall dynamic level (i.e., loudness) as part of the formal design.
- partnering with a thought-provoking lyric.
As a great model of these four particular characteristics, you might want to give “Someone You’d Admire“, written by Robin Pecknold for his band Fleet Foxes. (The album “Helplessness Blues”, released in 2011, is a great album you’ll want to consider giving a listen. (iTunes)
“Someone You’d Admire” is a verse-only design, so it’s a good song for judging how a melody can take on the responsibility, more or less on its own, of creating forward motion. Let’s take the four points listed above in order, and look specifically at how Pecknold crafts the melody to create a pleasant sense of musical tension and motion.
- The tonic note is B, but you don’t hear that note often. A tonic note represents “home” in music, and gives a sense of repose when you hear it, particularly if it’s placed on a strong beat. This song’s melody begins on the 3rd of the key (D# in the key of B major), and the tonic note is only ever heard in a passing sense, never placed strongly. This creates a sense of musical tension in the best sense of that term, and the listener is compelled to keep listening for an eventual resolution.
- The instrumentation of “Someone You’d Admire” is entirely guitar-based, starting with simple strummed acoustic guitar. A second guitar enters the mix after the first verse, and the strumming becomes more intense. After the second verse, the strum reverts to the sound of verse 1. So the climactic moment, however subtle, occurs at the end of the second verse. The listener hears the instrumentation change as the music progresses – an important part of creating forward motion. The simple vocal harmony, which generally follows the melody line a 3rd higher, is an important partner in the instrumental design of the song.
- The dynamics build, particularly in the instrumental presentation, through to the end of verse 2. As an audience hears music crescendo, there is a natural tendency to feel compelled to keep listening to hear where it’s all heading. Even in a song like this, the subtle treatment of dynamics is an important part of musical momentum.
- A thought-provoking lyric is a crucial element in the creating of forward motion. In “Someone You’d Admire,” you hear the complex thoughts of someone at an important crossroads in life, wondering where it’s all leading. The subtle shift from self-centred stock-taking (“After all is said and done I feel the same/ All that I hoped would change within me stayed“) to musing how his current relationship will unfold (“One of them wants only to be someone you’d admire/ One would as soon just throw you on the fire”) is lyrical momentum at its best, and partners beautifully with the instrumentation and dynamic level.
“Someone You’d Admire” is a great example of how nothing in music happens in isolation from other elements. All song elements work together to help or hinder the success of any song. Good music sounds magical, but there are almost always identifiable factors when a song succeeds, and these are factors that you can apply to your own songs.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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