One of the interesting qualities of music is its ability to affect our mood, perhaps even to generate certain moods. Politicians certainly know this; musical choice is an important consideration at rallies and speeches.
There are some aspects of music that immediately come to mind when we think about controlling the mood a song portrays. For example, though it’s a bit of a stereotype, we tend to think of minor keys as being good for introspective, thoughtful or even sad topics, and we think of major keys as being good for happier, more positive songs.
If you’re having a bit of trouble generating the kind of audience mood that you’re hoping for, here are some other lesser-known ideas to try — ways in which your songs can have a deeper and more forceful impact on the mood of your listeners.
- Descending bass lines for melancholy, inward-looking or thought-provoking lyrics and moods. Example: “Changes” (David Bowie) This is not as simple as saying that rising bass lines are happy and descending bass lines are sad. It’s more that the descending bass line can often draw attention to matters of personal conflict or even triumph. A bass line, as it moves down, can deepen those more sobering emotions, especially if, in the case of “Changes”, it’s coupled with a steady rhythmic treatment.
- Rising bass lines for hopeful, positive moods. There’s a nice moment near the end of Genesis’ “Suppers Ready” where the rising bass line, happening after a lengthy bass pedal point, injects a strong feeling of optimism. Rising bass lines will require chord progressions that can accommodate them, so you’ll need to spend some time working them out. One example: C G/D C/E F S/F# G E/G# Am G/B C)
- Pedal point bass to deepen any mood. Examples: “Too High” (Stevie Wonder) (mainly the intro), “Jump” (Van Halen, written by Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, Michael Anthony, David Lee Roth). There’s something about a pedal point — a bass note that stays the same while the chords change above it — that enhances whatever the mood your music and lyrics is trying to portray. Any chord progression will work with a bass pedal point, and it takes some experimentation to decide what it can do for your song. Try this: If you use it in your chorus, avoid it in your verse, and vice versa.
- Instrumentation. It’s not just what you’re playing that influences mood… think also about which instruments you’re using. I’m not sure that McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre” would have had the same effect had he not chosen to include an instrumental break played by bagpipes. Think also of Tony Levin’s iconic bass line in Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up”, from his 1986 “So” album, and the quirky synth in the intro of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” Your choice of instruments can be a crucial part of setting and maintaining a mood.
- Tempo, loudness and rhythmic activity. These are non-specific qualities in the sense that there’s no principle in place to say that busier, faster or louder music will have this or that affect. But tempo choice, paired with the length of your notes (i.e., rhythmic activity) are something you’ll want to think about, particularly as you’re recording your songs. You might find that slowing a song down slightly, or speeding it up slightly, can bring out the mood you’ve been looking for, so it’s definitely worth experimenting. In addition to loudness, think of ways to affect loudness by adding or subtracting instruments.
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