When we think about a song’s energy level, particularly as it pertains to the instrumental choices, we often think about how much energy we can generate by adding instruments into the mix. That’s a pretty instinctive approach, and it has worked in almost every genre, in any era. Eighties’ power ballads took this to extremes. If you remember Air Supply’s “All Out of Love“, you know what I’m talking about.
But creating energy peaks by pumping the instrumentals higher and higher can have a dated sound, and isn’t the only way to create the impression of instrumental contour. Another way which works well especially for songs that are a bit more “quiet ballad” in character is to look for areas of your song where you can do the opposite: reduce instrumentation.
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So we’re talking more about production here than songwriting, though it can affect songwriting by changing the shape and range of the melody. By reducing instrumentation, you create a pleasant contrast from what precedes that quieter moment. Then by simply adding instruments back to original levels, you give the impression that you’re building energy by building instrumentation. Of course, you’re not really adding instruments to the mix; you’re simply reintroducing what was already there.
A good contemporary example of this can be heard in the new single, “Mayflies“, recorded by English singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich, and co-written with Joe Janiak. It’s a wonderful song of very engaging simplicity. The instrumentation is relatively static throughout, and pleasantly understated: synths, acoustic guitars, drums & bass.
The verse instrumentations are scaled back a bit, and then, to allow the chorus instrumentations a bit more pop, the pre-chorus instrumentation is reduced further (and the rhythmic activity considerably relaxed), before coming back in with the fuller instrumental component we heard in the intro.
So it’s the creating of instrumental contour (and, in that sense, energy peaks), by reducing, not adding:
The same technique is used in what is for all intents and purposes the song’s bridge.
The benefits of thinking about places to reduce the instrumentation are numerous, but the main benefit is that it helps to prevent what should be a relatively quiet song from getting too powerful, too loaded up with production. It helps preserve the simplicity of your musical arrangement.
Every element of a song’s construction can contribute to what we think of as its basic energy. Even lyrics have a way of generating energy by adding or avoiding emotion-laden words.
Instrumentation, however, is perhaps the most noticeable way we have to craft an energy that an audience hears and understands immediately. Instead of always thinking about increasing energy by adding instruments, consider doing the opposite: find moments in your music to reduce instrumentation. It helps preserve the pleasant simplicity of a quieter ballad.
(“Mayflies” is a single from Benjamin Francis Leftwich’s album, “After The Rain” – Get it on his website.)
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