Songwriting. Part 4

In Part 4, we'll look at some more advanced (yet sometimes quite simple) songwriting concepts, focusing on areas that are often overlooked.

Ultimate Guitar

In Part 4, we'll look at some more advanced (yet sometimes quite simple) songwriting concepts, focusing on areas that are often overlooked.

More On Dynamics?

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:

01. 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.

02. 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 virtuoso guitarist, recording artist, touring musician and teacher. See Tom Hess on the HolyHell world tour in 2006. To find out more, check out the official Tom Hess web site.

Copyright 2006 by Tom Hess. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

42 comments sorted by best / new / date

    good ideas but the article was way to long, could have done it a lot shoter it just got borin to read
    Maybe it's just me, but I thought that this was something that musicians should already know? It's not really a complicated concept.. When I clicked on the link, I figured I'd find something like shifts in tempo or metere changes, ways to improve technique or something to that effect... This seems like common sense to me. How could you listen to music for years (or even minutes) and not understand this? Anyone who's picked up an instrument knows about that loud and soft sound different... I mean, it's a well done article, but I can't believe that anyone who plays an instruemnt doesn't already understand the impact of rests and build ups, soft passages, etc. Eh.. could just be me..
    hmmmm... im usually a real anti-tom hess kinda guy cuz most of his articles r bullshit, but the whole thing on silence is actually a good concept. the theory of it is cool, but that thing about listenin an focusinon it is bullshit. but eh, u went up from -5 to about +1 on my scale.
    [Creative Name]
    I often sit down and listen to music in a chair for hours not doing anything else but feeling the music. Not anything I didn't already know or play around with but an ok article 6/10
    good article, very interesting, and yes for the record I have many times just listened to music while laying down, focuing on the words and sounds. 7/10
    titled dynamics, i figured there would be touches on actual, forte, mezzo forte, crescendo, decrescendo, etc. if u've played music for any significant amount of time and don't know about rests, stop playing. i did like the strengthening examples for silence though, it just shouldn't be an article, or if it is shouldn't be called dynamics.
    wait a sec...was the article about dynamics? or was it about silence?
    good read, interesting point about just foucuing just to the music. I find myself focusing quiet often being a musican makes you appericate that kind of stuff.
    hey buddy i sit alone in my room in the dark and listening to music for like hours on friday nites
    I thought that This was an awesome lesson, because in art class a few years ago I learned that the SHADOWS are as IMPORTANT as the light, Just like silence in music. This lesson helped me! Thanks a lot!
    Whenever I listen to music I usually turn out the lights and lay down on my bed, doing nothing but concentrating on the music. I usually don't listen to music while doing anything else. This article could've been much shorter, only one or two example would've been neccasary.
    The main subject was dragged on for too long to get to the actual dirt. That whole article could've been done three times shorter.
    Great article. and I have listened to music only, but I was a passenger on a road trip.
    Very good article man, excelent. The example helps a lot, good work!
    just for th interest f people i ahev actually sat and lsitened to msuic for about an hour in a car (i wanst driving) and it hwa son headphones blocking out all other noise and comotio. its a great thing to do you notice so many things and its just interestin to do.
    otherwise its a brilliant article.
    The main subject was dragged on for too long to get to the actual dirt. That whole article could've been done three times shorter.
    it cood have been shorter but i doubt so many people could understand what eh was saying. they are good examples and very good way of explaining it.
    i totally agree with u!! man...!!now a days people are more intrested in watching the chicks in the video rather tahn trying to understand the lyrics...
    in my opionion if you look at teh chord progression given and study it think where you should play certain notes that really dig in and sound strong for that chord or maybe an arpeggio or some sort once you know all your scales, modes, arpeggios etc and you want to portray a particular emotion, you know how to get the basic effect with your musical tools (the scales etc) and then its just up to you how to play what you feel is right, and really dig in to what you're playing, a solo feels much more effective when the guitarrist knows what they're playing and really hits the note confidently... in my opinion.
    this is like the first article i read all the way through. except for those comeback road stories. usually articles here are dragged out so so long. this got the point down and was none to long to read. good job, very imformative.
    not too bad...silence is good, but that whole part of "totally focusing on the music" in the beginning is crap.
    I listen to music and study it all the time. Everytime I get a new album I sit down, and listen, and study it.
    Great thing to play during a song - Nothing. Amusing concept yet it is true, silence can create tension and it does draw attention, yay for psychology. Actually... Boo...
    No, if I stop playing for somebody, they're gonna be like "Gee I'm hungry let's go get..." *goes crazy on guitar* *other person laughs and goes to eat something* -.-
    Dani California
    yeah good stuff man great concpt though im sure more ppl must listen to the music only..... peace guys
    Dan Steinman
    in my high school music appreciation class, they differentiated "passive" and "active" listening. passive is where you're not paying attention... hmm... so the moral of the story is get people's attention with dynamics so they won't tune it out. it's very easy to tune out a song with little dynamic change. this is why i hate oasis--they can go for like 10 straight songs without any dynamic change! it's either bar chords with super smooth distortion or open chords in G with fret3/string2 and fret3/string1 fretted for all the chords... you know what i mean. also, most people don't understand that "play louder/softer" doesn't just mean strum louder/softer--you can change dynamics a lot of ways: switch from fingerpicking to strumming, switch from single note solos to solos with lots of double-stops, play more notes/less notes, cut out/bring in instruments, change from a dense texture to a sparse texture... go nuts, just don't bore me. hmph. i'm gonna go flame oasis on the bands/artists thread.
    cabbaman98 wrote: just for th interest f people i ahev actually sat and lsitened to msuic for about an hour in a car (i wanst driving) and it hwa son headphones blocking out all other noise and comotio. its a great thing to do you notice so many things and its just interestin to do.
    i think alot of people have, the point he's getting at is chances are you werent paying 100% full absolute attention to it 100% of the time, u probably thought of other things, places people etc that are going on in ure life. Hes making the point that its not really possible for people to devote their entire attention to music and as musicians we are obliged to expliot this idea.
    Did he do another article on dynamics other than complete silence? Because if not I'm going to have to say this is a bad article.