What do Beyoncé, Beethoven and Black Sabbath Have in Common? Heaviness. Here’s How to Achieve It.
By Barrett Yeretsian • March 13, 2019
I admit it. I’m a sucker for heavy. I’m a metalhead trapped inside the body of a balladeer. I started off as a dolphin-faced (facial hair hadn’t sprouted yet) heavy/thrash metal drummer headlining LA’s Sunset Strip clubs with my band when I was 15. Fast-forward to some years later: I wrote and produced an emotional pop ballad called “Jar of Hearts” (performed by Christina Perri) which ended up being the #5 biggest pop song the year it was released.
You might be wondering, what could possibly bridge that Grand Canyon-sized gap between the thrash metal drummer and the emotional balladeer? Heaviness.
Here’s how I define “heavy:” carrying a ton of emotional weight. While all songs are meant to convey an emotion, there are some songs that carry a ton of it. To me, heaviness isn’t defined by a genre, a guitar tuning or a production style. A country song, in its own way, can be as heavy as a classical masterpiece which can be as heavy as a hip-hop track which can be as heavy as a doom metal riff. Other than packing an immediate, visceral emotional punch, its fluid and versatile application to all genres of music is what attracts me most to heaviness.
Here are five ways to add heaviness and emotional weight to your music:
1) Be authentic
It’s very hard to make a lyric or a melody resonate if it doesn’t come from a real place, from a deep place. People can sniff out something that isn’t authentic from miles away. I encourage every artist I work with to go deep, to a place where their most vibrant emotions and their strongest convictions live and breathe. Tell us the real story. Show us the gritty details. There’s the earthquake you feel at the surface and then there’s the continent shifting 100 miles below. Explore the continental shift, not just the surface shaking. If it’s real and it’s executed well, its emotional weight will resonate.
2) Use minor chords/scales tastefully
There are only so many chord progressions that are used in popular music and their real magic comes to life in the power of the melodies that they inspire. There’s something especially heavy and tasty about a bittersweet melody that soars perfectly atop a minor chord progression. When done right, think of it as a shortcut to the listener’s heart strings. Adele’s “Hello” is a great example of using minor chord progressions to inspire soaring, heartbreaking melodies.
3) Use rhythmic/melodic variation to create tension
When a melody, a lyric or a rhythm goes somewhere unexpected, it creates an unsettling feeling, a tension that we need to be resolved. It’s the line in a song that sticks in your head because it feels out of left field or the moment when a melody goes in the opposite direction of where you expected it to. The more tension you can create in your songs, the more the listener will itch to have that tension resolved, thus creating emotional weight and heaviness. The unpredictable and varying melodies of the verses, pre-choruses and choruses of Sia’s “Chandelier” perfectly illustrate this point.
4) Use rhythmic/melodic symmetry and repetition to give a sense of release
Repetition is a double-edged sword. While it can be used to create tension, more often, it’s used to give a sense of relief from tension. When you repeat a line or a melody, it feels familiar, which makes the listener feel grounded. This creates a nice contrast with the really tense and melodically variant sections that came before it. It’s this push/pull between minor chords and major chords, between lyrics that are only uttered once and ones that are repeated in choruses, and between sections of songs that repeat overall versus ones that come and go which creates a lot of emotional weight. When you bring listeners back “home” to a repeated section, your main message and underlying emotion resonate on a deeper level. A great example of this is Beyoncé’s “Halo.” Not only do the choruses and post-hooks provide a feeling of grounding and familiarity, the verses and choruses themselves are similar in melodic shape further cementing the feeling of “home.”
5) Avoid clichés in your lyrics and look for fresh metaphors
Every stanza doesn’t need to be a freshly-baked Shakespearean sonnet but on a whole, we’re looking for something fresh, something new. You can use clichés sporadically but remember, they’ve been used before ad nauseam so the cliché shouldn’t be the song’s anchor or its main hook. If you’re going to use clichés, it’s better to touch upon them as passing lines to set up your payoff, which is a fresh metaphor or a novel lyrical construct. Clichés feel predictable and safe. Fresh metaphors have vitality, punch and edge - all elements that will add emotional weight to your songs.
Use these 5 tips responsibly to create songs roaring with a ton of visceral, emotional weight, with that ever-elusive quality of heaviness.
Barrett Yeretsian is an 8x platinum-selling songwriter-producer and record label owner. He co-wrote and produced Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts,” produced the #1 UK hit “Jealous of the Angels” and has worked with Andy Grammar, Rachel Platten, Pentatonix and Daniel Powter, among many others. Barrett spends most of his time these days discovering, nurturing and developing fiercely creative artists from around the globe through his record label IronHeart Records. He also hosts weekly progressive metal jam sessions with his crazy friends at his studio in Los Angeles and writes a weekly blog on artist empowerment.