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We judge the quality of music, at least in part, by how much it excites us, and that’s true whether the song is fast and energetic (where it’s easy to generate excitement), or slow and pensive (where “excitement” is much more a term of nuance.)
The excitement a listener feels when experiencing music is effected by the following:
- Formal design and other songwriting-related considerations. For example, music is perceived as more exciting if it fluctuates back and forth between low energy (verses, for example) and high energy (choruses and (often) bridges.)
- The musical performance, whether live or recorded. A lacklustre band or weak vocalist can distract a listener, kill energy, and bore the audience.
- The quality of the live performance. A great performance can get an audience on their feet, cheering and fist-pumping. Only weird people do that at home, alone. So live performance can be an enormous generator of listener excitement.
There are probably other aspects of music that directly or indirectly affect our excitement for music, but certainly the first point above is the one over which you, as a songwriter, can have immediate and specific control.
So picture this scenario: you’ve written a song that you had been feeling really quite good about, but now that you hear the whole tune in its finished state, you’re scratching your head wondering why it sounds so boring. Here are some thoughts that can help you troubleshoot a boring tune:
- Listen objectively as you work, not just after. As a songwriter, you’re not just writing your song, you need to be listening. But unless you listen objectively, you’re not really going to have an idea of how it’s going until you’re pretty much finished. So as you work, stop frequently and play what you’ve written. Ask yourself, “Would I buy this tune?” Amazing how quickly solutions will present themselves when you do that. You need to develop the ability to listen as if someone else wrote it. Be brutally honest with yourself.
- Draw an “excitement map.” This will take some practice, but it’s interesting, fun, and very informative. First, make a recording of your finished song. Now, without listening to the song, take a piece of paper, turn it sideways (landscape), then draw a weaving, wavering line that goes from the left side of the page to the right, representing the several minutes of your song. As you think the energy of your song goes up, let the line move up. For those moments when the energy abates, let the line move down. Now take a new piece of paper, turn a recording of your song on, and do the same thing. Let the line move up and down as you experience the energy fluctuations. When you’re finished, compare the two graphs, and you might be in for a surprise. That exercise will at least show you where you thought things were supposed to excite you, but didn’t. It may take a few tries, but it can be very informative.
- Take a close look at the lyric. The main emotional response should usually be found in the chorus. The verse should be used for observations, or “first this happened” kinds of lines. Your chorus needs something to react to. A chorus is only emotional if you’ve set something up in the verse to generate that kind of response. So put the magnifying glass on your verse to see if you’ve done that.
- Look closely at the instrumentation. Add instruments in a chorus and take them away in a verse. If your song is done on one instrument, look for ways to modify the instrument’s performance style. For example, finger-picking versus strumming, versus muting, adding harmonics… these are all different and interesting guitar-playing styles that will have a direct impact on how people interpret the excitement of your music.
- Track the melody. The human voice automatically generates energy that’s easily perceived as it moves higher. So use that as a guide for how and when to move your melody up or down. Do this in direct partnership with the kinds of words you’re setting at any one moment.
These tips are easier to apply with loud, fast and energetic music. It’s trickier to do when it’s a slow ballad. But especially for ballads, properly tracking the energy levels of your music means that you’re diminishing the possibility of boring your audience. Slow, pensive tunes can be enormously effective, as practically any successful singer-songwriter demonstrates on any recording.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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