What do we mean by a song’s “character?” In most cases, we’re talking about the mood or feel that we pick up from it. And we have all sorts of words that might otherwise be described as “character” words: “gentle”, “edgy”, “aggressive”, “laid back”, “dark”, and so on.
Whether we know it or not, a song’s overall character is one of the first things we establish in the songwriting process. Especially when using the chords-first and melody-first songwriting processes, we’re immediately aware of the kind of mood we want the music to convey.
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That sense of mood is also one of the first things an audience picks up when hearing your song for the first time, so it needs to be a vital part of the songwriting process.
There are several qualities that contribute to the mood or character of a song:
- key choice (relating specifically to placement of the voice in the lead vocal line)
- rhythm of the lead line
- backing rhythms
- harmonic rhythm (how often chords change, mainly determined by how many notes of melody happen before one chord changes to the next one)
There are probably other aspects of a song involved, but that list will do for now.
More than anything, you do not want the character of your songs be something that happens randomly as you throw all those qualities together. You want to maintain control over how your songs feel to an audience.
Here are 3 quick tips for dealing with the character of the songs you write:
- Make the determination early in the songwriting process regarding how you want your song to “feel”.
- Allow yourself the freedom to change a song’s character as lyrics, melody and musical meaning dictate.
- Experiment a lot with the feel of a song.
Now, let’s take a quick look at the qualities in the bullet list above and see how experimenting with each one might change the character of the music:
- TEMPO: Faster tempos build energy and allow the music to be more aggressive and edgy. Slower tempos encourage listeners to focus on deeper meaning in the words of the lyric, and allow for more subtle shadings of meaning. (I feel that most songwriters need to experiment more with this attribute!)
- KEY CHOICE: Higher keys place the voice in a higher tessitura. This allows for a more aggressive style to come through. Lowering the key makes the music sound more relaxed.
- INSTRUMENTATION: Producers consider the instrumentation (production) of the music as a vital contributor to feel. As you listen to your favourite songs, think about how the choice of instrumental sounds is contributing to the character you pick up from the song. Now think about your own songs. Are they helping or hindering the mood you’re trying to convey?
- RHYTHM OF THE LEAD LINE. Vocal lines that use more syncopation and other rhythmic devices generate more musical energy. Vocal lines that use longer note values and simpler rhythms generate more emotional energy.
- BACKING RHYTHMS. How your instrumental accompaniment uses rhythm can be a major contributor to the feel or character of a song. Experiment with simplifying rhythm, and then try adding in rhythmic complexity until you’ve got something that matches the message of your song.
- HARMONIC RHYTHM. How often chords change in your song can have subtle effects on the feel of a song. Chords that change often and frequently can contribute to a more edgy sound.
There are lots of ways to get control of the mood of your songs. The worst situation is if you sense your song getting locked into a mood or character such that you don’t feel comfortable changing it.
The answer is to experiment with your song’s mood early in the songwriting process. Even as early as working out your song’s hook/chorus, try experimenting with different tempos, different rhythms, and even time signatures. The earlier to you do this, the easier it feels to make changes to the character of the music as necessary.