Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tip: Make it different, but the same

The simplest way to make a song catchy is to repeat some element over and over. For example, you can repeat the same chord phrase through the entire song, perhaps with occasional breaks to help give the song some structure.

Some hit songs that use this technique include
  • "Jump" — Van Halen
  • "Kids" — MGMT
  • "Rebel Rebel" — David Bowie
  • "Word Up" — Cameo
And these are just random examples off the top of my head. If you run through any list of top hits, you'll find that many of them are extremely repetitive in one way or another.

But there's an obvious pitfall to relentless repetition: it can become tiresome if it's too obvious. Is it possible to make a song catchy without wearing out the listener?

Here's one idea: Create two different version of the same chord phrase. Use the simpler one in the verse, and the more complex one in the chorus. Or, if it suits your song better, you can do the opposite: use the simpler version in the chorus, and the more complex one in the verse.

For example, if you used this simple chord phrase in the verse:
C - - - | - - - - | F - - - | Dm - G - | could use this more elaborate version in the chorus:
C - - - | Am C G C | F - - - | Dm C/E F G |

(By the way, I just made up this pair of chord phrases, so feel free to steal them and write a song with them.)

These two chord phrases have the same basic outline, similar enough to help wear that instant groove in the listener's memory that makes them want to hear the song again, but the phrases are also different enough on the surface to provide some interest and variation.

One song that uses this technique is "Lost in the Supermarket" by the Clash. (I'm sure there are many others, but that's the only one I can think of right now.)

Another way to use the same chord phrase in verse and chorus and have them still be different is to cast the verse and the chorus in two different keys. Two songs that use this technique are:
  • "Come On Eileen" — Dexy's Midnight Runners
  • "Run Runaway" — Status Quo (actually, this song changes key between the verse and an instrumental theme with the same chords)
Here's one more simple technique that does wonders to keep relentless repetition from seeming oppressive: just come to a stop. Land on the tonic chord (or perhaps some other chord) and just sit there for four or eight bars. When you start repeating the chord phrase again, it will seem fresh and interesting again.

(Of course, there are also many arrangement and production tricks devoted to keeping things interesting in a repetitive song. Maybe there's a music production blog somewhere with that group of tips.)

Please post a comment if you come up with other good examples of songs that use any of these techniques — or if you know any other techniques to keep things interesting while repeating a chord phrase over and over.

Thursday is Unruly Tip Day.

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