Musical Energy

Using the Natural Energy of Music in Your Songwriting

When we talk about the energy of music, at least in strictly songwriting terms, we’re talking about the sense of the music being propelled forward. In this sense, I’m not necessarily talking about how powerful, loud or energetic the music sounds or feels; I’m talking about musical momentum.

For example, when one section of a song is more rhythmically complex than another, we perceive a higher energy level, even though the music may not be any louder.

All songs, even the quietest ones, have musical energy. In fact, the quietest ones have the greatest responsibility to sculpt that musical energy most carefully.

A good example is Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” recorded most memorably by Roberta Flack. The entire song is gentle, very slow, very quiet, and any changes in the dynamic of the music extremely subtle.

Working with the musical energy of your song may seem to be a production-level concern, but in fact it is an important songwriting feature. There are things you can and should be doing as a songwriter to manipulate the energy of your music.

By taking care at the songwriting stage, you take the sole responsibility off the production of your song to build or diminish musical energy. I strongly believe that the more you control the energy of your music by controlling the various elements of your song, the better it sounds.

What things should you be doing to control musical energy? Here’s a quick list to consider:

  1. Melody: As melodies go upward, particularly vocal lines, audiences perceive a higher energy level.
  2. Chords: As chords move away from the tonic chord, audiences instinctively want to hear that tonic chord return. As it gets ever closer, musical energy increases. In this sense, chords are great for establishing an “ebb-and-flow” of musical energy that persists throughout an entire song.
  3. Lyrics: The more emotional a lyric is, the more musical energy we feel. Lyrics that are mostly observational (“first this happened, then that happened…”) are lower in energy, and we see them most often in verses. Lyrics that are mainly emotional (“…and this is how I feel about that…”) pull musical energy upward, and we see them most often in choruses.
  4. Rhythms: The busier a rhythm is, the more energy audiences feel. But in partnership with lyrics, the emotion of a line of lyric is felt more keenly when rhythms simplify. So verse rhythms in a melody are usually more complex than in choruses.

This is a guideline, not a rule. And as you will understand if you’ve been writing songs for a long time, all song elements interact with each other, and strengthen (or weaken) each other’s effect.

So if you’re hoping to build some musical energy as your verse transitions to the chorus, but your melody moves downward, you’ve got some work to do to get musical energy to build. Typically, if a producer wants more energy, they use production-level techniques to achieve it: make things louder, make the instrumental aspect fuller, and so on.

But if you can carve musical energy before it gets to the recording/production stage, you get the benefit of a natural energy build or release, and that’s almost always going to work best for you.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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