Guitarist - songwriter

Musical Energy as a Songwriting Concept

Musical energy is a term that a lot of musicians use but find hard to define. You might use the word energy in a very nebulous sort of way, where it’s synonymous with intensity. With that usage of the word, most listeners of music would know what you mean if you said, “I really like the energy of this song.” They would take that to mean that the music is probably loud, rhythmically active, and is the kind of music that gets the blood pumping.

If you’re a songwriter, you can use a more sophisticated concept of energy to ensure that you captivate listeners, and keep them listening right to the end of your song. But specifically how?

Here’s a list of various elements we use as the building blocks of songs, and how they relate to musical energy:

  1. Loudness (volume) and instrumentation. This is the one everyone knows. Generally speaking, as a song gets louder, musical energy builds. An audience usually has a very positive reaction to this, and so it’s a common production technique: most songs are louder at the end than they are at the beginning.
  2. Lyrics. How does the term energy apply to lyrics? Lyrical intensity or energy rises when words express stronger emotions. Verses tend to use lyrics that are observational, and not so emotional. Choruses use lyrics that are more intensely emotional, and so lyrical energy rises. Throughout a song, therefore, you’ll usually experience the intensity or energy of lyrics rising and falling several times.
  3. Melody. Because melodies are usually conveyed via the human voice unless the song is an instrumental, the energy we perceive in music will increase as a melody rises. That’s because the human voice needs to be stronger as it moves higher. This usually goes hand-in-hand with lyrics.
  4. Chords. As chords move further and further away from the tonic chord, we feel a diminishing of musical energy or intensity. (Example: C  Am  F  G  Am  Bb  F…) Then, as the progression switches direction so that it moves back toward the tonic chord, musical energy intensifies. (Example:…Dm  C/E  F  Gsus4  G  C). Verses often use the I-chord as a kind of home base, wandering away from that chord. Chorus progressions are shorter, and target the tonic chord as an important endpoint.
  5. Rhythmic activity. Usually, the more actively an instrument plays, the more energy we perceive. In choruses, it’s not unusual for instruments to become more rhythmically active, and then scaling back for the return of the verse.

It’s fair to say, therefore, that musical energy is cyclical. Most of the elements within a song — lyrics, melody, chords, etc. — move up and down in intensity. Some of those elements will partner easily with other elements, and move up and down together, such as melodies and lyrics.

But others might move up and down in intensity in their own way. For example, volume might increase slowly over the entire length of a song, even as it moves from verse to chorus and back to verse again.

As a songwriter, it’s important that you find ways to allow the energy peaks of the various elements to coincide at various optimal times. This gives your song pleasant energy spikes. For example, you might find that you want a punchy sound to excite the audience at the beginning of your chorus. Therefore, you’ll want to have your chorus start with all instruments playing fairly loudly, the melody jumping up to a high note, and the lyrics to be highly emotional.

And in general (and this is an important songwriting principle), the energy we experience at the end of a song is usually more intense than the energy we experience at the beginning.

Musical energy is something you should think about as you write your song, but as you can see, there’s a lot you can do at the production level as well. You should use your time as a songwriter to craft melodies that move upward toward the chorus, write chorus lyrics that are more highly emotive, and chorus chords that focus on the tonic chord.

Then, as you begin the recording process, think about ways to enhance the instrumental approach to your song so that you support the energy you’ve already built into the song’s structure.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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