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Songwriting Article

The Frequently Ignored Element In Songwriting That Will Enhance Your Musical Expression
by Ryan Buckner
© September 2013 Ryan Buckner. All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission.

Are you not satisfied with the level of creativity in your music? Have you ever spent a long time working on writing a song only to stop because it didn’t truly express your ideas? Would you like to know how great songwriters express themselves through music? To become great at musical self-expression, you must be committed to practicing songwriting on a continual basis. Before you can write highly expressive music, you will spend many hours writing, throwing away and refining musical ideas in order to develop your songwriting skills.

With that being said, a major reason why many musicians take a long time to become better songwriters is they ignore one or more important elements in music. In this article, I will discuss one of the most overlooked musical elements, why most musicians ignore it and how you can use it to better express yourself in music. The musical element I will cover is the element of dynamics.

NOTICE: If you are currently thinking: “Dynamics? I already know about that... it only means making music louder and softer, that’s all.” ... Then you have already begun to overlook the unique creative qualities of this musical element (this is the same mistake that most musicians make). You see, many songwriters overlook the element of dynamics while thinking of things like which chords to use, how to write a melody or what song lyrics to write. As a result, they miss out on one of the most effective musical tools for powerful self-expression.

The following list contains some of the great uses for dynamics that will help make your music more musically expressive. When you fully utilize dynamics in your music, you will:

  1. Make your music much more creative and expressive without even altering a single pitch.
  2. Gain the power to drastically change the feeling of intensity in a song.
  3. Create a totally new dimension in your music to emphasize each individual song section or musical part.

A Quick Definition Of Dynamics In Music

In general, dynamics refer to the overall volume of a section in a song, individual musical part or note. To express the idea of specific dynamics in written music, the following symbols are used commonly:

How To Utilize Contrasting Dynamics For Musical Expression

By using contrasting dynamics you can quickly grab the attention of anyone listening to your music. For example, think about the common songwriting formula used in rock ballads. For the most part, the song will consist of softly played acoustic guitar and vocal parts. Many times, the introduction (and beginning verse and chorus) will contain no percussion whatsoever. Then, to provide contrast, the drums will begin playing during the second verse. As an even bigger contrast, the songwriter may even include a solo/break section with electric guitar (only to return to the soft, acoustic guitar parts once the section has ended). This simple formula is highly effective at gaining the attention of the listener due to its contrasting dynamics. You can also use this concept in your music to contrast not only entire song sections, but different notes within a single melody or musical idea.

How To Use Dynamics To Accent A Single Melody

To make any melody stick out, emphasize it by using varying dynamics. For instance, begin the melody “loud” and gradually reduce the volume until the notes are “soft”. This technique is known as a “decrescendo”. Additionally, alter the volume level of different notes within a melody to make them contrast with each other and stick out. This is especially useful for adding interest to repeating musical parts in your songs. This will give you the power to express yourself in different ways without altering any of the actual pitches in your melody. Learn more unique ways to create an interesting melody in your songs by checking out this free eBook about creative songwriting techniques.

Expressing Yourself Through Music Using ‘Silence’

One musical tool that is frequently overlooked is ‘silence’. Silence (or “rests”) is an excellent way to increase the expressive impact of dynamics. For instance, imagine if you were listening to loud music with headphones and suddenly the battery ran out on your mp3 player. This would instantly grab your attention and cause you to say “What’s going on? Where’s my music?” This exact reaction can be recreated by using silence to build up anticipation in the listener for what is to come next. Use this idea in your own music by experimenting with different lengths of silence in between your musical phrases to get different expressive results.

Examples Of How Dynamics Are Commonly Used In Musical Expression

One of the greatest ways to study the expressive effects of dynamics is to listen to the way music is used in films. If you ever stop to pay attention to the music during a movie, you will frequently observe that it matches with the overall mood of the scene or personality of the characters.

Example One: Using dynamics to create a feeling of surprise

Visualize a scene in a movie like this: It’s 11:30AM and there is a businessman standing at a packed street corner waiting for the “walk” sign to turn on so he can cross. All around him you can hear the sounds of the big city such as cars honking, the roar of continuous chatter and street vendors yelling out to attract new customers (you can also hear upbeat music playing in the background to set the scene). Suddenly, the sign turns on and the businessman looks up from his watch as everyone starts crossing the street in a big moving mass – bumping into him along the way. He adjusts his coat and quickly makes his way across the street. As he quickly jogs across he suddenly trips and drops his briefcase... papers go flying everywhere. He falls to the ground, scrambles to pick them up and stuff them into his briefcase as quickly as possible while losing focus of his surroundings. Finally he grabs the last one... “Gotcha!” he says as he crams it inside. Then, as he stands up to dust himself off you hear the loud screech of a car slamming on the breaks as it comes to an instant stop in front of him.

At this moment in the scene, how do you think the tension would be resolved musically? A common technique used in this case would be for the music to quickly build up to a loud accent before becoming silent (to emphasize the same feeling of surprise in the scene).

Example Two: Using dynamics to express an increase or decrease in emotional tension

Think of a romantic scene where a couple is brought together at the airport. First, there is a lot of doubt on both sides about whether the relationship will work out or not (with very soft music playing in the background). After the couple talks for a little bit, they finally come to the decision that they must go their separate ways. Both the man and woman walk off and the scene cuts to the man walking out of the airport thinking of past memories of his lover. Inside the airport, the woman sits with her face in her hands, wondering what will become of her life without the presence of the man she cared for so much. Suddenly, they both have the realization that they were wrong... they will find a way to make things work. They both get up and start running to find one another (the music begins building in volume). They run frantically through the airport, trying to regain the last spec of hope that the other person hasn’t left yet, and is looking for them too (music continues becoming louder and louder). Then across a crowd, they lock eyes, run toward each other and embrace! In response, the music climaxes here and is playing at its loudest...

Example Three: Using rests/silence to enhance dynamics and add a sense of mystery.

In this last example, imagine a scene in a horror movie that takes place inside of a large, haunted mansion with a man walking around by himself. At this point in the scene, he believes he saw a ghost and begins slowly walking from one room to the next. Each time he takes a step, you can hear the old wooden floors of the mansion creaking beneath him. “Who’s there?” he says out loud (suddenly, you hear the sound of a single cello beginning to build in volume). Out of nowhere, something seems to scurry along the ground behind him. He snaps around to see what is going on (the music stops and there is silence)... nothing there but an old antique rug. The man bends down to inspect the rug, already layered in what seems like a century of dust. “How long has this thing been here?” he wonders out loud. Then his ears perk up as he hears the floor creak behind him. A drop of sweat runs down his forehead and his face turns cold (the cello begins playing again to build up suspense... getting louder and louder). He slowly turns his head around and suddenly everything goes dark. You hear a terrible scream, then... total silence.

As you have read through this article you have discovered different ways to express yourself through music using dynamics. Keep in mind that dynamics are not only a great tool of expression in movies, but in any musical situation. As you focus on dynamics in your songwriting, remember to use balance in order to create a powerful sensation of tension and release that will keep your listeners on the edge of their seats.

Learn how to use dynamics and other musical elements to accurately express yourself in your songwriting by studying this free songwriting techniques eBook.


About the author:

Ryan Buckner is a songwriter and electric guitarist in the Oklahoma City area. He currently runs an instructional songwriting lessons website that helps musicians learn how to use creative songwriter techniques, write song lyrics and express themselves accurately through music.

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