Archive for October, 2013

How to Write a Power Ballad

Posted: October 13, 2013 in Uncategorized

I wrote the following for a lesson on song structure and functional harmony. What follows could apply to a range of styles of music. The principle of the structure applies to a lot of pop music (and rock music). And the relationships between chords will still have the same effect in other styles of music. One of the important relationships discussed here is the relationship between chord V and chord I and how this can provide tension and release. There is mention of ‘Reach’ by S Club 7, which follows the same structural and harmonic rules. I may write that one up soon.

Few styles of music can be as beautifully formulaic and powerfully predictable as a power ballad. But don’t think that I mock. Oh no, for the craft of writing power ballads requires skill and great understanding; and the resulting product invokes the deepest of emotions from the listener. Though you may have complete disregard for this graceful and elegant art form, when you are in love or broken hearted, the strains of a good power ballad in a private moment will surely send you to tears and feed you in your hunger.

So, how do the greats write their power ballads then?

If it were that simple, we’d all be doing it wouldn’t we? Well, the answer is probably, ‘no’, as most people never have any desire to write power ballads but, nonetheless, it is not simple but it is a craft that can be learned by those with a good understanding of chords and melody; and it can be performed by musicians with a good sense of discipline along with a vocalist with a powerful voice and a good range. The power ballad is the vocalist’s tour de force. It is their opportunity to show the full gamut of what they do – the quiet intimate moments, the gut wrenching emotion, the powerful sustained notes and the big push at the top of their range. (Also, it can make them look really cool on stage as they strike lots of different poses.)

Remember, not every power ballad follows exactly the formulas that I’m about to mention…but they should.

Structure

The structure is very simple. Remember listening to ‘Reach’ by S Club 7? The structural formula is the same: you start with your intro, then a verse, a bridge (or pre-chorus), a chorus, verse, bridge, chorus again; then we have the middle 8 (which can include a solo or a breakdown) and a key change into the final choruses.

This is how it works:

Intro

The intro could work in one of two ways normally. It should be kept fairly short and should either consist of half a chorus with no vocals but high impact, or a bar or two on the first chord played by one instrument -simple as that.

Verse

OK. The purpose of a verse in a song is to tell the story. This is the most narrative part of the song both lyrically, melodically and harmonically. It’s also the most intimate part of the song, so the singer should hold back and sing in a comfortable part of his or her range. When Jon Bon Jovi sings, ‘Romeo is bleeding, but you can’t see his blood…’ he’s almost singing to you. His range is similar to his speaking range, the level is low and the pitch rocks up and down like a boat on a gentle stream. Or something.

Despite the gut-wrenching sadness of many power ballads, many are in major keys. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll assume the key of our mythical power ballad is G, just because it’s a convenient key to work in, especially on guitar or piano. The first chord of our verse is very important and can only really be one of two chords – either it should be chord I (G) or its relative minor, chord vi (Em). ‘Rule the World’ by Take That goes with the minor first chord, as does ‘Love Song’ by Tesla. This can establish the melancholic feel of the verse. Many other songs will start with chord I. Your second chord is equally important. Again, this is usually one of two chords and it is usually a minor chord. If you start on your chord I, you may then move to the relative minor (something you can’t do if you started on the relative minor) or you may move to chord iii (Bm). If you started on the Em, then a move to Bm is the best bet – both ‘Rule the World’ and ‘Love Song’ make this move. ‘Wild Horses’ by the Rolling Stones and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ by David Bowie both move from chord I to chord iii. The number of songs that go from chord I to chord vi (the relative minor) is almost infinite. Check out anything by Diane Warren, ‘Bleeding Love’ by Leona Lewis or ‘Stand by Me’ by Ben E. King. The rest of the verse chords are up to you.

Pre Chorus

The pre-chorus of your song should be fairly short, usually about four or five bars (and using five bars may be significant). It should provide tension and drama in the build up to the chorus. There needs to be a sense of movement in the progression from the verse to the chorus so we shouldn’t start our pre-chorus on chord I. The best choices for your first chord are chord IV (C) or chord ii (Am), which is the relative minor of chord IV. The other important chord in our pre-chorus is the final chord. There really should be no argument about this. THE PRE-CHORUS SHOULD END ON CHORD V (D). This is to provide the ultimate tension as chord V wants to resolve back to chord I. We can increase the tension by extending the duration of this chord for an extra bar (hence the 5 bar pre-chorus).  The melody should start to move upwards, like the tightening of a string, as the tension increases and increases; the heart beats faster, the sweat pours, you know it’s coming and you are about to burst, the blood’s pumping, you’re shaking…’I’ve got you and you’ve got me so…’

Chorus

The release, the ultimate impact and drama. The start of the chorus is the ultimate peak of your song. Your melody should be near the top of the range at the beginning of the chorus – maybe not the first note but somewhere near – and the first chord of the chorus should be your chord I so that you have the perfect cadence from the end of the pre-chorus into the chorus. The other alternative is to start your chorus on chord vi (the relative minor) and this will give you the dramatic effect of one of those big 1980s power ballads like ‘Alone’ by Heart. You can keep the chord progression for the chorus fairly simple, three or four chords and keep the progression strong with a good sense of resolution. Make your melody memorable. This is the part that people need to be singing long after the song has finished. It doesn’t need to be too wordy.

In terms of your dynamics, there should be a definite build from the verse to the pre-chorus to the chorus. This can be achieved in terms of the instrumentation as well as how the instruments are played. The drummer can move from a side stick in the verse to the snare in the pre-chorus to big cymbal crashes in the chorus, or move from a half time feel in the verse to add pace. Missing out the kick on beat three, or a snare drum can also add impact. The bass player should work closely with the drummer and the kick and bass should lock in. If you are recording this, try side chaining the gate to make the rhythm section sound tighter. Keep the instrumentation simple and sparse in the verse but build it up over the next sections.

The Middle 8

The purpose of the middle 8 is to add a twist to your tale. It is a fulcrum point, like in a story when a new event happens that alters the progress of the hero or some new piece of evidence is uncovered. This is usually based around the same tonal centre as the rest of the song but often a different mode. Try going to the bVII chord (F) or the bIII chord (Bb). This will add a sense of drama to your middle 8, a sense of movement and the feeling that we are saying something esle.

The Key Change

Or the Stand-Up-Off-Your-Stool Moment.

This is the moment of highest drama within the song. It usually occurs as you go into the final chorus and is a shift upwards so that the vocalist is stretching his or her range. The key change should therefore reflect the movement upwards by shifting up by a semitone or, more often, a tone. The most ham-fisted example of this is Shayne Ward’s ‘That’s My Goal’, which starts the first line of the chorus, then stops, then jumps into the new key. A more satisfactory method would be to finish your middle 8 on chord V of your new key so that the transition seems more natural. So, finish on an E chord, then you can play your final choruses in the new key of A.

The final chorus (es) should have confetti coming down from the ceiling, explosions, fists clenched, tears, bright lights, the kitchen sink. In fact, replace your snare drum with cannon fire. It can only be a good thing.

By the end you should be physically and emotionally drained.

 

Alternatives…

If you want a simpler chord progression, you could use the three chord I – IV – V trick. Use chords I and IV as the mainstay of the verse and use chord V for dramatic impact, as in ‘Sugar Mice’ by Marillion. Or you could just use a simple chord progression like I – vi – IV – V or I – V – vi – IV and use the melody to demonstrate changes in mood or lifting of tension. Check out how ‘Bleeding Love’ by Leona Lewis or ‘With or Without You’ by U2 do this. Though the verse, pre-chorus and chorus all have the same chord progression, you can clearly hear the development between sections in something like ‘Bleeding Love’, as Leona Lewis starts singing the verse on the root note, the pre-chorus on the third and the chorus on the fifth, which gives us a sense of lift and drama with each new section.

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