Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Keep Them Listening, Pt. 1

What is the #1 goal of all music production? From the writing to the production to the mixing and mastering, what is the most basic and essential hurdle that every production needs to clear, regardless of genre, artist, or budget?

My answer...to keep the listener engaged until the very last note. As artists, writers, musicians, engineers or producers, that simple idea is at the core of everything we do. It seems like it should be so obvious, yet it is shocking to me how often it gets ignored. I never cease to be amazed by how many people make all kinds of production decisions for all kinds of self-indulgent reasons, yet never stop to think what impact those decisions will have on the listener's experience. The truth is that it doesn't matter how brilliant your lyrics might be, or how epic that guitar solo you spent 14 hours working on is, or how gorgeous the recording sounds if the listener loses interest before the end of the song because of poor decisions or execution in other areas. Your music is very often competing for attention with the everyday chaos that all people deal with, so it is up to you to make your music so engaging that listeners can't help but be pulled into it, no matter what else is going on around them. If your song loses that battle, the listener will most likely tune it out, and once that happens, chances are pretty good that they will never listen to it again. Worse yet, they may write off the entire album or even the artist's entire catalog based on that single underwhelming experience.

Now, please understand that I am not suggesting that artists and songwriters should "sell out" by dumbing down their music in an attempt to appeal to everyone with a set of ears. Artistic identity and principles are major factors in many styles of music, and most fans are pretty adept at being able to spot artists who have cashed in their souls for the sake of selling a few more records. But, there is often a very fine line between artistic integrity and ego, and to leave the listener completely out of the production process until it comes time to ask for their money is usually a clear example of the latter. This isn't about trying to achieve mass appeal...this is about knowing who your listeners are, and having respect for them and for your craft.

So the key is to keep them listening, but the million-dollar question is, HOW? Obviously there is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer; the right approach will depend greatly on the artist, the musical style, and the types of listeners you are going after, among other things. But, there are some universal concepts that apply to virtually every style of music that, if properly considered, can make a very real impact on how many people not only listen to your song from start to finish, but come back to listen again, and again, and again. People spend entire lifetimes trying to master just one or two of these areas, so it's impractical to think that we can cover all of them in full detail within a single blog post. So I will be spreading these out over the next several weeks so that I can give each topic the attention it deserves.

Song Structure

Have you ever wondered why so many songs use similar structures? Verse-Chorus-Bridge, or ABAB, or any of the other common forms? It's because it gives the listener a context in which to understand the song's message. They have heard the same basic structures hundreds or thousands of times before, so they have an innate understanding of how the message is being delivered. Many inexperienced writers have this notion that to be original, they must completely avoid these tried and true structures and create entirely new ones that no one has ever heard before. The very real danger in this approach, however, is that the listener will not be able to connect with the song because they simply can't get their bearings...the ideas just flow over and around them without ever really sinking in because they're too busy trying to figure out where they are and what they're hearing.

I like to compare song structure to writing. Imagine that you have a brilliant idea that you want to convey. If you jotted down all of your thoughts on a blank sheet of paper, but you refused to use capitalization, punctuation, paragraphs, sentences, spacing, or any of the other "conventional" things we all depend on to be able to decipher those thoughts, what exactly will you have accomplished? Sure, you got the thoughts down on paper, but no one besides you will ever be able to interpret them. Don't believe me? Try to read this:


Pretty tough, huh? And even if you did manage to read all of that (it's the beginning of Moby Dick, by the way), it took a lot more time and effort than it ever needed to, and you were probably more focused on trying to interpret the words of the text than on understanding the meaning of it. It's the same with song structure. Don't assume that your listener will be willing to invest tons of time trying to decode your artistic vision. That's not their job. They just want to be entertained, so it's up to you to present your music in a way that makes sense to them on a level that doesn't require deep, thoughtful analysis. Don't let poor use of structure be a roadblock that keeps them from connecting with your music.

Now, that's not to say that you can't get creative with song structure. On the contrary, sticking strictly to the traditional structures is usually pretty boring for a listener. But there are plenty of ways to subtly change common structures so that you surprise the listener and keep them from falling asleep. Creating a surprise ending, having only a half-length verse after the first chorus, interjecting an unexpected breakdown...the list of possibilities is endless. So embrace common song structures...learn about them, understand them, and then skillfully bend them to your advantage.

Check back soon for part 2 of this series.


  1. Great article Aaron. It is always good to know the convention even if you want to try flout it. Looking forwards to part 2!

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