Predictability can be an important part of what keeps listeners hooked to your music.
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All good songs are a mixture of predictable and unpredictable events. We don’t like thinking that our music is in any way predictable, but in fact, even complex music with abstract lyrics and odd melodies and chords will be balanced somewhat toward predictable.
The alternative is to have everything you write be unpredictable, but that usually results in music that doesn’t please anyone. The best songs are a balance of the two characteristics, with that balance rather heavily toward the predictable end.
There is a general principle that’s well-worth keeping in mind as you write your songs: good music tends to move from less predictable to more predictable features as you move from verse to chorus. Once you start in on verse 2, of course, you move back to less predictable, and the sequence repeats.
So what does that mean for the individual elements you tend to find in most songs? Here’s a list:
- Chord progressions. Verses work well with either tonally strong or tonally fragile progressions, but most verses sound good with a tonally fragile one. (A fragile progression is one that leaves the specific key a bit ambiguous. Read more here.) Once you reach the chorus, the chords should strengthen and shorten, and generally be more predictable.
- Melodies. A verse melody can ramble a bit and take a longish journey, but once you reach the chorus, the melodic ideas should simplify and become more predictable and repetitive.
- Lyrics. A verse lyric usually tells a story, so to the extent that the story isn’t known yet can be somewhat unpredictable. Once you reach the chorus, however, the emotional outpouring should be what the audience was expecting, and in that sense will be more predictable than the verse.
- Rhythm. Backing instruments in a verse will often feature interesting rhythmic interplay and syncopations, emphasizing beats other than the strong 1 and 3 of a 4/4 time signature. Once you get to the chorus, rhythms should become stronger, simpler and more predictable.
As you can see, the most common procedure is to move from unpredictable elements in the verses to more predictable ones in the chorus. It feels right to the listener. And that means, of course, that over the length of a song the audience will experience a moving back-and-forth from less to more predictable.
That fluctuation from less to more predictable is an important part of what is known as the contrast principle. It’s usually what keeps audiences hooked in to your song.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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