Giving Silence Room

Try to remember to leave space to say nothing now and then.

In my songs there's a lot I want to say.

My first inclination is to say it all. I want to tell you all about the story, the whole story, in detail. If you're anything like me, you revel in the details, the exact phrasing, the subtleties of plot and development. I don't want to leave anything out. I want to tell you EVERYTHING!

But songs that tell you everything are hard to listen to. It's not because we as listeners don't care about the story, or the lyrical phrasing, or the in-depth analysis (not necessarily anyway), it's just that when there's nowhere to take a breath where the song settles into something easy and soothing, even predictable, we start to detach. We just have a harder time staying connected to the end.

Filling in spaces.

This goes for lyrics and for melodies, for instrumentation and arrangement, too. I'm a huge fan of layered harmonies, for example. Such a huge fan that I have gone way overboard on how many harmony layers I've added to a section on certain songs (from 7 layers to 20 layers). In my head they're all there, singing together, necessary and vital. But to the ear? Sometimes not. Sometimes they get in the way of one another instead, and fewer would be easier to listen to.

As a lyrical pianist and a solo performer, I have to fill in all my own spaces. Whether it's vocally or instrumentally, I'm responsible for all the notes you're going to hear, which means I'm also responsible for all the spaces between them. If I don't leave any spaces, there won't be any spaces.

Writing in silence.

When I first started intentionally writing silence into my songs, like absent notes, it was scary. I was convinced people would stop listening to the song the second I stopped making sounds. But in fact the opposite turned out to be true. I noticed it in other people's songs and liked how it made me feel. It was an epiphany!

When you take a breath, pause, stop playing for a bar or half a bar, play staccato, hold a note and let it ring, you give people's ears a chance to catch up with you. When you write a chorus, for example, between verses where you're storytelling or giving exposition, it helps the song breathe if you cut the chorus down to something simple. You can make it repetitive, or structure it like a refrain. Change the metre, the syllable count, when you enter or exit the phrase musically, or any number of other techniques just to let your listeners regroup, refresh, and get ready to take in whatever's coming next.

This is important instrumentally, too. If my piano line is overflowing with notes or has a competing rhythmic or melodic structure, I'm going to need to space out my words carefully so they can be heard. I think about this during the writing phase and also after, when I'm working on my transitions and flourishes between sections.

Making them wait.

Learning to give silence space in my songs was a game-changer for me. I treat these spaces as absent notes so I know the space is filled with and intentionality of silence, and I don't accidentally fill it up with notes later on. They're like negative space in the phrasing. Rests on the staff. Planned moments when we all sit with stillness and wait for sound.

This isn't a moment when people will stop listening to you. It's one of the ways in which you as a songwriter can help your listeners stay engaged. You want them to come on the journey, not leave them in the dust. Asking them to wait for the song to take its time will help you both share the story you want to tell. Engage in the crafting of your songs with an ear to the silence you can create and you'll soon see the benefits.

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