Psychology and storytelling: 3 guiding principles for producing a great track






How many times have you asked yourself: is there a secret recipe for creating a great song? Maybe THE one that will hit over 1 million streams on Spotify?


A lot. I’m sure.


Well, you’re in the right place. But let me whisper to you just one thing: there is no secret recipe for producing a hit track.


However, there are some guiding principles that can help you improve your production.

Just to make it clear: with production we refer to any decision, either technical, aesthetic or compositional that leads to the creation of a finished song.


Repetition


Think about how many times does the chorus repeat in your favorite song? And how many times have you listened to it? I bet something like dozens, hundreds or even thousands of times!


What is familiar is perceived as safe and more comfortable. That’s why even if we initially dislike a song, after listening to it for a certain number of times - like 10 or more - we might end up liking it and find ourselves singing along.


This is explained by psychologists with what is called the mere exposure effect. We are more likely to enjoy what we’ve already encountered. According to psychologist Carlos Pereira, there is more activity in the emotional regions of our brain when we listen to something we are familiar with.



Carlos Silva Pereira, Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters (2011)


Repetition also changes the way we experience music, as it allows us to “participate”, for example by imagining the upcoming note or instrument. Repetition can make us listen to a song differently: after a few times, we might process the melodic content and then we analyze the rest of the song structure. We could notice a cool clap with reverb or an interesting bass line as we slowly process a song, stream after stream.


It is also interesting to highlight the correlation between the number of times a song repeated its chorus and the popularity of that song: Andrea Ordanini and Joseph Nunes analyzed more than 2,400 pop songs over 50 years and the more repetitive songs were more likely to chart in the Top 40!


Are you taking notes?


Let’s move on to the second principle!


Contrast


As humans, we tend to ignore steady or repetitive situations: if you have a song revolving around the same two notes in the same way, the listener can easily get bored. Our attention spans are extremely short, even shorter than a goldfish as studies show.

So how can we avoid people skipping our track?


Spice it up. Add some contrast.


With contrast we refer to having very different elements close. We could also think about contrast as tension and release, important components that any producer needs to consider.

This could be for example variation of loudness, pitch, tempo or key change ect.

Also, this could be the classic “drop” or climatic moment in genres such as EDM, where an exciting build up of a rhythmic pattern reaches its peak.

Another way for creating contrast in a track is by disrupting the regular pattern of beats, creating a syncopated rhythm. This can be achieved pairing strong and weak beats together and then interrupting their sound. The more off-beat a rhythm is, the more tension develops. When the track is more on beat, it creates audio satisfaction, which contributes to the feeling of release.

Emotional arc


The concept of emotional arc is directly related to the previous two principles. This refers to how a song begins, develops and ends, considering lyrics, rhymes, melodies, repetitions, hooks and also its overall energy. Every arc needs a climax: understanding where the climax should be or how to stress it is extremely important for creating a successful song.


In this sense, we need to think of music as a story and apply the same storytelling principles.


Every good story follows a certain dramatic structure.

Gustav Freytag, a German playwright and novelist of the mid-nineteenth century developed a dramatic structural framework, the Freytag’s Pyramid. According to Freytag, effective stories can be broken into two parts, the play and the counterplay, with a climax in the center.

These two sections create a pyramid with five dramatic elements: introduction, rising movement, climax, falling movement, and resolution.





  1. Introduction: In stories, this is the introduction of characters and the setting of the scene. In music, it is the introduction of musical materials (melodies, harmonic progressions, rhythmic ideas, etc.) that will appear through the track.

  2. Rising action: In this section tension builds towards the climax. In stories, this usually means conflict between a protagonist and adversaries. In music, it might mean variations of what was produced in the introduction.

  3. Climax: This is the peak of dramatic tension in the work. In a story, this is often the “turning point” for the protagonists, the point at which fortunes shift from bad to good or vice versa. In music, the climax is often marked by a sudden increase in textural density, like the “drop” we mentioned before.

  4. Falling action: This is a section of relaxing tension after the climax. In stories, this section serves to resolve conflicts from the climax. In music, this section might mirror the activity from the rising action section.

  5. Resolution: In stories, the resolution is often a mirror of the introduction, in which characters return to normal life after the events that make up the tension of the story. In music, this might mean a restatement of established musical materials, such as a repeated chorus or a gradual dissolution of some elements.


Conclusions


Psychology and storytelling: isn’t it fascinating how these worlds, apparently so distant, can become the foundations of a hit song?


So, whenever you feel a bit lost or don’t know how to continue an unfinished project, think about these 3 main guiding principles: repetition, contrast and emotional arc. They can help you move on and create that track that might hit a million streams.


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