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9 Ways to Make Sure Your Song Takes Us on a Journey
Picture this: you're driving in your car, listening to the radio. A song comes on that you've never heard before. So you give it a chance. You listen for a while. But after a few highly repetitive lines, you recognize the pattern and know exactly where it's going to go. You finally reach the chorus and—it's totally lackluster. By the end of the first chorus, you're already bored of hearing the same three notes over and over again.
So what do you do? You switch to a different station.
The moral of this story: time is a precious commodity. And nobody likes having their time wasted. So if your audience is going to give you their time and attention, you better make it worth it.
As a music producer or songwriter, there are many things you can do to maintain your listener's attention. Here are nine ways to make sure your song grows and takes your listeners on an interesting journey.
1. Do your research
Think of your song like a road trip. Before you can pack up the car and hit the open road you need to plan where you're going and the sites you want to visit. I like creating a sort of visual roadmap for my song. The more you create these roadmaps, the better you'll get at actually being able to fully visualize them in your head.
But for starters, you probably need to find some inspiration. Just like looking through a travel guide helps you decide on places that are worth visiting, let's go ahead and create a roadmap of Demi Lovato's "Tell Me You Love Me" song and see where they go.
The idea behind such a roadmap is to write out the different sections and see how the song grows and the instruments change over time. So hit play above, and follow along with the chart below:
As you can hear and see, despite not being very dense instrument-wise, this song still successfully grows and takes you for a ride. So how did they achieve that? And how can you do the same for your next song?
To begin, create a visual map like this for the song you're working on. Write out the various section names (Intro, Verse, Chorus, etc). If you know how many bars each section is going to have, add that information to the chart as well.
Do you already have some instrument ideas in your head? Great! Write those down as options. The more you can prep the easier all the next steps will be.
The takeaway: Being able to visualize how your song grows will help you better plan for the road trip ahead.
2. Plan the trip there
Compare the intro to the final chorus of Demi's song: the intro and first verse start off simply with soft dynamics. The final chorus is where everyone is playing and singing.
Especially in today’s pop music, there's usually a huge difference between the two. If you blast all the instruments and bring out the gospel choir in the first 10 seconds of your song, you've essentially shot any chance at giving your audience anything more. So plan accordingly for the road ahead.
Start off small and add new instruments and layers as the song progresses. Did you notice that in Demi's song there's never more than 20 seconds of the same thing? Every 20 seconds, either a new instrument is introduced, or there's a soundscape/energy shift. This is a good rule to follow. If 30 seconds have passed since the last time you altered one of your parts or brought in a new element, it's probably time to introduce a new layer, or change something in your instrumentation.
The takeaway: Make your song consistently grow. Introduce new elements as you move forward, adding more and more until you reach your final chorus.
3. Plan the trip back
You may find that you keep getting stuck in the whole "add more" loop. By the second chorus, you've added so much that your song is already too busy and too crazy for the story that you're trying to tell. By the time you get to the final chorus you have so many layers, it's getting out of control.
In those cases, I recommend you work backward. Start by mapping out your song form (4 bar intro, 8 bar verse, etc.). I do it as markers in my DAW.
Once that's in place, begin by working on that final chorus. Make it what it needs to be. Arrange all the individual parts and instruments. Once you're happy with where your final chorus is sitting, work backward. But instead of adding more, strip things away.
As you progress through the sections in reverse order, keep removing elements and simplifying till you reach the beginning of your song. Hopefully, by then, you will have stripped the song down to the necessary bare bones that will make a great intro and first verse.
The takeaway: Sometimes it's better to start with the last chorus and work your way back. Knowing what level your final chorus will sit at will help you make better decisions for each of the sections leading up to it.
4. Hit the road
You'll never get anywhere if you don't actually hit the road. As long as you have a general idea of where you want to go and the places you want to see, you're good to go. So get on the road and start driving. Don't overthink it. The plan doesn't have to be perfect. You can make adjustments as you go. Who knows what you may discover on the way?
The same applies to your song. You have some great ideas, now start making the music. You may get inspired by certain sounds along the way that take your song in different directions than you expected. And that's great!
Most of us tend to overthink and worry too much. Heck. On occasions, I do too. But I will tell you that one thing I learned from working in the fast-paced environment on TV shows like NCIS and Arrested Development, is that trying to plan everything and make it perfect doesn’t necessarily make the outcome any better. On both of those shows, on average we would have six days to turn around 30–40 minutes of music for a new episode. That’s including composing, arranging, recording, editing, pre-mixing, stemming, and then sending it off to the dub stage for final mix with dialogues and sound effects.
Needless to say, a pretty crazy turnaround. And after all that, we’d start all over again on the next episode!
At the beginning of my career I’d spend (and let’s be honest—waste) a lot time on trying to plan things, considering all the options, wondering if I should use this or that synth sound. At the end of the day, what I learned from the great Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, and Love) was that “done is better than good.” And truth be told, if you listen to your instincts, I’ll always be good. And on occasion even great. But it will never be anything if you don’t actually do it. So create a general plan for what you want to get done in your song and get going. You can always change your mind better. But you have to start somewhere.
The takeaway: Don't try to over-plan. Let your intuition guide your way.
5. Take the long road
Sure, you can always go from point A to point B in a single straight line. You'll definitely get there fast. But will it be a memorable journey? Probably not. So why would you do that to your song?
Great stories have ups and downs. Sometimes the lead character succeeds, other times he/she fails. It's that motion that makes it all so interesting. Do the same for your songs.
Start off slow with a warm-up, then build up to the first chorus. Instead of taking the easy way and constantly adding more and more, consider instead taking a small step back for your second verse and then building up to a stronger second chorus. That way you're giving your listeners some ups and downs along the way to make the journey more exciting.
Depending on your song form, you may have a bridge, and then additional choruses. Take as many steps forward, and/or back throughout to keep your audience interested and ultimately land at full power on your last chorus.
The above song roadmap is one that is used by so many songs (“Sledgehammer” by Fifth Harmony, “Unbreakable” by Madison Beer, “Honey, I’m Good” by Andy Grammer, and “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus to name but a few). Notice how sometimes the intensity goes up, while other times it drops. Use this roadmap as a starting point and a guide as you work on your own music.
The takeaway: A good story has ups and downs. That's what makes it interesting. Do the same for your songs and your listeners will want to keep listening for what comes next.
6. Stop at a viewpoint
Loops are so convenient. They make our job as music producers so much easier as we can hit the ground running with awesome sounds and excellent grooves. (Did you know the Spire app has a loop function?)
But loops can also be the pathway to monotony and the reason why your listeners get bored. After all, it's so easy to "loop it and forget it." But I urge you to get your loops out of "cruise control." Just like with our road trip, if you drive in a straight shot for too long, it'll get boring. So once in a while let your song stop at a viewpoint, take a moment to stretch, and snap a photo.
Create special accents for your instruments and fills for the groove. Notice how in Demi's song multiple sections are introduced with large drum fills. This sudden break from a steady groove is a nice new surprise to the ears which your listeners will love.
But just like having a sudden busy fill can create an interesting moment, so can the polar opposite of that. Silence can sometimes be even more effective in building tension. In "Tell Me You Love Me," all the instruments drop out for a moment right before every chorus. This gives us a second to breathe, which makes the entrance of the chorus that follows ever more powerful and strong.
The takeaway: Get out of the steady groove and surprise your listeners with a fill, a couple accents played by all instruments, or a sudden stop.
7. Create new memories in familiar places
Repetition is key to making sure that your audience remembers the chorus of your song after it finishes. It also helps distinguish the different sections from each other. Imagine if each one of your choruses sounded completely different. Your listeners would probably be confused, and more importantly, they'd have a hard time figuring out which part of your song is the hook/chorus. Bringing your listeners back to a similar-sounding section that they've heard before gives them a sense of satisfaction around having finally arrived "home."
So you can definitely copy and paste or repeat your choruses (and other sections) to speed up your workflow. But just because you're repeating a section doesn't mean you should do it identically as before.
Think of it like taking a trip to your favorite city. You'd been there before, so you're bound to revisit old memories and familiar places, but you'll also discover some new little gems along the way.
Notice how in Demi Lovato's song each "Chorus I" section has an almost identical core (like a repeat) which consists of the lead vocal, brass, organ, groove, background vocals, and claps. At the same time, each "Chorus I" is a little different compared to the others. The first one establishes the core instruments and feel. It's clear and solid. The second time around, only one element changes (this chorus adds bass), but it's enough to give it a significant step up. The third time around the chorus is first stripped down to only two instruments + vocal (very barebones which gives it an intimate feel). It then explodes into full power with a groove that's more complex than ever before, an addition of the ride cymbal, and a different brass part (which this time plays the brass lick rather than short stabs).
Although these changes aren't huge, they're enough to make the chorus grow and slightly change each time we revisit it.
The takeaway: Repeat your sections, but give your listeners something slightly different with each one. Add a new instrument. Temporarily remove one. Make some of the parts busier than before.
8. Take a surprise detour
Again, it's all about making the journey interesting. Demi Lovato's "Tell Me You Love Me" starts with a pretty simple intro that establishes the main brass lick over an organ bed. What you would probably expect is for the brass to drop out for the verse and for the vocal to come in on top of the organ, but instead we take a surprise turn and the verse gives us a totally different set of instruments. This shift instantly creates a nice contrast and sonic change. And we're barely 12 seconds in!
Throw in surprise twists in your song productions. Make a section sound unique by swapping some of the instruments for new instruments/sounds that we haven't heard yet. You can stay within the overall sound palette of the song. Or you can go outside the box. It's up to you. It just depends on what you're trying to achieve.
The bridge of your song is a great place to go somewhere new sonically (aka to take some side streets and go into uncharted territory). Change the sound pallet that you've been using up until this point. Introduce a new instrument. Switch the groove. Maybe take out the groove. Modulate. Go into a different scale. If your entire song is major-based, try going minor for the bridge. Or vice versa.
Michael Jackson's "Black or White" goes into an intense heavy metal & rap bridge which provides a huge contrast to the remainder of the song. It gives us something new and sonically completely different, so it definitely catches your attention. Creating a highly contrasting bridge also guarantees that when you finally return to the steadiness of the main groove in the section that follows, it is met with a huge emotional release and relief. So explore and go beyond what you've offered the listener so far. Don't be afraid to venture far for a moment. The payoff may be great.
The takeaway: Changing your sound palette for a section will give your listeners a nice surprise. The more contrast you create, the more interesting your song will be. So play with contrasts and see how they amp up the intensity of your final chorus.
9. Bring it home
Celine Dion's "All By Myself" is probably one of the best-produced songs in adult-contemporary pop history. Definitely my favorite, as it takes listeners on an intense musical journey, similar to the one outlined in the roadmap above. Not only that, the song pulls out all the stops to make sure that you're never bored. From melodic changes, through groove transitions, modulations, an orchestral bridge, ending on the greatest money note of all time which leads right into a grander-than-life final chorus.
It doesn't matter what style of music you primarily work in. Analyze as many songs as you can and you'll see that 95% of your favorite songs all grow and take listeners on a ride. Your songs should be these fun 3–4-minute adventures that you share with your listeners. Don't be afraid to take them on a drive with you. It doesn't have to be crazy. You'll be surprised how introducing something new here and there can make the world of a difference.
At the end of the day, your goal is to never give your audience an opportunity to get bored or to switch to a proverbial different radio station. So fasten your seatbelts and decide, where will the road take you today? Take us on a road trip with your song.