By John Braheny
Among the most powerful tools you can use to make your songs more commercial and to impress industry pros with your command of the craft, is the use of contrasts and variations that I call "song dynamics." I've also observed that it's the tool most commonly overlooked and underused by amateur songwriters. In this section we'll look at several devices you should have in your bag of tricks and why they work.
There are crucial points during a song at which the audience's attention must be dramatically and positively captured in order to make it effective on radio. I had a very valuable experience that helped to confirm my information about these factors.
Len Chandler (my partner in the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase) and I were asked to produce demos of some strong commercial songs by a company that regularly tested records on behalf of producers and record companies. Though this method of testing is no longer used by the company, we learned a lot from this experience. Here's how it worked. Every Saturday, four hundred young potential record buyers of several demographic groups (divided into age, sex and racial groups) sat in a theater and turned a dial on the arm of their seats to indicate responses to a given song ranging from "don't like it" to neutral to "love it." As the song was played in the theater, lyrics were shown on the screen and, simultaneously, a computer totaling the combined responses of each demographic group drew a graph of that group's reaction so that we could see how they responded at any given moment of the song. From watching those reactions and from the director's interpretations of what we saw, we learned the following:
1. Intros for ballads should be shorter in order to get the listener into the body of the song more quickly. Intros for up-tempo songs can be longer because, if the groove and arrangement are interesting, people get involved physically almost immediately. People reflect on ballad lyrics in a more passive way, which increases the need for a blockbuster chorus to grab their attention.
2. Listeners will try to identify the voice when it's first heard. If it's familiar, it usually generates a positive reaction. People always feel more comfortable with a voice they know than one they don't, because they have to decide whether or not they like an unfamiliar singer.
This phenomenon also contributes to the difficulty for an unknown artist to get exposure on the radio. A good example was that the demo we produced on an unknown male artist with a beautiful but very high voice got a negative reaction from the audience. We finally concluded that the audience was turned off because they didn't know whether to identify a male or female (the lyrics didn't immediately establish a gender). Remember that this wasn't Michael Jackson or The Artist, both of whom have readily identifiable high voices. The problem here wasn't the high voice in itself, it was the lack of gender identity.
3. The reaction at the first sound of a voice is critical to the audience's continued reaction to the record. The longer it takes to respond positively, the harder it is to build interest through the rest of the song. In the absence of a familiar voice, the lyric content of the first line(s) is very important to the audience's response. This is the audience's first exposure to the song and artist, and there's an automatic tendency to pay attention when someone starts to sing, just as there is when someone starts to talk. If people don't understand or hear or like what's being said, the reaction will be negative.
4. The chorus is another crucial place in a song. If audience interest doesn't increase perceptibly at the beginning of the chorus and increase throughout, continued positive interest in the remainder of the record is unlikely.
In television, the pros say that there should be a new camera angle or other change at least every fifteen seconds to keep the viewer's interest. (In music videos, that time is considerably shorter.) This principle has an analogy to radio. Since it is true that we remember only a fraction of what we hear compared to what we see, we begin to understand why we're so easily distracted when we listen to the radio. That means that the battle for people's attention on the radio is a heavy one and songwriters need all the ammunition they can get. Now that we understand what has to be done, how can we create the excitement that solves the problem?
One of the main components of the "SuperLearning" (www.superlearning.ca) techniques developed by Russian educators now being used in the West is that teachers vary the tone, intensity and pitch of their voice frequently as they deliver the material. Those contrasts continue to stimulate the student's attention. Since this is the same effect you want to achieve in your listeners, you can use many different techniques, musically and lyrically, to achieve contrasts between different segments of the song. In the next article we'll explore some of those techniques.
This excerpt from John Braheny’s book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting (2nd edition, 2002, Writers Digest Books) has been edited for length. It’s available at bookstores everywhere. For info about John’s critiquing and consulting services, go to www.johnbraheny.com.