In Part 4, we'll look at some more advanced (yet sometimes quite simple) songwriting concepts, focusing on areas that are often overlooked.
How can sudden dynamic changes affect your music in a positive way? Contrary to what most of us would like to believe, people almost never listen deeply to music. Think about it, when was the last time you, a musician (or aspiring musician at least), sat down in a chair and listened to 30 minutes of music while doing nothing else, and thought about nothing else? Listening to music while driving your car does not count. Listening to music while cleaning a room or doing any other activity does not count. I mean sitting motionless in a chair, shutting off the rest of the world, focusing exclusively on listening without thinking about anything else for 30 minutes. At least 99% of all people have never done this in their entire lives, not even once! If you (a musician and songwriter!) have not done this, you know almost everyone you want to hear your music will never do this when they listen to your songs. Even if you ask your best friend or family member to listen to your newest song and make them promise to focus only on the music, most people cannot truly do it without their mind wondering at least a little. As soon as they hear the music they are focused, then they hear something that reminds them of something else, then they may start to think about you, what you are all about, thinking about your skills, then later they may think about how they reply to you when you will ask them of their opinion, so they spend the last 2 minutes trying to formulate a positive response, etc. All of this is on a good day, most people will get too distracted and their mind will wander off to other things anyway, even though they may not be intending to do so. This is human nature and very common in America for sure.
What a dismal thought! We songwriters and musicians invest years into writing music that matters to us while most listeners don't focus on these songs for more than a couple of minutes. So what does that mean to us songwriters? What can we do about it? What one musical element would you guess would generally be most effective in holding the attention of listeners longer? What is it that may keep them focused on the music and not on other things? All musical elements can contribute to holding the listeners attention to a certain extent, but one particular element is extremely effective when used well - dynamics.
Think about sitting at home watching TV. When a series of commercials comes on, what do most people do? They ignore these commercials, they think about other things, get up and go to the kitchen, get something to eat, use the restroom, etc. Now imagine you have gotten up and went to your kitchen while the commercials are playing on your TV. What would happen if a 60 second commercial came on but was totally silent for 60 seconds? After a few seconds, you would notice in the background that there is no sound coming from the TV. Do you ignore this drastic dynamic change? No. In fact, its almost impossible to ignore it. The dynamic change is so noticeable that it will actually bother people until they have figured out what has happened. Questions go through the mind like, "What happened to my TV? Is it broken? Did someone turn it off? Is the TV station having technical problems?" You go back into the living room and look at the TV screen to see what is going on. Then you see the TV is working and someone is whispering the commercial message to you softly. At this point, do you walk away and return to the kitchen? Probably not, most people will stand there and pay close attention to the remainder of that commercial. We intentionally ignore most of what hear and see (this is our brain's way of filtering out unnecessary stimuli, so we can focus only on those things we perceive as important or relevant. This prevents us from experiencing information overload. Try this: The next time you are talking to some else and you sense that person is not listening to you because they are thinking about other things, simply stop talking. The silence will get their attention immediately, they will stop thinking about other things and focus all of their attention on you!... interesting... Now play your guitar for a friend and as soon as you sense your listener may be losing attention, stop playing. They will instantly bring their mind back into focus and pay attention to your music - magic!
The musical equivalent in songwriting is to insert silence (rests) into the music. Of course the way to most effectively use silence in your songs will vary from situation to situation. Often times a 2/4 measure of silence before an important section of the song will work very well.
Two important points to remember:
1.Don't overuse silence. Be careful not to insert moments of silence in all your songs or in multiple places within the same song-doing so will diminish the affect.
2. Don't force silence into a song if it doesn't feel natural in the music - doing so will make the song sound forced, awkward and unnatural. (Of course if you are going for an awkward unnatural feel sound then go ahead and try it.)
In addition to the use of silence, dynamic changes also can create a similar affect on the listener. Using contrasting dynamic levels (softer and louder in volume) can keep the music interesting and regain the listener's undivided attention. In fact, many listeners actually anticipate these changes (and silences) when they hear the song again. Dynamic transitions such as crescendos (gradually becoming louder) and decrescendos (gradually becoming softer) indicate some sort of transition in the music, as a general rule transitions help the listener to consciously focus their attention back to the music.
Most people (both songwriters and listeners) aren't consciously aware of these concepts of attention and the musical elements that influence them - but now you are.
Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He teaches, trains and mentors musicians from around the world.