The Power of Negative Space

Any physicist will tell you that everything in our world – from a steel girder to hunk of granite – is made up of mostly empty space. We never notice it. To us all these little bits of space and matter combine to form larger objects that appear sturdy. Can you see where I’m going with this? If you want to write a solid song, fill it with space.

Songwriters write, right? We feel like it’s our job to fill staves with little black dots. But our creative impulse can also become our downfall. Too often we gnash our teeth and wring our hands over trying to mark every beat and measure with some creative combination of notes, when instead we should be doing nothing.

Well, not really nothing. Writing space into a song is as conscious a decision as writing notes, but it often goes underutilized because it doesn’t seem as…hard. It’s a shame, because it’s the use of space that really defines a song. All those little holes in songs invoke drama, contrast, and groove, and go a long way towards making arranging (not to mention recording and mixing) easier.

Now, I’m not talking measures and measures of awkward silence. I’m talking small rests and pauses purposefully placed to create negative space between the notes. Try to use this negative space the same way an artist does in a painting: to highlight the important positive spaces. If you want a listener to really notice something in your chorus or hook, surround it with silence. If you want a listener to relate to an emotional lyric, give them some quiet time to think about it.

AC/DC are masters at using space. The opening guitar riff to “Black in Black” is a perfect example: three chords and a simple blues lick separated by a whole lotta nothing, and catchy as hell. Sting is another proficient and practiced purveyor of pause. Listen to “Walking on the Moon”. Ironic that the song is about space, because there is almost enough of it there to fit in a whole ‘nother song.

A few other songs that I think use space well:

"You Shook Me All Night Long" (and most of the AC/DC catalog)
"Black or White", "Smooth Criminal" – Michael Jackson
"Another One Bites the Dust", "I Want to Break Free" – Queen

What else you got? Let's hear 'em.

* photo by karlequin


Post a Comment