Have you found that your songs are missing something?
Do you want to write songs that have a massive emotional impact?
Wouldn't you like your songs to stand out and be memorable?
Great songwriting can be very difficult. Every songwriter has struggled to get their ideas to really fit what they think is best for the song or album. This problem gets even worse when trying to write longer songs and songs of more epic proportions. And who doesn’t want that? Whether you want your songs to be short or long, you want them to have a powerful emotional impact. One way we can do this is with dynamics, which is what we will look at today.
Dynamics are louder sections vs. quieter sections of songs. This can also include dense parts vs. more scarce parts. Dynamics convey a contrast in the level of excitement present at any given time during the song. Musical density can be considered a different element altogether, but it does effect the dynamic perception the listener has depending on the timbre, the quantity of instruments, and how they are played.
First we need to look at the big picture. Most guitar playing songwriters often start a song with a riff or chord progression and build from there. This isn’t a bad place to start. The problem isn’t starting with a riff or chord progression, the problem is not having a plan beyond simply wanting to write a song. To get to where you want to go, in this scenario it is writing an awesome song, you need a map. Where do you get a map for songwriting? Well, if I gave you a map, it might not fit what you want because we all have different ideas for how our songs should sound. You must create the map. This is the big picture. Having a plan and a general idea makes things a lot easier. It gives you boundaries to work within. The fun part is you get to set the boundaries.
Boundaries are set to restrict us from getting off track, but this doesn’t mean limit us. Restrictions are good. They allow you to do what you need to do without distractions and/or going off the path down rabbit trails that lead to nowhere. If you want to get somewhere with your song, you need a plan, a map, and a path.
So how do dynamics apply to the map? Think of it like terrain with hills, valleys, and mountains. These changes in terrain will force you to take different paths to get to where you want to go or what you want to experience. If you want a song that puts you on the mountain top then you need to have a serious change in dynamics. If your song is loud all the time or quiet all the time then it will feel flat.
I’m going to refer to one of my original compositions called “Subjected To Frustration” as an example. It is over 7 minutes of music. This song has 11 different parts. Go to the following link and download the mp3 and tablature for the whole song Subjected To Frustration. The 11 parts are listed in the tablature.
The danger in doing a long song is that it might get redundant or boring for the listener. No one wants this. In Subjected To Frustration I wanted to write a longer song that would keep the listener engaged and looking forward to what was coming next. The dynamics are what I want you to listen to. If you want, give it a listen first and see what you can hear.
Think of it like ranking the parts of a song 1 through 10. 1 being quieter and more scarce. 10 being loud and with a higher note and/or instrument density. The songs dynamics go a little like this… 1 - 2 - 5 - 7 - 3 - 5 - 7 - 6 - 5 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 6 - 5 - 9 - 10 - 9 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 8 - 4 - 8 - 1 - 9 - 10
Look at this rough graph below to see it in a visualized format. This isn’t an exact representation in relation to time and is only for demonstration purposes.
As you can see, there are a lot of dynamic changes through the song. The individual pieces have dynamic changes and the song as a whole has many dynamic changes amongst the different sections. This was done to create a story and take the listener on a journey. Whenever a song starts, your brain will try to predict where it is going to go, but if there are twists and turns in the story and the journey and its end is not what was expected at the start, then the listener will hopefully be pleasantly surprised.
My goal was to make this have a congruent flow. Some songwriters make more abrupt changes more often and have greater shifts in dynamics. It’s a creative choice to make. I wanted it to be more gradual for the most part. For an exercise you could even draw a 2D image like the diagram above(or even use the one above) that roughly represents how you want your song to flow and then use it as a template to write a new song.
Here is a process you can use when listening to any song to learn from it’s dynamic elements. These questions are only for dynamics, but can also be reworded to apply to other elements of music.
• How did the dynamic changes in the song make you feel?
• Did the dynamic changes feel natural?
• What did you like or didn’t like about the dynamic changes?
• Which part made you feel the most excitement and why? Were the dynamics a part of this?
• How much do you already use dynamics to enhance your songs?
• How can you use dynamics to improve your songwriting today?
About The Author:
Ryan Duke is a progressive metal songwriter, recording artist, and teaches guitar lessons in Seattle.