Keeping a song interesting is not as easy as it might at first seem. How do you stop listeners getting bored and switching off? How do you hold their attention until the very end of a song? Is it related to song structure? Song arrangement and instrumentation? Performance? The song lyrics?
The truth is that it is a little of all of these factors.
This article outlines a few ways that you can develop and hold onto that interest by your listeners, and explores the limitations caused by modern mastering techniques.
A Sense Of Progress In A Song
It is important that listeners feel a sense of progress through a song. It's all about movement within a piece, and the sense of momentum that can be gained as a result of that music. You cannot afford to let listeners become bored. If your song becomes too predictable, that is exactly what will happen.
The energy and intensity of a song generally builds as the song progresses. It doesn't build energy in a straight line, it's more like a series of steps, and not every step is an increase in energy. Achieving this is fundamental to both the writing of a song, and it's arrangement and production.
Song structure has a bearing on getting and holding interest, but it is not the only factor. How you achieve interest in a song that has several different sections is one thing, but how do you achieve this when the structure stays essentially the same, for example when using AAA song form, from verse, to verse, to verse?
This can be achieved in any song structure by both musical and lyrical means:
- Firstly, evolve the arrangement. Introduce or remove instruments as the song progresses. Each instrument brings it's own character to the piece, it's own intensity. In other words, you emphasize the movement of the song using the movement of instruments, building intensity and depth of emotion using different combinations, adding or removing layers of complexity.
- Introduce a key change later in the song. If you modulate the song up a half step at the transition from one A section to the next A section you achieve a sense of lift, an increase in intensity of the established mood.
- Use vocal harmonies, but don't over do it. Harmony can be used within some other instruments to help add color to a song. For example playing a C2, C7, C9 or C11 instead of a standard C. Exact notes may depend on genre.
- State or intone questions within the lyrics, and then later in the song provide an answer. It does not need to be a one to one relationship. One question can have more than one answer, and multiple questions can be resolved with one answer
- Repetition is good to establish something that is memorable, that is why a chorus or refrain works. However when a song becomes too predictable we run the risk of boring listeners. They switch off, and you've lost them. So, although lines, phrases, melodies and concepts may be repeated, don's fall in to the trap of believing that things need to be carbon copies. Instead, try and get used to the idea of subtle variation. Lyrics are obviously a factor, they change from verse to verse. As mentioned earlier, arrangement can change, evolve. So can melody. This tends to be restricted to ornamentation used in different but comparable song sections, but it doesn't need to be completely. Be subtle, make sure you keep the majority of the melody and retain it's essence.
- Pitch / frequency distribution. Generally increase pitch as you increase the energy in a track. To keep the balance in the track you may find that you do this only with some instruments and not others. The most common instrument to do this with is the voice. That's why choruses and refrains tend to be sung using higher notes than those used the verse melody of the same song.
- Use contrast within the song, often by using the techniques above. This is the use of opposites to help texture your song. For example playing with increased intensity with a more relaxed feel, or the contrast between loud and quiet, low pitch and high pitch. Contrast in it's varying forms helps give the song shape, and that shapes helps to establish points of interest within a song, a contour to the motion and intensity of the song. These contrasting changes can also give a song some momentum and give the listener as sense of progression. Contrast works best, and is more likely to be noticed if the change occurs over a short period of time.
- Use differing chord inversions to help build and bring down energy levels, and to help vary the color of the song for comparable song sections.
As you can see this covers a number of disciplines from writing, through arrangement and performance, to recording, production and mastering. All contribute to the energy of your track.
Typical Song Energy Map
Imagine that your song is a rollercoaster of energy, emotion and/or emotional intensity. It goes up and down, turns, always the general direction builds towards it's maximum intensity and shift in intensity somewhere towards the end. If the rollercoaster is too predictable and repetative, the sense of progression through that ride would be less obvious, and in truth it would become boring. Think how the rollercoaster works. It builds anticipation during lifts, it reaches climaxes at various peaks and troughs, it uses slow transitions and fast, extreme transitions. To some degree, that is what your song should do, transporting your listeners in an emotional journey, of varying depths and intensities, using words and music.
This is just an example intensity map to demonstrate the step effect and the fact that intensity should vary through the piece building and falling away, reaching peaks and troughs. It is the contrast between these variations that, in part, provides movement and progression through your song.
Varying Energy And Emotional Intensity In Current Songs
Most modern pop music lacks in volume dynamics because current mastering techniques squeeze the maximum volume from any segment of the track, across the frequencies present in the track. Intensity is achieved by varying energy according to, pitch and tone, the rapidity of note changes, the level of ornamentation, and use of broader harmonic content. The higher the percentage of the frequency spectrum that is close to maximum, particularly the higher frequencies, the more energy a track will seem to have.
As you can see from our example Energy Map, although song energy/intensity goes up and down through the song, the general direction for the song is to build song energy and intensity as the song progresses. Quick changes in energy levels introduce contrast within the song. These changes tend to be aligned to the transitions between one section of the song and the following section.
Obviously individual performances can affect the ability to keep interest. Although that is beyond the scope of songwriting, it is certainly a strong factor. Were you yourself are both writer and performer, you can of course have a very direct effect on intensity and variation. Yet again, you should be aware of the importance of varying intensity and depth of emotion by way of your performance. It takes practice but it is a very worthwhile investment of your time.
It's not enough to simply write words and music. You need to get your head around how your music will be received, and what you can do to make your track interesting all the way through and memorable. That requires you to think on ways to engage your listeners, from memorable melodies and lyrics, to the arrangement and production of your songs.
Much of this is down to simple human psychology. You cannot change the way your music will be interpreted, only take advantage of the mechanisms that already exist to make the most of the average attention span, and understanding why some things lose your interest, while others hold your interest.
Variation and contrast are key to making the most of basic human psychology. Understanding those factors will do much to keep your tracks interesting and memorable.
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