Songwriting - Creating Interest

User avatarJune 12, 2011 by Surfaced Studio

One important key aspect to creating songs that capture (and keep) a listener's attention is to ensure your song's overall structure is 'interesting'.

Duh! Now that is not really a revelation!

In this post however, I want to present some specific methods for creating that interest

Structure

This is probably the most basic method of maintaining a listener's interest and all of you will probably be familiar with this even if you never actively thought about it

If all sections of your song sound exactly the same or you repeat the same melodies over and over and over, your song will fade into the background of your listeners' attention very rapidly.

If on the other hand, your song changes to something completely new every few measures, people will be unable to follow the structure of your song and, again, lose interest.

That is why the

Verse - Verse - Chorus - Verse - Chorus - Bridge - Chorus - Chorus

structure is so popular.

It strikes a good balance between introducing enough variation to remain fresh and enough repetition to create a feeling of familiarity.

Just as people's attention starts to wane after the second chorus, a bridge or solo introduces something new before the song ends with the familiar pattern of the chorus.

Of course this is not the only song structure that works well - but I think it is probably the most commonly used. Experiment around and have a listen to your favourite songs to see what structure works for what type of songs

Emotional Intensity

Even if you have a good song structure, your song might lack emotional intensity to have much of an impact.

The chorus is the heart of your song and should convey the core of your song's message to your listener. As the most important section it should also be the most emotionally engaging.

Have you ever noticed that when we get emotional, we raise our voices in both volume and pitch? This idea also applies to music:

we associate high pitch and volume with stronger emotions which is why in most popular songs, the chorus is louder and the vocal line is higher in pitch than in any other part of the song.

For vocals especially, since they carry the message of the song, it makes sense to have them softer during the verse and raise them in power and pitch during the chorus. In hardcore/metal music, often the verse will be shouted and the chorus will be sung.

Here are two prime examples of this concept in action

Linkin Park - Waiting For The End

All That Remains - Not Alone

I am currently working on a song called 'Rise Up' and was having trouble making my chorus stand out against the verse because both sections were using similar chords and the vocals remained at about the same pitch level.

Here is what it used to sound like (the piano plays the vocal melody, sorry for the midi quality):

[/audio]

Now that is not too bad as the patterns of all the instruments changes during the transition. The guitar strum pattern changes and both bass and drums become more lively.

However, I wanted the chorus to be more emotionally engaging and interesting and for that I had to bring the vocal line up in pitch compared to the verse.

I ended up transposing my chorus by a fourth from E minor to A minor. Have a listen to the new version:

[/audio]

The chorus stands out more and feels more emotional in contrast to the verse - I like it much better this way

Withholding & Expectations

This section covers two different but closely related ideas:

  • You can make certain sections stand out by using notes and chords that have not been used in the previous (or any other) part of your song
  • You can create tension and interest by withholding chords and notes a little longer than your listeners are expecting

Assume someone tells you a about a movie they watched recently but gives away the ending too early. Kind of a let down, isn't it? The twist of the story will be more exciting when it is not given away too early. The same applies to song composition. A chord or a note will sound more exciting if it was not used in the previous section. If your chorus kicks in with a fresh chord and the vocal line moves over notes that did not occur in the verse, it will introduce excitement into your song.

Have a listen to this small song fragment:

[/audio]

The piano contrasts nicely with the verse as both the pattern and the key changes. Additionally a previously unheard chord, Ab, is introduced.

However, notice that the vocal line does not have the same impact and freshness.

The reason for this is that the first note, the C, has been preemptively "given away" in the verse and therefore does not sound surprising any more.

If we withhold the C in the verse and use it as the first note in the chorus, we can make the transition more exciting! I know there are plenty of other things we can do to improve this piece, but have a listen to how this simple change alone affects the feeling when the chorus comes in:

[/audio]

Another way of adding tension and interest is withholding a section of a song a little longer by using padding measures.

If we go back to our movie analogy for a moment, think of a padding measure as the scene where the hero jumps around a corner ready to shoot the bad guys, but finds himself standing alone in an empty alley. The viewer will be surprised as their expectations haven't been met.

Of course a good movie never lets the viewer wait long until the hero runs around the next corner and the shoot out with the bad guys does actually occur.

In music, we can use padding measures to introduce that 'empty alley' moment to raise tension and add interest

30 Seconds To Mars use padding measures frequently to increase the tension before certain parts of their songs. Have a listen to 2:11 of Capricorn - a single 4/4 measure has been inserted just before the chorus to withhold it just a little longer from the listener and give it extra punch when it does kick in. It can almost be considered a very short pre-chorus.

30 Seconds To Mars - Capricorn

Odd Time Signatures

Another way to spice up your songs is to break the stable and familiar pattern of time signature and measures.

Most songs will consist of sections which contain either 4 or 8 measures and the time signature remains constant all the way through.

Utilising odd time signature measures can work very well to create interest by introducing something different into your song.

One of my favourite songs that uses a verse containing three 4/4 measures and one 2/4 measure is Master of Puppets by Metallica. Have a listen to the verse around 0:53. Notice how the 2/4 measure breaks up the verse and emphasises the beginning of every new 4 bar measure as it falls back to the 4/4 timing.

The verse also creates a nice contrast with the chorus which uses straight 4/4 time signature measures.

Metallica - Master of Puppets

When I first heard Spark by Tori Amos I had a really hard time working out what timing was being used. The odd timing together with the flowing and gentle nature of the song created something unique and intriguing. Have a listen for yourself and see if you can figure out the timing

Tori Amos - Spark

Of course there are plenty of other ways to make your songs exciting!

This post simply summarises some of the most commonly used techniques. Have a listen to your favourite songs and I am sure you will find them used almost everywhere

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