One of the most powerful and effective aspects of songwriting is creating a sense of expectancy. That term expectancy refers to a song’s ability to make you want to hear what happens next.
Without that quality of expectancy, a song would have no ability to keep listeners listening. The best element to look at to see expectancy at work is the chord progression. That’s because progressions usually start on the tonic chord (the chord representing the song’s key), which is a position of rest.
Then the progression moves away from the tonic chord. As we hear those other chords, we instinctively want to hear the tonic chord return. As the progression moves on, that sense of expectancy increases until the tonic chord returns. It’s how most progressions work. Take a look at this progression:
C Am Dm E7 Am F Gsus4 G C
It starts on C, and then moves away. With the E7 chord, we hear it move briefly toward the key of A minor in the middle. By the time we hear the F chord, we start to sense that it’s moving back to the original tonic. The Gsus4 and G chords strengthen that drive to the tonic, and we like how powerful that move back to C is.
That’s the kind of expectancy that makes people want to keep listening, and excited for the full 4-minute experience of your song. We hear it in other song elements as well.
Creating Expectancy in Melodies
The chorus of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” is a great example of how songwriters can entice listeners to keep listening, through the way the melody is structured. For each mini-phrase of that melody, we hear it creeping every so slightly higher before it finally moves lower:
Other Song Elements
For practically any song component you can identify, good songwriters have a way of making us want to keep listening by causing us to wonder what will happen next. For example, they’ll start a song intro with a loud, full instrumentation, then make the sound quieter and more transparent for the verse. We know when that happens to expect that fuller instrumentation to return for the chorus.
And knowing that those dropped instruments will return has a way of causing us to want to wait for it. In a sense, it’s another kind of hook.
They’ll also create that sense of expectancy by using a different, more emotion-laden vocal style in the lead vocal for the chorus, such that we want to hear it return as the voice becomes softer and more conversational in the verses.
They also create it by setting up a repeating lyric in the chorus that is more emotional and powerful, so that when the verse lyric is mainly observational in character, we want to hear the return to a more emotional text.
In your songs, you may find that you’ll need to consciously add expectancy to your song components, even though songwriters often include it as a subconscious part of their process – it’s often not something you need to consciously think about.
But when you find your songs are sounding boring or unexciting in some way, it’s worth the time to look at each element one by one, and identify what you’ve done to make people want to hear what happens next. When you get the balance right, songs can sound wonderful, and become something that keeps people wanting to hear it over and over.
Are you ready to have LYRICS take a much more important role in your songwriting process. You need to read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Right now, it’s FREE with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”