This blog article is a bit of a ramble, so I hope you’ll forgive me for letting my musical mind wander a bit!
Sometimes when I look at a painting, I find myself wondering what I’m not seeing. It might be that the painting is a landscape — a winding river with a grassy hill behind it, trees off to the side, with perhaps a stormy sky above. What am I not seeing? Why did the artist choose that particular location, and not move their gaze to the right or left?
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The answer probably has something to do with balance, and giving me the best possible limited view of that specific location. In pondering this, I think there might be some lessons for songwriters, so let’s continue to explore.
I’m not a painter, but I am assuming that an artist wants to control, to some degree, what it is I’m actually seeing. So perhaps a painter might think that if I wonder what I’m not seeing in a certain painting, they’ve not done a very good job of enticing me with what I can see.
But there are those paintings where the unseen is arguably more provocative than what is seen. Edvard Munch’s famous “The Scream” might be a good example. Munch says that the figure in his painting was reacting to the fiery red sky (“…I sensed a scream passing through nature”).
But it’s unlikely that without Munch’s description we’d think that the sky was the cause of the scream. In effect, when we look at that painting, we see a figure screaming, and we’re left wondering what is causing the scream.
In other words, we’d be within rights to ask, “What am I not seeing?” The not knowing is actually one of the more enticing aspects of the artwork. From our vantage point, we’ve been given part of a scene, and we’re left wondering what’s missing, and we kind of like that.
“Withholding” Information in Songwriting
Is there an equivalent in the writing of music? Are there circumstances when you write something and purposely withhold “information”?
Probably the most obvious occurrences of withholding information would happen in the writing of lyrics. You might describe situations, people, and circumstances, but leave other parts of a story unsaid.
And like a painting where we are required to do a little imagining, we tend to like that. In Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill“, you might wonder “who” the eagle is. It’s not likely to be a real eagle, but… perhaps it’s a parent? A life partner? An authority figure of some sort? And you can come up with your own answer that’s just as valid as anyone else’s interpretation.
So in that sense, metaphors are a kind of “withholding of information”, where the writer could have said something more plainly, but chose a metaphor that veils the exact meaning.
Instrumentation and the Withholding of Information
There’s another way in which, as a songwriter, you might purposely withhold information, and it has to do with instrumental choice and the concept of musical contrast.
Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” starts very quietly with a simple strummed guitar, and because we’ve heard a good deal of Tom Petty songs before, we believe the sound is going to build, and in a sense, we wait for that likelihood.
Sure enough, by the chorus, we get what we think of as the full instrumentation. But then during the final verse, the instrumentation drops back, with a subdued bass line, a military-style snare drum, and quiet backing vocals.
At that moment, we just know that the fuller, louder instrumentation will come back, and we base that on the fact that we’ve already heard a bigger instrumentation: It’s unlikely that Tom would scale the instrumentation back and leave it at that.
So when the instrumentation diminishes, it’s a kind of “withholding information” that we know is going to get reversed. That’s part of the musical contrast concept, and we like when that sort of thing happens.
In music, and songwriting especially, the idea of causing a listener to wonder what they’re not hearing is a crucial part of what keeps people listening. If a painting gives us everything we need to fully understand it without the need for further thinking or interpreting, we’re unlikely to feel a need to go back and see it again.
And in good songwriting, if you give everything to your listener in one listen, it’s unlikely that your audience is going to feel a need to go back and listen to it again.
I think the best approach is to listen to your own song, and for every moment along the way, ask yourself, “How have I enticed my listeners? Have I given everything away in one go, or have I kept something back, something that will tempt people to want to return to my song for another listen?”
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