Among the most powerful tools you can use to make your songs more commercial and to impress industry pros with your command of the craft, is the use of contrasts and variations that I call “song dynamics.” I’ve also observed that it’s the tool most commonly overlooked and underused by amateur songwriters. In this section we’ll look at several devices you should have in your bag of tricks and why they work.
There are crucial points during a song at which the audience’s attention must be dramatically and positively captured in order to make it effective on radio. I had a very valuable experience that helped to confirm my information about these factors. Len Chandler (my partner in the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase) and I were asked to produce demos of some strong commercial songs by a company that regularly tested records on behalf of producers and record companies. Every Saturday, four hundred young potential record buyers of several demographic groups (divided into age, sex and racial groups) sat in a theater and turned a dial on the arm of their seats to indicate responses to a given song ranging from “don’t like it” to neutral to “love it.” As the song was played in the theater, lyrics were shown on the screen and, simultaneously, a computer totaling the combined responses of each demographic group drew a graph of that group’s reaction so that we could see how they responded at any given moment of the song. Even though they later found more effective ways to test records for marketing purposes, from watching those reactions and from the director’s interpretations of what we saw, we learned the following:
1. Intros for ballads should be shorter in order to get the listener into the body of the song more quickly. Intros for up-tempo songs can be longer because people get involved physically almost immediately and don’t need to wait. People reflect on ballad lyrics in a more passive way, which increases the need for a blockbuster chorus. Though average intro lengths have been about 15 secs there are no rules about this and both technology and radio practices will always influence it. Do your own research.
2. People will try to identify the voice when it’s first heard. If it’s familiar, it usually generates a positive reaction. People always feel more comfortable with a voice they know than one they don’t, because they have to decide whether they like an unfamiliar singer.
This phenomenon also contributes to the difficulty for an unknown artist to get exposure on the radio. A good example was a demo we tested of an unknown male artist with a beautiful but very high voice who got a negative reaction from the audience. We finally concluded that the audience was turned off because they didn’t know whether to identify a male or female (the lyrics didn’t immediately establish a gender). Remember that this wasn’t Michael Jackson or The Artist, both of whom have readily identifiable high voices. The problem here wasn’t the high voice in itself, it was the lack of gender identity.
3. The reaction at the first sound of a voice is critical to the audience’s continued reaction to the record. The longer it takes to respond positively, the harder it is to build interest through the rest of the song. In the absence of a familiar voice, the lyric content of the first line(s) is very important to the audience’s response. This is the audience’s first exposure to the song and artist, and there’s an automatic tendency to pay attention when someone starts to sing, just as there is when someone starts to talk. If people don’t understand or hear or like what’s being said, the reaction will be negative.
4. The chorus is another critical place in a song. If audience interest doesn’t increase perceptibly at the beginning of the chorus and increase throughout, continued positive interest in the remainder of the record is unlikely.
In television, the pros say that there should be a new camera angle or other change at least every fifteen seconds to keep the viewer’s interest. (In the quick-cut style contemporary music videos, that time is much shorter.) This principle has an analogy to radio. Since it is true that we remember only a fraction of what we hear compared to what we see, we begin to understand why we’re so easily distracted when we listen to the radio. That means that the battle for people’s attention on the radio when they’re usually engaged in other activity (working, driving) is a major challenge and songwriters need all the ammunition they can get. Now that we understand what has to be done, how can we create the excitement that solves the problem?
One of the main components of the “Superlearning” techniques developed by Russian educators now being used in the West is that teachers vary the tone, intensity and pitch of their voice frequently as they deliver the material. Those changes continue to stimulate the student’s attention. Since this is the same effect you want to achieve in your listeners, you can use this principle by increasing and releasing tension, and thus achieve contrasts between different segments of the song.
The effectiveness of contrasts in getting and holding a listeners attention, is based on the way our nervous systems are wired. The cave man who didn’t notice the sudden movement of the prairie grass or hear the lion growl didn’t live to pass along his genes. It’s why fire engines are red and have sirens. It needs to contrast with the environment. I was talking with an advertising artist friend about his craft when he mentioned the phrase, “pattern interrupt.” I asked him what he meant. He drew me a simple diagram…
/ / / 0 /
…and asked me where my eye went when I looked at it. I told him it went to the circle. My eye went to the one thing that was different, the thing that “interrupted” the pattern. I had one of those “Ahaa!” flashes of insight when I recognized its parallel to the auditory experience of hearing a musical contrast in a song. It always works to pull a listeners attention back to the song and is the reason all successful radio songs employ it to some degree or another.
Try out some of these:
1) Change the groove
You could go from a straight “on the beat” feel in the verse to a more syncopated feel in the chorus or vice versa. In other words, go from emphasizing “1-2-3-4” to “1-and-2-and-3-and-4″ — like a reggae beat.
2) Change chord progression
Initiate a whole new chord progression, scale context or for the chorus and another for the bridge. Modulating up or down, or playing the same progression in a different key, are arrangement devices that can be built into your demos.
3) Change time
Don’t change tempo or pulse if you’re going for a radio or dance market record. It’s been done by major artists (Paul McCartney on “Live and Let Die,” Queen’s “We Are The Champions”) but it’s a very risky business, even to start slow and break into an up-tempo dance groove. Once you’ve engaged a listener or dancer in the pulse of a song, it’s a solid base on which you can build other dynamics. Against that solid base you can go from 4/4 time to a couple of bars of 3/4 time to increase tension like the Beatles did on “We Can Work It Out.” It can make for an interesting transition between verse and chorus, for example, but be careful not to continue for more than a bar or two or you’ll ruin the groove.
4) Change melody
A melodic change in the chorus is probably the most effective song dynamic you can use to make a song memorable and commercially viable. Generally, you’ll want it to “lift” out of (up from) the verse melody by starting above the last note of the verse. That’s not a rule, however, and there have been rare songs that have achieved a contrast by dropping down from the verse. A change in chord progressions will automatically induce you to change the melody in the chorus. It can also be effective to try to change the chorus melody before you work out new chords. Try playing and singing your verse melody right up to the place where your chorus is supposed to come in. Then stop playing and continue a cappella. It also helps to put that on tape so you can listen to it away from your instrument.
5) Change lyric density
The term, “lyric density” is about how close together the words are over a given tempo. You might have rapid-fire lyrics with one syllable per 16th note during the verse, then change to one syllable per 1/4 note in the chorus. Or just do the opposite, all the while keeping the tempo the same. Many hit songs use that technique. The rest of the chorus continues in the same pattern, giving our minds another subconscious cue to remember the lyric and melody.
Example: One of the factors that made Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away” work so well was the change in lyric density, going from short choppy phrases in the verse to the stretched-out words and the Beatlesque “ahhhs” of the chorus. In fact, speaking of the Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby” (and many many other Lennon/MacCartney songs) used it well. Next time you listen to the radio pay attention to the lyric density changes.
6) Change the lyric meter
Changing lyric meters from line-to-line or section-to-section is one of the most common techniques used in successful songs, and most underused by novice songwriters. Though keeping the same meter through a verse can subtly build tension that can be released when you change it in the chorus, it risks being too predictable. You can also alternate between two different meters every other line (and within the same line). There are many options. Try this while you’re listening to your favorite songs: instead of singing along with the lyrics, pretend the words are part of the rhythm and just speak them, maybe substituting “da-da-da” instead of the words so you can get a sense of their meter, or rhythm.
Listen to any of Diane Warren’s hits: “Un-break My Heart,” “Because You Loved Me,” “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing,” and many others (www.realsongs.com) She’s a master at changing her lyric meter and density in the middle of a line, at the choruses, or at the bridges in ways that feel natural and conversational. Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas is another writer who’s great at that. Listen to the way you speak and pay attention to the natural rhythms of others: we rarely, if ever, hear people speak in iambic pentameter: “da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM” (five metric feet), because it feels so stiff and predictable. When you write lyrics and music together, by yourself, whether for yourself as a singer or someone else, you have an opportunity to marry lyric and music in a uniquely conversational way. Collaborations can also have a very special magic when writers are in sync with each other. As a lyricist, the ability to express your own attitudes and ideas in way that’s natural for you is one of the best ways to create a unique song or singing style.
If you’re a lyricist whose words will be set to music, you should employ changes in lyric density, meter and rhyme scheme so that eventually, your composer has a head start in creating musical contrasts. Writing lyrics against a metronome pulse or drum machine will help you to “hear” those patterns in a useful context and have fun experimenting with the phrasing.
7) Change the rhyme scheme
You can have a different rhyme scheme in your verses than in your chorus and/or your bridge. Try not to use the same end rhymes in more than one verse. This one is a little more subtle than the others and though it’s not as obvious to a listener, I believe it still has the effect of too much predictability.
8) Change where the vocal begins
This dynamic largely goes un-noticed by new songwriters, But pros know it can make a lot of difference in what’s percieved as the song’s style or singer’s style. If your song is in 4/4 for example, count your bars as “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”. If you start your verses on 1, you might consider starting the first accented word of your pre-chorus or chorus on 1 and or a more surprising and 1. Experiment with this and listen for it in your favorite songs.
Those are the major ways to create contrasts but there are others. For example: Adding an extra lyric line at the end of a section to introduce a surprise element and highlight an important thought; Contrasting long lyric lines in one section with short lines in another; Changing whether your first accented syllable falls on the beat or after the beat.
These devices have infinite variations and it’s in their imaginative use that you exercise your creative muscles. They won’t all work on all songs, but they’re options you can try on each song. Arrangement devices such as dropping out and bringing in instruments, silence, and changes in intensity, volume and texture can be used to further give your songs drama. These are devices to explore when you record your demo.