Most of the people that listen to your songs will immediately pick up the mood of the music. In fact, the mood — the feeling they get when they hear your song — is the first thing they’ll experience. But they don’t often know what generates mood in music.
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There are many elements of music that contribute to mood, and most of them work together to enhance their own effect. Here are five elements that arguably contribute the most to mood generation:
- Playing/singing style.
- Chord progressions.
- Melodic shape.
Of those five, I want to focus on melodic shape, and I’ve got the perfect song to use as a model: “Leave Tonight“, by New Brunswick (Canada) singer-songwriter David Myles, from his album of the same name.
Casual listeners can be forgiven for thinking that most melodies just move randomly up and down, but in fact even if a melody is created by instincts, how it moves is usually a strong contributor to mood; the best melodies are not random patterns of notes.
In “Leave Tonight”, the predominant characteristics of the melody (and in particular the chorus) are:
- a short upward leap, followed by…
- a stepwise melodic cell that moves downward.
Melodies that move mainly downward work as a kind of musical “sigh,” and we hear it as a prominent musical motif in “Leave Tonight”:
And you hear that “sigh” all throughout the song. It’s so powerful, and colours how you hear the lyric: everything sounds pensive, quiet and introspective.
As I say, most musical elements work in partnership with other elements to enhance their own effect, so you’ll also notice:
- In the chord progression (song in D major), the second chord moves up to F#m, and we’re expecting G or perhaps Bm to follow, but it returns immediately to D. In a sense, it’s emulating that up-and-back-down characteristic of the melody.
- The transparent, quiet instrumentation.
- The lyric moves from the singer’s observations of the room around him, gradually spiralling inward until he’s telling us how it’s all affecting him: every line of the chorus starts with “I” – and it deeply impacts the emotion of the lyric.
- The musical accompaniment stops on the lyric “There’s a house on the ocean/ Just south of Lahave/ Where we won’t hear a thing/ But the sound of the waves”, and the silence makes us believe we’re actually hearing those waves.
But in good songwriting, sometimes the most powerful effects are the ones that we perceive subconsciously. And for me, that makes the melody one of the most powerful components of this song.
Keep in mind, by the way, that most of these effects can be created by using musical instincts. The best songwriters have a way of generating these structural components by what you might call “musical feel”.
If you’re writing music where you want to create that feeling of nostalgia or quiet meditation, it’s worth the time to spend a minute or two before writing just thinking about what you think will create that mood for your listeners.
And after giving it some direct thought, let those ideas guide your improvisational writing process. Your instincts likely won’t let you down.
If you’re not familiar with the music of David Myles, I strongly encourage you to check out his website, his music, and you will definitely love his “Myles From Home” talk show where he interviews singers, songwriters, and other important folk from the music industry.
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