Little Things That Make the Song Big, Part 1


Every songwriter, producer, musician, and composer wants their music to be effective, though the intended effect of a composition will naturally vary from song to song, genre to genre, and creator to creator. Some songwriters seek to communicate the complex emotion of an intense life experience, while others just want to get people moving and shaking on the dance floor. One musician may quest to stun the listener with masterful precision, while another pursues the loose and raw feel of a jam session. Whatever the goal, the ultimate impact of a song is dictated by a vast palette of sounds, words, and rhythms, all of which can be manipulated to elicit reactions in the listener. With the myriad variables present in the various creative processes—writing, playing, recording, and mixing—it’s all too easy to overlook the obvious and underestimate the subtle.

Maybe you’ve whipped up a cool riff, interesting lyric, or fresh beat… now what? Start by establishing a goal; without it you may lose yourself wandering the hazardous terrain of musical possibilities. Ask yourself, “What am I shooting for? What do I want this song to do?” For example, is your tune supposed to trigger humming and singing from your listeners, lull people into a comatose state, or pummel them with fiery sonic arrows? Knowing your desired destination will help you choose the right roads. As you proceed to piece together melodies, pick instruments, and sculpt sounds, keep your end goal at the front of your mind. What the heck, print it out on paper, sew it into a throw pillow, or ask Siri to remind you about it; just don’t forget it!

When it comes to the structure of a song, there are innumerable ways to go—vast combinations of verses, hooks, solos, and breakdowns can be constructed. Obviously, the structure matters. A sprawling ten-minute epic and a brisk three-minute sprint will have entirely different effects on the listener. Think about song intros for a moment. If the goal is to get people moving, the intro should probably be short and immediately hook the audience with a catchy element. If the goal is to set the mood for a slowly developing musical theme, the intro might benefit from sparseness and extended length. Having heard the old phrase, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus,” one could be tempted to use the intro to showcase the big catchy chorus in hopes of immediately piquing the listener’s interest. A danger in doing so is the lack of grandiosity it can yield. When the intro is the biggest part of the song, it’s going to be a real challenge to “get bigger” later in the track.

Some people swear by traditional structures, such as intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro; they’re great for establishing an underlying point of familiarity for the listener. Others insist on avoiding tradition in favor of complexity and unpredictability. Don’t you dare huff or scoff at either one! Either approach is valid and effective when it contributes to the determined goal. If the hope is to have a slow build to a big finish, then something like “Intro, verse, pre-chorus, verse, interlude, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, end” might serve you well. Small changes such as adding a two-beat rest or cutting four bars from a verse are worth considering as they influence the pace and flow of the song. Two examples of such tweaks are in Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. In comparing the two versions of the song, note that Jeff Buckley’s rendition has an interlude between 4:30 and 5:00. This provides a feeling of isolation in the already stripped-down track and prevents the next verse from feeling too repetitious. Also, rather than repeating “Hallelujah” multiple times between 6:10 to 6:32, he chose to sustain the word, imparting a sense of finality and closure. Although subtracting those parts would only affect a small portion of the overall song length, doing so would result in a profound emotional loss in the song as a whole.

Each section of the tune will have a certain number of bars (as in measures, not hot fire). Though it’s natural for popular music to favor multiples of four such as an eight-bar chorus or a twelve-bar verse, be wary of getting stuck in a deceptively comfortable routine. If you don’t keep an eye on yourself, you might end up with a truckload of eight-bar sections and songs that underwhelm with their foreseeable changes. Consider two songs containing identical structures—verse, chorus, verse, chorus. Each of those sections in song one is eight bars. However, song two goes something like this: sixteen-bar verse, eight-bar chorus, eight-bar verse, twelve-bar chorus. Clearly, the second song has greater potential to feel interesting. With that in mind, having varied section lengths makes it possible to use similar structures from song to song without being written off as mass-produced musical mush.

Let’s assume you’ve got a goal, a song structure, and section lengths ironed out; you’re feeling confident with the progress on your masterpiece. Be scared! Even the most finely crafted arrangement can be rendered as dull as watching bricks fight by using the wrong instrumentation. Accepting that each section of your song can showcase any number of instruments, you hold immense creative power. One approach is to only include what could be performed live. Following that guideline, a four-person band would only write songs with parts the four of them could play together at a concert. It’s a respectable restriction to place on oneself, but it does limit song-enhancing abilities.

It’s worth mentioning that for the purpose of live performance, this restriction makes sense and is aided by the cumulative energy from the artists and audience—but this is something that often doesn’t translate to studio recordings. Allowing yourself the freedom to use certain instruments only in certain sections grants you an expanded palette of expression, contrast, and tone. Think of the explosive power a final chorus can yield if it’s permitted to feature percussion, synths, and strings not heard earlier in the tune! The changes don’t have to be major; even miniscule additions can work surprisingly well. For example, just layering-in hand claps and a tambourine to each chorus often raises the energy level without taking the focus from the main instruments. Simmer down now, don’t go dropping claps and tambo on every chorus you encounter.

To recap, first and foremost, determine your musical goal. Work on your song structure, section lengths, and choice of instrumentation, though the order of those processes may be mixed. Chew on those musical morsels and come back soon to read Part 2 of “Little Things that Make the Song Big” for a continued look at the use of instruments and an investigation of groove, mixing tips, and more.

Click here for Part 2 of this article.