Rule #3: Atmosphere & feeling
If you write a standard hit song, then the groove is a very important element, which is not necessarily the case when writing slows, although there are also slow songs that actually groove.
Slow songs are all about atmosphere, feeling, and emotions.
Which means that the overall sound and the arrangement become much more important.
The most important thing will be that the lyrics and the atmosphere of the song will match.
This is why slow songs are often being written starting with a subject, a message or an idea, or even with lyrics (in most cases only the chorus, not the verses). You may also start with some chord progression, some sound or some hook, and then you may think of the subject of your song and continue writing the music, while thinking about the chorus lyrics at the same time. A lot of books and articles about songwriting will recommend to start with the lyrics and to do the music later on. This is not what I’d recommend, as I think it’s a way better idea to work on the music and the lyrics at the same time. There is no perfect or secure way to write slow songs of course, but in many cases people tend to forget about the importance of the music itself.
The problem with most of today’s slow songs is that they almost all purely rely on the vocal performance (the reasons for this have already been discussed in the previous chapters), which means that they lack atmosphere and hooks, and thus they are mostly targeted at kids and at a less educated or intelligent audience. Today’s slows more or less consist of a singer (or a duo) demonstrating their vocal abilities on top of irrelevant background noise. It’s high class karaoke if you want, which is very different from the slows we had in the Golden Age Of Popular Music. In terms of pure sound, today’s slow songs sound just as cold as many 1980s songs. Another aspect of today’s slows is that they’re almost all ballads or love songs, while many of the greatest slow songs in the Golden Age still had some kind of a message, a phenomenon you’ll especially notice with 1960s music. Or think of U2’s One for example.
But let’s return to the atmosphere and the feeling for a moment. If you want to make good music, then it will be overly important to bring back some of the intensity and the warmth of the music of the past. Today’s slow songs sound terribly cold and irrelevant, and that’s the primary point you’ll have to address.
What you will have to do is to sit down and to create your own “slow sound”, based on your overall style you’ve defined using the methods described in chapter 4, and it has to be warm and unique.
The best way to start working on your slow sound is to listen to the greatest slows of the past of course. Compare them to today’s ballads and you’ll instantly notice the difference in sound. Because of the production techniques of the 1980s I’d avoid listening to songs of that decade, focus on the 1950s, 60s, and 70s instead. There were very good slow songs in the 1980s, but they’re not good examples when it comes to sound and atmosphere, with some rare exceptions such as U2’s With Or Without You for example.
But be careful – the goal will not be to take arrangements from the past and to package them into a modern format. A mentioned before, a good example on how not to do this is Charlie Puth’s song Marvin Gaye (2015), which just cheaply rips off the sound of the 1960s. You need to work on a different level, honoring the Masters Of The Past, by trying to reach the quality instead of just replicating the sound. Here are a few songs that you should listen to when writing slow songs, as this is the kind of atmosphere that you should try to create:
- Be My Baby – The Ronettes
- Imagine – John Lennon
- You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ & Unchained Melody – The Righteous Brothers
- A Change Is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
- Stairway To Heaven – Led Zeppelin
- Hotel California – The Eagles
- When A Man Loves A Woman – Percy Sledge
- Whiter Shade Of Pale – Procol Harum
- With Or Without You & One – U2
- California Dreamin’ – The Mamas And The Papas
- The House Of The Rising Sun – The Animals
- At Last – Etta James
As mentioned a million times already, your song doesn’t have to sound like a 1960s song, but you will have to recreate the incredibly great atmosphere, even if you will be doing this using modern sounds, tools, and instruments. Try to get as close as possible to the greatest songs of all time, using your own possibilities and your own sound. The list shown above could be much longer of course, just check out the Music section on jamplifier.com and start listening to slows from the Best Songs Of All Times section. If you listen to those songs, then you’ll get what I mean – the incredibly warm feeling created by an awesome arrangement, using very specific instruments. Make sure to use good speakers or good headphones when listening to those songs by the way.
One of the problems you’ll soon note is that most of those songs use quite complex arrangements and lots of great sounding instruments (or maybe even orchestration), and this may be hard to achieve using only virtual instruments on your DAW – which may also be one of the reasons why so many of today’s songs sound crappy. This means that you may have to get back to traditional instruments (guitars for example) and / or to be really careful when deciding what kinds of sounds you’ll be using. Another thing you may notice is that while all of those songs have an incredible atmosphere, none of them sounds overly clean or perfect – there’s room, there’s noise, there’s life.
This is because those songs have been played by humans, and not by a computer. So no matter what kind or genre of music you make, using real instruments for your slow song will be a great benefit, even if some of the instruments on your track may still be virtual ones. Adding some percussion may also be a nice idea by the way, and please try to use some real instruments here if possible. Think of the Motown Sound, or of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound. The great challenge will be to create a sound that’s got a human touch, and that’s lo-fi at least to some degree. The lack of atmosphere, the lack of feeling, and the lack of human emotions are among the biggest problems of today’s music, and this becomes even more fatal when it comes to slow songs.
Human vocals alone don’t make up the lack of real instruments, especially if vocals are auto-tuned and if even the few remaining sounds in the background are only virtual instruments, and if those have even been looped and quantisized. Today’s slow songs are so heavily dominated by Auto-Tune and DAW technology that they’re nothing more than a purely synthetic product. Such synthetic products may be cool too, just think of Kraftwerk for example, but that’s a completely different approach of course. If you achieve to recreate only 5% of the feeling of the songs mentioned above, then you’ll already have a huge advantage over all of today’s plastic ballads.
Unfortunately there is no ready-to-use recipe that could help to create such a sound, which means that you’ll have to use your brain and you’ll need to experiment with different instruments and sounds. Listen to the sound of the Masters Of The Past, pick the elements you like most, and try to create something new that will also match the overall sound you’ve designed for your project. I started this section by mentioning that atmosphere and feeling are more important than groove, but there also are a few examples of songs that merge the best of both worlds – they’re basically slows, but they also have an insanely great groove. Check out the following songs to get an idea of what I mean:
- Every Breath You Take – The Police
- I Heard It Through The Grapevine – Marvin Gaye
- For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield
- My Girl – The Temptations
- Crazy – Gnarls Barkley
- Suspicious Minds – Elvis Presley
- Hey Joe – Jimi Hendrix
- In The Midnight Hour – Wilson Pickett
Okay, and now you’re on your own – check out all of the songs mentioned above, and check out some more songs you’ll find on the lists on jamplifier.com. Save them to a USB stick, on your smartphone, or burn a CD and listen to those songs on the road, in the bus, in your car. It will take some time until you will have gotten a real feeling for their sound, and you’ll have to be patient when experimenting with your own songs later on.