A Great Way To Build Anticipation And Intensity In Your Songwriting

Imagine you're the engineer of a freight train. It starts moving, continuously accelerating until it eventually reaches optimum speed, but it's a big and heavy train that you can't stop on a dime. Between the combined weight of the cars and engine and the speed it's traveling, it's built up some tremendous momentum. You can hit the breaks as hard as you want, but it’ll still travel a pretty big distance as it slows down before finally stopping.


Have you ever heard a song like that? Have you ever heard a song where a small idea will gradually become more and more dramatic, pulling you in harder and harder until finally the song either moves forward, or reaches its emotional climax? Do you find that once that happens, that you MUST listen to the rest of the song, no matter how long it is?


If you work it right, a buildup can grip listeners so tightly that they find it very hard NOT to listen to the rest of a long song, because of how pulled in they are already.


One way you can create a buildup is with layering. Start with a simple motif – a rhythm, melody bit, chord progression, sound, etc. and then layer other musical ideas on top of it as it keeps repeating to build up anticipation and intensity (easily done with a loop pedal). Do this until you've created a musical climax, or decide you want to then move to a new section that resembles the motif in a more dramatic way. Here's an example:

  • Start off with a picking pattern over an acoustic guitar chord progression
  • Put another acoustic picking pattern on top that accents the root notes of each chord
  • Add another acoustic guitar, this time playing a simple melody
  • Add a fourth acoustic guitar line, strumming single chords along with the main progression
  • Add one distorted electric guitar, strumming the same chords in the background
  • Transition to all distorted electric guitars, playing heavy power chords that follow the same progression for emphasized intensity and drama


In this case, the heavy power chords were the most dramatic part of this whole sequence, not because of what is being played, but because of the context of their placement within the song. If you simply started playing the power chords, they would overstay their welcome long before the progression could go on for this long. This is a great way to make your song longer without it getting stale before it's done.


Another type of buildup is one where you take a simple motif and make it more dramatic by evolving its execution, rather than layering on top of it. I've approached these buildups in 2 ways, which both have their benefits:

  1. Start from the beginning, and ask yourself "How can I make this idea more dramatic, while still giving it room to grow?" or "How can I '+1' this idea to make it even better?" This approach is great because it constantly challenges you to improve your motif until you run out of ideas. The end result is always cool, and you could unintentionally create a climax that is better than what you initially had in mind.
  2. You can start from a climax you already created, and ask yourself "How can I gradually strip this down?" until the climax is broken down into a small, simple idea. Then you arrange the variations into a clear, direct path from small motif to grand climax, which eliminates any guesswork of how you'll build intensity in that section of your song.


As an example, I'll illustrate the layout of one of my favourite buildups of this kind. For your listening reference, the song is "Ball Of Molten Lead" by the doom metal band Yob. The buildup is 4 minutes long, and even longer if you count everything before the vocals come in:

  • The song's introduced with a sample of wind
  • There's a low drone to set the mood
  • Reverbed clean guitars fade in
  • Those clean guitars strum single chords as the drummer does cymbal swells
  • The single chords continue into a strumming pattern
  • A spoken word sample adds to the unsettling vibe the part already gives
  • The spoken word sample is replaced by the snare drum and bass highlighting the strumming pattern
  • The band starts rocking out to that progression with distorted guitars and crashing drums
  • The band then transitions to a new riff that has characteristics of the original motif, but is busier, heavier, emotionally darker and more dramatic than the beginning.


Keep in mind that a buildup isn't limited to something you do once in the song and then disregard afterwards – literally an entire song can be a big buildup into a climax which then dies down to the end. You can also use these same methods to break down the components of your climax, so that you can gradually lower the intensity of your song as it comes to a close. Try these methods out and watch your songwriting head in a new, cool direction!


About The Author: 

Ryan Mueller gives guitar lessons in Etobicoke that regularly help musicians feel fulfilled by improving their guitar playing and writing their own original music.

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