Having spent many years listening to and reviewing other songwriter’s songs, and working on my own, I am struck by a number of recurring problems that songwriters have. The obvious ones, like a low quality recording or not having a great singing voice, aren’t the only problems. What seems to be an affliction of many of the songs is that they lack dynamics and tension.
What exactly are dynamics in songwriting? Simply speaking, they are contrasting parts. For example…if you write a song with the chord progression and/or the melody the same in both the verses and chorus, you risk having a pretty dull sounding song. That is not to say that it hasn’t been done effectively, but this is just one example that I came across while reviewing songs. By putting a little contrast in different places, your song will stand out!
What exactly do I mean by “contrast”? All I’m really talking about is change…you can create contrast by having a different melody in the chorus than in the verses. When it comes to melody, you can also create these dynamics within a verse. For instance, maybe the melody starts out in a lower register (lower notes) at the beginning of the verse, but gets higher as the verse progresses. Or, you can change chord progressions within a verse toward the same end. So, for example, the first line might contain 2 bars of G followed by two bars of C. Maybe the next line is the same. But the third line could begin with a D and so on, just to create that contrast. But it doesn’t stop there! Dynamics and contrast can also be achieved lyrically…the mood or emotion can change from verse to verse or verse to chorus. As an example, the song might start out with the main character walking into an empty bedroom and feeling low because his lover has left him…the next verse might be him reminiscing about their relationship, about what they had and lost…and then the chorus could be filled with his anger at being jilted. Do you hear it? I mean, just by reading those words, can you almost hear what the music would be like? Interesting 🙂 That’s the natural dynamic of the story, almost begging you to put the right chords and melody to it!
Dynamics and contrast can also be achieved within the meter of a song (the rhythm of the words). As an example, in one of my songs, Let’s Make Trouble:
“He said ‘Damn! If you don’t look good tonight
You’re a little bit of trouble and it’s just not right.’
But with a wink of her eye, he forgot what he said
Thoughts on fire and a body hell bent”
(“Let’s Make Trouble” Copyright © 2000 I. Woloshen SOCAN)
So what I’ve done in the example above (without actually showing you the music) is to show you how the lyrics work within the verse. There is a line of lyric, then just an instrumental line, then another line of lyric. THEN, I do two lines of lyric in a row, followed by two instrumental lines in a row. So the feel of the first half of the verse is more spacey, but the two lines in a row create a kind of build, feeling like I’m singing faster, and then there’s the release of the two instrumental lines. (If you’re interesting in actually hearing it, you can listen to Let’s Make Trouble on my Soundclick page. Scan down the page to find it…) So a dynamic is created within this verse by having the first half different from the second half. The length of lines can also be a contrast. In a verse of a song, you might have a long first line and a shorter second one, etc. You could also have, in a 4 line verse, three shorter lines and then a long 4th line. If you make everything exactly the same and don’t build in a few contrasts, there is no dynamic, and the song can sound pretty dull pretty quick!
Tension is another aspect that is often lacking in a lot of the songs I hear. Quite often, you’ll find choruses have a higher range of notes than the verses in order to create a dynamic effect. So there’s the “contrast” we spoke of earlier. But this kind of build up to the chorus does something else: it creates tension. Let’s put it this way. If you hold a rubber band loosely, and then slowly start to pull both ends of it, this would be what the verse is trying to accomplish…you pull and pull…then SNAP!! The chorus is the release of the rubber band…the release of tension. The next verse creates that kind of build again up to the chorus and the whole process repeats. But tension can also be created lyrically…think of a standup comic telling a story. He’s setting the stage, telling the story just right so that when he gets to the punchline or the payoff, you’ll howl with laughter! And then he might go onto another related story, occasionally referring back to the first one. He’s manipulating your emotions, playing you in order to get his laughs exactly where he wants them. And just like the comic, timing is another factor in songwriting, where you sing and where you leave a space can really produce an effect or leave an audience flat. Building up to something and then not delivering can be a disaster! You’ll never get a slot at Yuk Yuk’s again!
A great songwriter knows how to time everything…it can be done with humour, with anger, with any type of emotion…for example, expressing a deep longing and make you feel it too in exactly the right place and at the right time. A great movie maker can do the same thing. In fact, I think songs are very much like stories and movies…all stuffed into 3 or 4 minutes!
One other note: these effects…dynamics, contrast and tension…are also often achieved in the production of a song when it comes to the recording process. Different parts of a song can be supported by different instruments, a build of instrumentation, softer or heavier, louder or quiet. But if a song has all of these elements to begin with, you don’t have to rely on creating it in the studio! The best songs can be sung with one voice and one instrument creating that wonderful array of dynamics, contrast, tension and release without any need for anything else!