Here’s a quick tip to help you write more interesting parts in your music without losing the hook. By using subtle variation in songwriting and production it’s possible to craft musical parts that are still catchy and repetitive yet at the same time don’t become stale.
With variation in the right place you can give the listener the feeling that the part hasn’t really changed, while subliminally making them feel like the music has more depth.
How Much Variation?
When you first start writing or producing music it can be hard to decide how much variation to include in your chord progressions, melodies or parts. Different genres have different norms. Some electronic tracks (say One More Time) are based around continued repetition of a sample. Some jazz and classical music is built on continual variation of the parts.
‘Joy in Repetition‘ by Prince is a good metaphor for the following concept. In pop music, repetition is one of the keys to making the music infectious or danceable. There’s a time and a place for continual exploration in music. But at the same time there’s also something hypnotic about the effect of repetition. Why are prayers and mantras meant to be repeated?
I remember a workshop with the famous bassist Marcus Miller. He started playing a simple repeating 2 bar funk groove on his bass. After 8 bars of the playing same 2 bar groove on repeat, he leant forward to the mic while playing the groove and said ‘it’s getting better ain’t it?’. Same after another 8 bars. Nothing changed but it was getting better with each repeat.
The challenge in pop, dance, RnB and other popular styles is to add subtle variation to make parts subliminally interesting. Yet at the same time not lose the coherence and hooky effect that repetition brings.
Working in modern DAWs also brings the temptation and danger of just copying, pasting and missing out on this depth.
How to use Subtle Variation in your own Music
What counts as Subtle Variation?
Here are a few ideas that you could experiment with which don’t alter the parts significantly:
- Harmony (keep the same chord but use a subtly different voicing every second or fourth time)
- Melody (using a slight change every second or fourth time, keeping the core melody the same)
- Rhythm (using a subtle rhythmic change on the same chords with the same voicing)
- Layering (add a subtle extra layer or stacked note every second time a chord or element appears)
Let’s look at an example of this concept using subtle variations in chord voicings. Here’s a chord progression in a beat I made (you can hear the beat in the video at the end):
It’s the same 4 bar progression repeating three times with a turnaround at Bar 16.
If you just used the exact same parts in each repetition here, it could get boring. Instead, here’s a framework to add some subtle changes:
Here A, B and C represent 2 bar blocks that either have slight variations or sometimes stay the same.
- A represents the first two bars (Ebm9 to Gm9) – which happens 4 times
- B represents the second two bars (Abm9 to Gm9) – which happens 3 times
- C represents the final two bars (Abm9 to Bb7#9#5) – which happens once
But in the above subtle variation structure
- It uses the original A twice and a variation version Ai twice (2 versions total)
- It changes B each time subtly Bi Bii and Biii (3 permutations total)
- C happens once (1 version)
Here’s what that looks like in MIDI with colour coding to make it clearer. The variations used the same chords as their source part but added slightly different rhythms or chord voicings.
You can listen to this part here:
What’s going on?
There are a few things to consider in the above structure above:
- A has the least variation – it repeats A exactly the same half way through. I think that in particular helps give the listener the reassurance of familiarity at bar 9.
- B (could call this the answer phrase) varies each time
- C happens once so doesn’t variation isn’t a factor, it’s the turnaround
There are loads of ways you could experiment with this. You could make up parts using the same DNA structure but applied to bass parts, chopped vocal hooks, drum parts and endless other possibilities. It’s also worth creating your own structures and playing around with the balance of repetition and variation to see what works in your own track.
Here’s how that chord progression and concept sounds in a a full beat with a spoken explanation of the concept.
In this post we’ve looked at one example of how using subtle variation in songwriting and production can help you achieve more interesting parts in your tracks. This can be done without losing the effect of catchiness and hookiness that repetition brings.
- There is Joy In Repetition!
- Variations can be really subtle
- You can use a structure that balances repetition with variation to create subtle depth
- Experiment with your own amount of variation
- Try and create your own variation DNA and try it in a beat or tune
Have fun trying this and let me know how you get on or any questions you have in the comments below. For more ideas on writing check out this post.