Using Instruments to Grab and Keep Listener Interest

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Rock ConcertMost songs will use at least two distinct melodies, one for the verse and one for the chorus. It’s not always that way, of course. Some songs will use the same melody throughout the song (“Born in the USA”, for example). Others will use a verse and chorus melody that sound quite similar to each other, or a song that’s simply a succession of verse melodies.

The problem with songs that use verse and chorus melodies that sound very similar is this: How do you keep the audience from getting bored from hearing that melody over and over again?

The solutions are usually found in the production/recording stage. You need to do things, usually instrumentally, that keep the audience listening — that keep them interested. When done well, a song with a well-crafted instrumental design will divert the audience’s attention away from the fact that the melodies throughout the tune all sound pretty much the same.

A good example of the dilemma of making a song with a repetitious melody sound interesting is Coldplay’s “A Sky Full Of Stars,” which really has just one main melody over mostly one chord progression.

As the song proceeds, the melody moves up and down, but each rendition bears great resemblance to the one before it. Essentially, before the song is one minute old, you’ve heard everything you’re going to hear.

So the challenge is, what do you do to make the fact that the melody is so repetitious less obvious? Coldplay’s solution is found entirely in the approach to instrumentation. Good song design means that the energy level of the music will rise and fall, but generally over time in an upward direction, not unlike a good stock market chart.

If you give “A Sky Full Of Stars” a few listens, you’ll hear that it fluctuates between a subdued instrumental approach at the beginning, building to the song’s first climactic moment at about the 1’20” mark, back to lower energy by 1’45”, back to full-on power at 2’53.” The song’s most climactic moments happen at 3’25”, after which the power is allowed to diminish to the end.

Here’s a chart that helps you visualize these ups and downs. It’s been colour-coded to let you see it at a glance: moments in the song that are calm are coloured green; as energy builds it goes through yellow, on its way to red to signify the song’s most powerful moments.

Sky Full of Stars

All of this is achieved by:

  1. The number of instruments included in the mix.
  2. The pitch range of the instruments at any given time.
  3. The adding of instruments that access the highest frequency ranges, such as cymbals and other similar instruments.
  4. The dynamics (loudness) of the instruments used.
  5. The adding of extra vocals.

In addition to the instrumental manipulations, you’ll also notice the chords (Ebm  Cb  Gb  Bbm) change ever-so-slightly at the end, finally including the dominant (Db) chord: Cb  Dbsus4(7)  Ebm. There is a lot of power in a dominant chord, as it strongly anticipates the tonic chord — even if the tonic doesn’t appear at the end.

It’s easy to tell when music is boring, but not so easy to tell exactly why. If your song uses melodies of similar structure and design throughout, you often need to turn to the song’s instrumental design to solve the problem.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. $95.70 $37.00 (and you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

Posted in Melody, Song Form and tagged , , , , , , .

One Comment

  1. The best songs ever written can sound great with just one instrument backing the
    singer or singers.
    When the marriage between words and music is perfect we don’t need,
    embellishment by way of an assortment of backing vocals or instruments

    However very few songs that have made the top of the charts in the last twenty
    years, are masterpieces, they are in general bought by young fans because
    they have something that is fashionable, even a Fantastic video can do the trick
    but Professor Gary Ewer, is correct because today’s songs are rarely
    masterpieces. written by people who have not really studied or mastered the
    art of True Song Writing.

    Most songs that ride the top of their respective charts, do not stand the test of time.

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