In my songwriting eBooks, particularly “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”, I list eleven different principles of songwriting — aspects of music that seem to be present in practically all songs, regardless of genre or other performance-related characteristics.
One of those principles is this: “In general, the energy at the end of a song should equal or exceed the energy at the beginning.” If you find that statement to be obviously true, it means you get it. And you probably also understand why it’s a principle.
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When we talk about musical energy, we’re not talking about loudness (volume), although how loud your song is, or how the volume changes as a song progresses, can be part of the concept of musical energy.
In that regard, we tend to use two definitions of musical energy when we talk about songwriting. When you hear “Invisible Touch” by Genesis, or “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen, or “Paperback Writer” by Lennon & McCartney, you’d be fully understood if you said, “This is a very energetic song!”
But what about Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” from her album “Blue”? What role does musical energy play here?
It all sounds so low-key and gentle. Doesn’t a song like “Little Green” prove that musical energy propels some songs forward, but has little to do with gentle songs like this one?
The truth is that musical energy (or musical momentum) is a relative quality. In fact, I’d venture to say that musical energy is more important in a song like “Little Green” than a louder, faster, busier song.
In this song, Joni’s voice moving upward after the opening lines opens everything up, and you hear the passion rising with the voice. Gentleness returns when her voice moves back down to the original range.
The addition of the flat-III chord after the opening verse (at 1’20”) is startling. Lots of songs use flat-III chords, but you can hear what flat-III does in a song like this… so unexpected, so surprising!
In gentle songs, it doesn’t take much to make a difference to the musical energy, but it still needs to be present.
In your own songwriting, make a recording of your most recent song, and then listen to it a few times and try to get a sense of how the musical energy changes over the length of the song.
The things you’ll want to think about are:
- Are their any fluctuations in volume at all, and if so, why does the volume change. Is there a musical reason?
- How does the emotional content of the lyric change through the song? Does it seem random (that typically doesn’t work well), or does it seem to change section by section? (That’s a better approach.)
- How does the mood change with the chord progressions? Are there any “odd” chords that happen at specific important moments?
- How does the instrumentation change? Perhaps you use the same instrumentation, but you change the way the instrument is played. Perhaps you add instruments at certain moments (like the drum fills and keyboards, in George Harrison’s “Long, Long, Long” from “The Beatles.”)
If you really want to learn about musical energy, it’s the successful quiet songs you need to listen to and think about. Musical energy needs to stay constant or increase in order to properly pull a listener along and entice them to stay with your song to its conclusion.
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