Musical Momentum, and How to Create It

You’ve got a great song if listeners can hear contrasting elements throughout. Here’s how to do that.


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ConcertIn almost every blog article I write, I make reference to song energy or momentum. But what is it? How important is it? Does it occur naturally, or is it something you can control as a songwriter?

You’re usually more aware of the effect of musical momentum more than the cause: you want to keep listening. What’s trickier to define is how to create it.

Momentum is closely linked to the contrast principle. In music, the contrast principle is in play when we place opposites in close proximity. For example, you’re experiencing the contrast principle when:

  1. you like how the long, wandering verse of Paul Simon’s “My Little Town” switches to a chorus that uses a short, thigh chord progression and melodic idea;
  2. you like how the low-pitched verse of Train’s “This Ain’t Goodbye” switches to a high-pitched chorus;
  3. you like how the instrumentation and volume builds throughout “Stairway to Heaven;”

The contrast principle is also the reason why you like key changes, chords that switch from minor to major, and long crescendos that take the music from soft to loud.

Musical momentum is generated not just when contrast happens; it’s created even when we think something different is going to happen, however subtle that something is going to be. For example, if you suddenly drop all instruments from a mix for one of your chorus repeats, listeners expect those instruments to be brought back in at some point, and it creates a spark of energy that keeps the listener hooked.

Many of the things I’m talking about here are production-level decisions, but there are things you can do to ensure that your songs generate momentum, and keep the listener listening. These days, when you’re possibly writing, producing and recording your own music, you’ll want to keep the following in mind:

  1. Keep verse melodies low in pitch relative to the chorus, then allow the melody to rise as it meets the chorus.
  2. Allow instruments to become busier (rhythmically) in the chorus than in the verse.
  3. Allow the vocal rhythms to elongate in the chorus relative to the verse.
  4. Use backing vocals more in choruses than in verses.
  5. Change the focus of the key when comparing the verse and the chorus (e.g., switch from a mainly minor verse to a mainly major chorus).
  6. Use a good variety of volumes throughout your song. Let the listener experience a complete range from soft to loud.
  7. Make use of rhythmic devices such as syncopation, double-time, etc., as a way of generating and maintaining musical interest.

In short, you want to use a variety of techniques for creating a sense within the listener that something different is about to happen. This always needs to be balanced carefully with the comfort that comes from repetition and predictability. When balanced well, you’ve generated momentum and energy that will keep your audience from turning away.


Written by Gary Ewer – Follow Gary on Twitter 

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