Ryan Buckner: How To Create Interesting Songs That Engage Your Listeners

How To Create Interesting Songs That Engage Your Listeners
By Ryan Buckner

Do you want to know how to create music that sounds exactly the way you want it to sound? The reality is, it often takes songwriters a long time to learn how to write songs that truly express their ideas and emotions in an accurate manner. If you would like to improve your ability to write expressive songs in a shorter amount of time, you will need to gain an in depth understanding about the fundamental concept of “unity and variety” in music. Once you know how this works, you will be able to make songs in a way that engages the listener and creates a sense of balance in your songwriting. Read the rest of the article below and learn more about “unity and variety” and how to use these elements in your songs to become a better songwriter.

What Is “Unity And Variety” In Music?
Whenever someone listens to a song, they are judging how good the music is based on the creative use of unity and variety by the songwriter. This happens either consciously if the person has prior musical understanding or subconsciously in the case of most casual music listeners.
So what is unity and variety in music? “Unity” refers to the idea of repetition, staying the same or using similar ideas during a piece of music while “variety” refers to creating a sense of novelty in a song by adding new ideas, patterns or musical elements. By maintaining a solid balance between both unity and variety, you can effectively engage the listener and keep them interested in your music for a long time. A good balance will essentially utilize the “safe” comfortable feeling of repeated ideas while also mixing in the surprise of new ideas to add tension and interest. If you have ever had the experience of writing a song that seems to lack interest or doesn’t transition well from section to section; you most likely have a poor balance of unity and variety in one or more elements of your music. In fact, many people struggle with this problem. For example, here are various ways that songwriters write music that is “unbalanced” by using too much or too little unity or variety:
1.   A melody is repeated many times note for note with little variance. [overused unity]
2.   The different sections in a song are repeated several times over without any major variation (same lyrics, same melodies, same chords, etc.). [overused unity]
3.   The songwriter writes song lyrics that utilize very predictable ideas that follow clichés with little or no innovation [overused unity]
4.   The rhythm in the notes for a particular part of a song are unpredictable and seem to have no tie-in to the feel of the song as a whole (this happens commonly when people program notes into a sequencer without really think about what they are doing). [overused variety]
5.   The music contains many notes that are not “in key” and don’t seem to have any clear function in the song; taking away the music’s sense of direction. [overused variety]
Get many solutions to the common songwriting errors made by most musicians and learn how to make music that sounds how you want it to.

Creating An Effective Balance Between Unity And Variety In Music
To learn how to write songs that are highly expressive, it is useful to understand how unity and variety are commonly misused (see above) and how they are effectively used to make a song more interesting. The most crucial reason that unity and variety are useful is that knowing how to use them gives you the ability to set up and change the expectations of those who are listening to your music… unity is what you will use to set up your listener’s expectations and variety is what you will use to add tension and interest into the music by surprising them with something new. The formula here is really quite simple; however, should not be taken lightly as it applies to literally all aspects of songwriting.
The truth is, unity and variety is not exclusively used only in the realm of songwriting. This idea of balance in musical ideas or patterns exists because of our universal ability to perceive symmetry in nature. In basic evolutionary thinking, our mind has adopted the idea of seeing symmetrical patterns as something noteworthy because we have been in continual interaction with other animals over the course of our existence. This symmetry for one reason or another has provided us with distinct benefits to help us locate food, avoid our enemies and take advantage of other useful opportunities for survival.
Since unity and variety are not exclusive only to music, you can learn a lot about it by looking into other non-musical outlets. To help you gain a better understanding of this important concept, I have provided a list of examples outside of the musical realm that use unity and variety in an effective manner. Additionally, I have made an effort to tie them together with music to help give you ideas that you can use right now to enhance your songwriting:

Unity And Variety In… Playing Sports:
There are plenty of examples of unity and variety used throughout sports and other games or athletic competitions. For this example, I will use one of my favorite sports to play: baseball. In baseball, it all comes down to the competition between the pitcher throwing the ball and the batter trying to hit the ball. As for the pitcher, he has many options available to him when it comes to trying to get the batter out. In order to do this effectively, the pitcher must concentrate on creating an expectation for the batter and surprising him by varying the speed of his pitches and the location where he throws his pitches. As for changing speeds, this is commonly done by putting together a sequence of consecutive fast pitches followed by a pitch that is much slower. Since a fastball only gives the batter little time to locate and hit the ball (about .2 seconds), he must react very quickly if he wants to put the ball into play. By throwing a pitch that is significantly slower, the batter’s timing gets messed up. This greatly increases the pitcher’s chances of striking the batter out or getting him to make poor contact on the ball (and get out).

How To Use This Idea To Write Better Songs:
By “changing speed” in your music, you can effectively throw your listener a curve ball and engage their interest through the element of surprise. One way you can do this is by writing a song in a slow tempo and creating a section within that song that either speeds up the tempo or uses “faster” note rhythms. For example, consider the song “One” by Metallica that uses a slow/moderate tempo throughout until the end of the song where a drastic contrast is created.

Unity And Variety In… Making A Joke:
Well, it may not be very funny to get into the technical aspects of ‘why’ making jokes works to get people to laugh… but for the sake of songwriting, I am willing to make the sacrifice :)
In comedy, there exists a very basic formula for making funny jokes. That formula comes down to 3 steps: 1. Set up the joke 2. Give the punch line 3. Enjoy your hard earned laughs, international fame and the respect of your peers (…more or less). That said, not all comedians go by the same exact comedy writing formula. Some comedians might use a specific style that amplifies the effect of the joke on the crowd. To do this, they add on an additional punch line to the joke that either makes fun of the other punch line in some way or adds a whole new perspective to the joke itself. This catches the audience off guard and makes the joke much funnier than it was with the original punch line. (For great examples of this, I recommend the standup comedy of Dave Chappelle. He frequently uses this delivery style as part of his main approach to comedy.)

How To Use This Idea To Write Better Songs:
Just like delivering a punch line for a joke, the chorus in your music is often a very important part of the song that requires great attention to detail in order to truly engage the listener. One great technique for changing your chorus in a way that adds a whole new dimension to the music is to change it up in when it is repeated for the final time. So for example, if your chorus has already repeated 2 or 3 times and you are about to end your song with the final chorus; you could try altering it by moving all the notes up by a half step in pitch. By moving everything ‘up’ you create a sudden change that greatly alters the listener’s expectations and the mood of the music as a whole. This is a good way to end the song “on a high note”.

Unity And Variety In… Writing A Script For A Movie:
Have you ever seen a movie that has a surprise “twist” ending? This technique is a very effective way that movie writers can turn your favorite hero or bad guy into a totally new character; in the process changing your entire perception around him/her. There is certainly an art to doing this and the more unexpected the twist is, the more you will be surprised (and in effect tell your friends to go check out the movie for themselves).

How To Use This Idea To Write Better Songs:
The Picardy Third, a technique made popular during the classical period, is great way to express “plot twist” in a song. This technique essentially comes down to changing a single note in a chord during your song (usually a chord at the end of a section) to change it from what was expected to something entirely unexpected. Most commonly this means changing the final chord in a song that was mostly in a minor key from minor to major. For instance, if you are in the key of A minor, rather than using an A minor chord to finish the song, you would use an A “major” chord. This creates a very interesting change in mood that feels very surprising to the listener.

Unity And Variety In… Working Out To Gain Muscle:
If you have any experience with weight lifting and muscle gain, you understand that your body becomes used to the same exercises if you repeat them enough. As a result, your muscle gains will diminish until you can find a way to surprise your body by forcing it to do something it is not “prepared” for. This surprise can come in the form of suddenly adding in new exercises that you aren’t used to and/or using a strategy to gradually increase weight resistance over time.

How To Use This Idea To Write Better Songs:
To make a correlation here between music and the weight lifting example I mentioned above, I am going to describe a common, yet highly effective formula used in songwriting. If you have ever listened to a ballad, you may have noticed the following pattern:
In the beginning there are no drums or percussion instruments of any kind… only vocals or other “softly played” instruments such as guitar, keyboard, etc. The song proceeds through a verse section and the first chorus. Then, upon the repetition of the verse, the drums enter the song and provide it with a louder contrast to keep you engaged in the music.
The reason that this formula is used so often is that it sets up the expectations for a soft, easy listening ballad and then suddenly contrasts this with loud drums that come in during the second verse. Like with adding weight resistance to spark growth in your muscles, this formula adds in a sudden shock to the listener to gain their attention and set the foundation for new growth in the direction of the music.
Give your songs more direction by gaining better knowledge about writing the different parts of a song.

Unity And Variety In… Painting A Picture:
While painting a picture, you can effectively direct the person who is viewing your art to notice a specific idea using unity and variety. One way to do this is utilize a contrast between light colors and dark colors. For instance, imagine a painting that contains some kind of stereotypical depiction of “Heaven and Hell”. This painting takes place from inside a bunch of dark caves with various pits of fire, demons and other monstrosities. As you look “up” from the bottom of the cave toward the very top, you can see a clear blue sky in the distance with the sun, clouds, angels and so forth. If you are viewing this picture, you will have no choice but to notice the contrast between the mostly dark elements in the painting (unity) and the small patch of light with bright colors that represents being outside of the cave (variety). This effective use of unity and variety causes you to think about why the contrast was created (even before you start thinking about the actual idea being presented itself).

How To Use This Idea To Write Better Songs:
To create a sense of contrast in a musical way for your songwriting, you can take a repeating idea in your song and alter it to draw the listener’s attention. One way you could do this is by repeating a common theme in your song (a reoccurring melody, group of chords, etc.) on a different instrument than the one that originally played the idea.
Now that you have read through the ideas in this article, you should have a better understanding of the importance of using unity and variety to create contrast, surprise and added value into your songs. By having a strong working knowledge of this, your songwriting skills will drastically increase and you will be able to create great songs with better consistency. Any time you create songs, song sections or smaller parts within these sections; continually think about how you can use unity and variety in a creative and balanced manner to make your music engaging for the listener.
Learn how to make music that sounds better by overcoming the most frequent challenges faced by songwriters.
About the author:
Ryan Buckner is a professional guitarist and composer with many years of experience writing informative articles on the topics of guitar playing, music theory and songwriting technique. On his songwriting lessons website, he shows musicians how to write better music by learning the process of putting together the parts of a song.