Making Use of Musical Ambiguity in Your Songwriting

There is a pattern you’ll notice in most pop songs, which is that as they move along, they alternate between sections that are ambiguous in nature and sections that are much clearer and easy to understand. I like using the terms “fragile” and “strong”:

Fragile-Strong pattern of songs

In many songs, that “fragile-strong” labelling is synonymous with “verse-chorus” structure. Verses are where you might hear a considerable amount of musical ambiguity, and choruses are where things tighten up and sound clearer, feature a strong hook, and become more pleasantly predictable.

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You’ll notice this in several ways:

  1. Chord Progressions. A fragile chord progression is one where the tonality might be a bit ambiguous. For example, if your verse starts with you alternating between Dm and Em, that would be a fragile progression: it might be two chords from C major, or perhaps A minor (natural form) — we can’t tell yet. The ambiguity is nice, and it’s the kind of progression that is more likely to be used in a verse than in a chorus.
  2. Lyrics. A fragile lyric is one where the actual meaning is unclear, or at least open for debate. It might also be the kind of lyric where questions are asked but not yet answered. Again, you’re more likely to hear these lyrics in a verse (or a bridge) than in a chorus.
  3. Melodic shape. A fragile melody is one in which
    1. the range is quite wide;
    2. the rhythms are quicker and more complex.

As listeners, we like this alternating back and forth between fragile sections and strong sections. Almost always, we like when songs start with a fragile section (“what is this song about?”), and then move to something stronger for the chorus (“This is what this song is about!”)

In some songs, the difference between a strong and fragile section might be almost non-existent, and that’s fine. Songs can have, for example, a short, strong chord progression as a feature of the verse, and then switch to another short, strong progression for the chorus. There is no rule that a verse must use fragile elements.

But musical ambiguity is a wonderful feature of songs. We love hearing things that are not so clear, as long as they are followed up by sections that are much more obvious. The best songs are the ones that make the best use of musical ambiguity.

The whole fragile-strong aspect of music can be an important part of analyzing your own songs once you’ve got them written. Record your new song, listen to it a few times, and then ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Regarding the lyric, does my verse set up situations, ask important questions, and give elements of a story bit by bit? Does the chorus then answer those questions and allow the listener a feeling of satisfaction in having most of those questions finally answered?
  2. Regarding the chord progression, does the verse progression pleasantly wander around, coming back strongly to the key as it approaches the chorus? It doesn’t need to, but it’s far better for a verse to do that than a chorus.
  3. Regarding melodic rhythm, does the verse melody exhibit more complexity and syncopation than the chorus?

For point #3 above, I love using “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”  as a great example of this. Listen to the verse, and notice how quick and rhythmically active the verse melody is. Once the chorus melody starts, the rhythms become shorter, more predictable, and locked into the beat.

As an exercise to more fully understand this concept, listen to some of your favourite songs from over the years, songs from different genres, tempos and performance styles. And you’ll notice that for most of them, the verse is where you’ll hear musical ambiguity, even in just a small amount. The chorus is where things tighten up, become more hook-driven, and become more pleasantly predictable.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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  1. Pingback: GARY EWER – Making Use of Musical Ambiguity in Your Songwriting | I Write The Music

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