Nothing is more boring and unappealing than a song that doesn’t go anywhere, which is why any successful song needs to build tension and make sure that the listener is kept curious about what will happen next. So what can you do to keep a song fresh and surprising? How do you make a song instantly recognizable but a pleasure to listen to? Songwriting teacher, Peter van Vleuten offers some handy tips and tricks.
Humans have been fascinated by duality and the tension between these opposing forces since the dawn of time: sun and moon, light and dark, ebb and flow, creation and destruction, good and evil. They are all conflicting opposites that we can’t help but recognise in ourselves and even play around with. Everywhere, even in music, we seek out contrast and variety. We almost want conflict and contradiction. We want energy, then we want rest, we want a song to go hard and then soften up, we like songs made up of long mournful notes just as much as we like songs packed with short stuttering ones, and we like surprises as much as we like something to be familiar and affirming. In songs, we are constantly on the lookout for that build up of tension and its eventual release – a cycle that feels brand new but is extremely familiar, because as long as the tension builds, like it would in a good story, we’re far more likely to stick around until the end.
The necessary tension arc is created when the tension is built and finally resolves into release. If you look at the standard elements of a song, you’ll see that any songwriter has some important decisions to make: when does the life-affirming chorus kick in? Where will the verses sit, and will there be a pensive moment during the bridge or will everything finally unfold into an entirely different element? In other words: when are you asking something of your listener and when are you giving them something back?
Long Intros: Don’t Bother
Research has shown that long intros just aren’t the done thing. Songs with intros as long as classics like Stairway to Heaven or Hotel California just wouldn’t stand a chance in the music industry of today. A 20 second long intro is already too much, and most contemporary hits avoid clocking up any more than 5 seconds before kicking in. The best case scenario? Skip the intro altogether. Why? Modern listeners just don’t have time for intros and a long intro on streaming services like Spotify, just feels like wasting time; the worst outcome being that most listeners just skip to the next track. To stick out in any playlists, a song needs to kick off within the first 30 seconds, so the writers churning out the hits right now are usually the writers that are getting straight to the point.
Have a close listen to good 4 u by Olivia Rodrigo, which has racked up a good 1.5 billion streams on Spotify. The intro is just 6 seconds long before the vocals kick in with two short verses, and by 28 seconds, we already hit the first high-energy chorus. The total length of the song? Just 2.59 minutes.
Compare that with a random hit from 20 years ago like Drops of Jupiter by Train: the intro is 12 seconds long, followed by a verse and a half and a chorus that drops at 48 seconds in. Total length: 4.20 minutes.
Examples of Tension & Release
How can you gain the perfect transition from tension to release? There’s more than just one way to do it:
- Tension & release in the harmonies (chords: maybe using minor chords as the tension builder and major chords as the release)
- Tension & release in the dynamics (e.g. loud versus quiet)
- Tension & release in the instruments and effects (the arrangement)
- Tension & release in the rhythm/beat (also in the lyrics: long held notes vs. fast and short notes)
- Tension & release in the melody and pitch (a low pitched verse next to a higher pitched chorus; the root note/chord provides the release while the rest can build tension)
- Tension & release in the form and structure (tension building in the verse that’s then released in the chorus)
How the arc of tension and release is achieved in a song plays out on various different levels. On the micro-level, you need to make sure that your verses aren’t too one-note when it comes to the chords and melody – so make sure that there’s enough melodic variety and rhyme. On the mid-level, most of the time your chorus will sit melodically higher than the verse, with emphasis on repetition and simple content. Different phrasing, timing and lyric placement to the verse is also important to ensure a recognisable difference. On the macro-level, make sure that your audience is able to follow and understand the entire song from the first listen.
Shorter, Shorter and Shorter
Pop hits have only become shorter and shorter. Here, the shorter attention span of listeners seems to be the final decision maker. The sheer volume of information and stimulus that we have to compute on a daily basis has become explosive within the last 20 years. As such, we’ve become pretty economical with our attention, giving it only to what we want. So skipping through tracks is just standard practice these days.
The Shrinking Hit
At the moment, your average hit song won’t last any longer than around 3 minutes and 20 seconds. The expectation is that this will reduce even further during the years to come. There are music theorists and scientists who predict that hits of the future will shrink to somewhere between 2 minutes and 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Pop songs will become nothing but a repeated chorus with persistent stimuli and hooks in between.
More and more, hit songs are written based on formulas and algorithms. Are we progressing towards what might be termed as the perfect song? Or do you think that the soul is slowly being sucked out of music? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
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