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10 Dynamics Tips: the up and down
Dynamics are the breath of life in a song. To me they are one of the key differentiators between a good and a great arrangement. Dynamics are the loud and soft, the light and shade that exists within a song. The word ‘dynamic’ is all about change. The dictionary says, it is a force that stimulates change or progress. In music theory, dynamics is defined as the variation in loudness between notes or phrases. Strictly speaking, that is the limit of what dynamics is in music. However, more generally we tend to refer to the things that change the intensity of the different sections in a song as dynamics. The long and the short of it is that dynamics are a vital aspect of the journey a song offers the listener.
If there is no element of change in a song, your listeners will lose interest. End of story. Dynamics play an important role in that change. Without some dynamics you’re going to either bore your audience or fatigue them. Repetition is an important ingredient in modern music genres, some more than others, however too much repetition is, well, too much. To make the point let’s consider an extreme example. Imagine a song that has only one chord played in a constant quarter note pattern for the duration with no change in the emphasis, timing, anything. I can’t see myself staying for the whole song, can you? The music would lack any feel. The lyric would have to rip my heart out to for this song to stand a chance of me listening to the end., even then, I don’t think I’d be going back for more. Now imagine that same song, but with some strumming variation, i.e. differing intensities throughout. Maybe some muting in a section, and some stronger emphasis on particular chords in others. Small intensity changes can make all the difference. In fact we aren’t far from describing some really well known pop songs at this stage. Add one or two chord changes for seasoning (a.k.a harmonic variation - another aspect of change) and hey presto, magic! Change is what keeps the listener engaged.
Here are 10 common ways of creating dynamics in songs that I’ve noticed. Some of these ideas could also be filed under ‘Arrangement Techniques’. To me, if they change the intensity, they fit under the dynamics heading as well. Have a look at the following list and use at your discretion:
1. The verse is ‘smaller’ than the chorus. Typically the verse is less dense than the chorus. In a rock context this might mean the verse has literally one guitar part, and in the chorus we double the guitar part and pan the two different takes out wide, and push it up in the mix to make it a little louder. Listen to Nothing But Thieves, ‘Itch’. NBT tick a bunch of dynamics boxes with this song.
2. The opposite of the above works also, but is way less common. Listen to the title track of P!nk’s, ‘I’m not dead’ album. The pre-chorus builds out of the verse only to drop down completely in the chorus. I think it works a treat.
3. The band, or most of it, stops for a bar while the vocal or other instrument continues, then all back in...or some variation on that. Typically used at the end of a verse. This adds impact to the beginning of the chorus, which is typically ‘bigger’ than the verse. See again Nothing But Thieves, ‘Itch’...do yourself a favour!
4. Change a rhythmic element part way through a section. Think quarter note hi-hats for half a verse, then eighth note hi-hats for the second half. Creates a gear change effect, speeding up the song, accelerating it into the chorus. The chorus can then launch to epic levels. You can achieve this effect with just about any instrument, not just drums and is not restricted to verses. This can be particularly effective when done with the vocal via a shift in the syllable count per bar at a point. It builds intensity
5. Adding a non-rhythmic element such as a keyboard part, part way through a section. This is also effective in the broader song context as a verse two addition. Thus increasing the intensity of the second verse as compared to the first, albeit subtly. This is something I learned while listening to Prince back in the day. I noticed he would introduce an element, then stack on another layer and then another to build intensity...then pull one...then put it back, then pull out two of these layers to drop the intensity for a song section. I refer to it as additive and subtractive arrangement. I’m a fan.
6. Start the song small, and taper up to epicness (yes it’s a word!) at the end through a series of steps up and down...but with a net effect of increased intensity over time. It’s a 2 steps up for one step back then 2 up and repeat. This is a popular arrangement style. U2 were masters at this. It can help to create very emotive songs when done well. Check out ‘Neon Brother’ by Nothing But Thieves (yes, those guys again!) for a great example of this type of arrangement.
7. Start the song with the chorus at full tilt, then drop back into a verse...then follow your muse from there. Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ does this. After one run through the chorus chords with just one guitar, the whole band kicks in for a loud intro chorus minus vocals. Then it drops right down to the verse feel which is quite sparse. Loud soft is a big part of the Nirvana sound. Which they borrowed from The Pixies.
8. Pause. It’s so simple. It can be a one beat thing, E.g. stop on the 3-and...then just take a breath, then everyone hits the one for the start of next section. Or at the end of a chorus, let the last chord just ring out...for as long as is appropriate...or for as long as you dare.
9. Accent hits. Da-da...da-da. A great hook line opportunity. Break up a section. Use it as a transition tool...with punch. A classic ‘air drum’ opportunity. Note: It’s the little gaps of silence that make these super effective.
10. Build into a section. Typically this is where we’re motoring along with the groove of the song, then a bar (or so) out from a sectional change the drummer (and others) change to a straight eighth or sixteenth note pattern starting with soft hits and ‘building’ with increasing intensity out to a full slam. A build can be achieved in other ways too. In RATM’s ‘Born of a Broken Man’, the build that launches us out of the intro is done by the guitar ramping with a volume swell. They later use the whole band to build out of verse 3. For something more recent, Royal Bloods “How Did We Get So Dark’, after the main instrumental section there is a build that runs for some 12 or more bars! Check it out.
I could go on. There are more. I just had to stop at some point. I’m writing this on a plane heading out on holiday, (alright I’m bragging) and we’re currently preparing to land...so now’s as good a time as any. Think about your latest creations. Is there room for some more dynamics? There often is. Use the comments section on the blog or the contact page on my website www.electricreclab.com to let me know about your favourite dynamics techniques. I’ll write a part 2 with any new useful tips. Promise. Make good art.
Hi, I'm Scott. I own The Electric Recording Lab. It is an independent recording studio located in Ferntree Gully Victoria, Australia. The Electric Recording Lab focuses on recording local bands doing an EP, a single, or tracking drums or loud guitars or other overdubs. Use the contact page to discuss how I can assist you with your next project.