Band in rehearsal

Controlling the Energy Level of a Song

Musical energy is a subtle element. Most of the time people will think you’re talking about either loudness or rhythmic activity when you’re talking about energy. And while that’s often true, there’s a lot more to it.

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Energy is felt, more than anything. In that respect, it’s hard to define, but we know it when we hear it:

  1. The vocal style. Example: “Hey Jude.” We perceive the musical energy of the coda of “Hey Jude” to be much higher than the part of the song that precedes it. The vocals are generally more intense than the bulk of the song up to that point.
  2. The vocal range. Example: “Free Fallin’” (Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne). The musical energy immediately intensifies when Tom Petty’s voice jumps an octave higher in the choruses.
  3. The instrumental textures. Example: “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” (Billy Joel). The start of each verse is sung over a very minimal instrumental accompaniment, but builds and thickens for the second half, boosting musical energy.
  4. The lyrical content. Example: Practically any song in the pop genres. In most songs, verses describe events and people, while choruses give an emotional reaction to what’s happening in the verse. The higher emotional content of the chorus builds musical energy.

As you can see, there is an obvious crossover between a songwriter’s duty to write songs that control musical energy, and a producer/arranger’s job of ensuring that songs generally build energy as they proceed from start to finish.

My opinion has always been that the more a songwriter can do to help build musical energy (or lessen it, as the case may be), the better the song. If the ebb and flow of musical energy is always left to production tricks, listeners pick up a subconscious discrepancy between the inherent energy of the song and the energy produced by the arrangement.

Musical energy usually rises and falls as a song moves along, but over the entire length of a song will generally move higher. In that respect, it looks like a chart for a good stock market report: up and down, but generally higher over time.

As the songwriter, you can ensure that this happens naturally within the song itself by:

  1. making sure that chorus melodies are higher than verse melodies (even just a little);
  2. choosing a key that allows the voice to be in the range where energy can be heard (or felt, really);
  3. choosing chorus chords that are tonally strong and tonally unambiguous;
  4. writing lyrics that allow for greater emotional content in the chorus;

Once you’ve done those things, you’ve made the producer’s job a lot easier. If you are the producer of your own song, you should always sing your song unaccompanied by any instruments before plotting what you’re going to do for instrumental accompaniment. That allows you to hear whether or not you’ve written a song that helps itself in its own quest to control its own energy.

And there’s one more thing to be said about this important concept of musical energy: It’s a relative quality. Some songs need very little to make a difference. It is possible to accompany a well-written song with a lightly strummed guitar, and still perceive very subtle fluctuations in energy.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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