John Legend - Nervous

How Controlling Musical Energy Keeps People Listening

There are some songs, when you compare the start of the song to the end of it, make it obvious what we mean by musical energy. “Stairway to Heaven” is a great example: it starts very quietly, uses subdued acoustic guitar and recorders, with a nostalgic, mid-range vocal approach.

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But by the end of the song (not counting the very end which recaps the quiet opening), the contrast is obvious:

  • A more aggressive vocal approach.
  • A loud, edgy guitar solo.
  • Higher notes.
  • A faster tempo.
  • A busier backing rhythm.

So musical energy is generated not just by making music louder, but also by creating melodies that are higher with faster, busier rhythms. “Stairway to Heaven” is a song that shows many different ways you can build musical energy, and the difference between the low and the high energy is wide.

For most songs, though, the differences between the moments of low and high musical energy are a lot more subtle. And you’ll also notice this: while a song like “Stairway to Heaven” seems to show a long, gradual build, most songs have musical energy that builds and then diminishes several times throughout its length.

In that regard, a song like John Legend’s “Nervous” (John Stevens, Michael Pollack, John Ryan) is a more typical example. It starts with the melody low and the dynamics (loudness) rather low. then from that quiet start, the melody alternately moves higher, then lower, several times.

Hand-in-hand with the alternately low and high melody, you can hear the music get louder, busier, then quiet and more subdued.

That back-and-forth between being energetic and then a little less so works as a kind of musical pump, generating musical energy and then allowing it to dissipate. And the changes are subtle.

When we talk about contrast within a song, the up and down of musical energy is in large part what we’re referring to. And it’s an important part of what keeps people listening to your song.

If you’ve written a song where the musical energy seems to be fairly static, you may need to do something about that. To pull people in and keep them listening, alternating between low and high energy (and doing that several times in a song) is usually vital.

Some of the ways we generate musical energy are pure songwriting level:

  • low versus high melodies;
  • chord progressions that don’t resolve in expected ways, versus progressions that resolve to the tonic chord;
  • lyrics that relate the story versus lyrics that express emotions.

And then other ways we generate musical energy are more production-level choices:

  • quiet versus loud;
  • quiet, clean approach to instrumentation versus a louder, edgier approach;
  • busy, syncopated rhythms versus something more straight-ahead and hook-like.

For every song you write, take the time to give it a good listen and ask yourself, “Have I created enough moments of good musical contrast?” The answer needs to be yes.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. To get website updates and songwriting tips, follow Gary on Twitter.

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