The Music Lab: Get Your Wind-Up Working

MIAMI, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 01: Dan Smyers (L) and Shay Mooney of Dan + Shay perform onstage during the Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest on February 01, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest)

Welcome to “The Music Lab,” a new column powered by SongTown and featured in American Songwriter every month. 

What’s one songwriting component that separates the promising newbie songwriter from the seasoned pro? How much punch the chorus packs. Specifically, when the chorus hits, does it impact the listener? 

This is one of the main things I work on with writers in my SongTown Melody MasterClasses. Often their choruses show up unannounced and begin without the listener even knowing they’re in the chorus. This makes it extremely difficult to create ANY emotional impact on a listener. Even if you’ve written the most amazing chorus lyric, the impact of that chorus will suffer if the melody doesn’t deliver the right notes at the right time.

There are a lot of ways to signal the listener that your chorus has started.

Some of the more common ways include:

  1. Start your vocal melody in a higher range.
  2. Introduce a new chord progression in your chorus.
  3. Create more exciting vocal rhythms in your chorus.

 Or, you can take the “fix it in the mix approach”…

  1. Bring in background voices at the beginning of your chorus.
  2. Add louder guitars in the chorus.
  3. Layer in a cool riser instrument effect leading into the chorus.

I set a high bar every time I write a song, so I don’t rely on a mix to repair a song that is lacking somewhere. I do want to write a song that stands the test of time. A song that holds up whether it’s played on a single guitar in a coffee shop listening room or on the radio with a full production. 

To me, a song is like your body and the production is the clothes you wear. You can dress your body in a lot of styles and colors, but it’s still your body underneath.

Since this is the melody lab, let’s take a look at a cool way you can propel your listener into the chorus so they feel like they’ve arrived somewhere important. 

The Wind-Up 

We’ve all seen a baseball pitcher do his wind-up. He stares down the batter, shakes off a few signs, rears back and slingshots the baseball forward. It’s that wind-up motion that allows him to release the ball at a faster speed. It also creates one of the most tension-filled two seconds in the sport. As the pitcher winds-up, everyone in the stadium is anticipating what’s about to happen. Will the batter slam a home-run? Will he strike-out? Then, swing!

Your song’s wind-up should have that same effect. A great wind-up builds tension and slingshots the listener forward into the chorus with the force of a 95-mile-an-hour speedball. 

So, let’s take a listen to a couple of songs with hold-your-breath wind-ups. 

Check out Dan & Shay’s song “Speechless.” This song has a very easygoing, conversational verse and pre-chorus. It sets a romantic mood, doesn’t it? Right before the chorus there’s a pause as the singer stretches the word I’m over two beats before slamming it right into the down-beat of the chorus. Go listen to it now. I mean it! You can’t get the full effect unless you hear and feel it.

You say you’ll be down in five
The smell of your perfume 
Is floating down the stairs
You’re fixing up your hair like you do
I know that I’ll be a mess
The second that I see you
You won’t be surprised
It happens every time
It’s nothing new
It’s always on a night like tonight
I thank God you can read my mind
‘Cause when you look at me with those eyes

2 Beats of Wind-up Vocal:  I’m……….
[Chorus]
Speechless
Staring at you, standing there in that dress
What it’s doing to me, ain’t a secret
‘Cause watching you is all that I can do
And I’m speechless
You already know that you’re my weakness
After all this time I’m just as nervous
Every time you walk into the room
I’m speechless

That vocal run on the word I’m is the windup that propels you into the chorus. Even though it’s only two beats, it pulls you immediately into an emotional chorus. Whereas, a simple eighth note pickup would deliver only a fraction of the emotional impact.

The wind-up has a similar effect that an archer has pulling the string back on a bow and releasing the arrow at the target. Tension and release. The word speechless is the downbeat of the chorus—and when get there, there is no doubt we’ve arrived.

Let’s look at another example of a wind-up. Check out “Better Now” by Post Malone. The song starts with the chorus, but (to get the full effect) listen to the song as the second chorus comes in.

Let’s begin in the pre-chorus of the lyric. Notice how the words You probably think that you are function as a killer wind-up…

And I’m rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
With my brothers like it’s Jonas, Jonas
Drinkin’ Henney and I’m tryna forget
But I can’t get this shit outta my head

Windup line: You probably think that you are…
[Chorus]
Better now, better now
You only say that ’cause I’m not around, not around
You know I never meant to let you down, let you down
Woulda gave you anything, woulda gave you everything
You know I say that I am better now, better now
I only say that ’cause you’re not around, not around
You know I never meant to let you down, let you down
Woulda gave you anything, woulda gave you everything, oh whoa 

To recap, the windup is the space just before the start of the chorus that builds tension and propels the listener into the chorus. Does every song have a wind-up? No. But it is another powerful tool for your toolbox—one you can pull out in the right situation to level-up your song’s impact on the listener. 

I’d like to give a shout out to my buddy Mat Kearney who first hipped me to this technique about eight years ago. Mat is one of my fav all-time artists and a master at knowing just how long a wind-up should be. It’s a feel thing. Too short, and there’s not enough tension built up. And, conversely, if you go too long with it, you’ll lose the tension.

There’s always a sweet spot. A little experimentation will get you there. I’ve included a video below that demonstrates several different wind-up lengths for one song. 

As you listen to music moving forward, try to notice those melody pickup notes before the chorus. Then, try a wind-up in your next song or two.

Write on! — Clay

Clay Mills is a six-time No.1 hitmaker and multi-Grammy nominated songwriter/producer. His songs have been recorded by major artists in country, pop, rock, dance, bluegrass, and gospel. His voice and songs have found their way into national ad campaigns and movie soundtracks.  He co-founded SongTown.com, the worlds leading songwriter education site, with fellow hit writer Marty Dodson. Clay is as passionate about teaching songwriting as he is about writing himself. Visit SongTown.com for 10 free videos!

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