5 Ways to Add Variation to Your Music Productions

When I first started making beats I found that I was continuously falling into the same trap. I would create an 8 bar loop, duplicate it, add or remove parts to make a verse, an intro, and hook and call it a day. It wasn't until I started exploring the world of electronic music that I realized I was missing one very important element in my music, the B section. Variation is a key component when it comes to being able to successfully deliver a musical thought.  It keeps the listener's attention, and gives the creator more control over the momentum and progression of their song.  If you're anything like me, once you get one musical thought out of your head, and arranged and mixed, you just want to keep it moving and get on to the next musical idea. The B section is a powerful (and quick too! as we are about to learn) way to add variation to your arrangement, and what's even better is you can create one relatively quickly and easily. 

So lets start this post! Here are 5  ways to add variation to your music productions.

But first....

What is a B section?

Think of a B section as an alteration of a segment that already occurred in your track.  It could be the first 8 bars of your second verse, or maybe a bridge (although most people would just call that a... bridge).  Ultimately it's just variation in your arrangement and while I will be referring to B sections throughout this post, it should be noted that you can implement any of this knowledge to any part of your song, B section or otherwise. 

With that said, I'm sure there are some of you who view arranging as a nuisance, but trust, the more you do, the better you get, and the better you get at arranging and creating these b sections, the more impact your music will have. I think you will also start to find that arranging is as important as any other part of the production process.

Ok now lets go!

1. Filters

This is probably the easiest way to add variation to any point of your song. It is a great tool to not only clear out energy to reset the listener and your musical thought, but it can also be used as a great momentum builder going into another section.

So what is a filter exactly? Well it's essentially just another word for a specialized equalizer. Filters come in various forms and there are some pretty complex ones that exist, especially when it comes to sound design and synthesis, but for the sake of the simplicity and this post, we are going to be focusing on low pass filters.

A low pass is a filter that lets anything below a certain frequency through. Anything above the filter's set frequency is essentially blocked and wont be audible. So lets do a speed lesson on how these things work. If you are already familiar with filters definitely feel free to jump ahead. If this is new to you then hopefully this will provide some quick insight.

 

This is abletons' eq 8, which is a visual parametric equalizer.  Each box and corresponding number on the bottom of this eq represents a node point. When a node is activated you can then alter the paramters. Notice how node 8 is selected (but not turned on yet) and how on the far left you can see freq, gain and Q knobs. When we finally activate node 8, we will then be able to tweak those parameters.

This is abletons' eq 8, which is a visual parametric equalizer.  Each box and corresponding number on the bottom of this eq represents a node point. When a node is activated you can then alter the paramters. Notice how node 8 is selected (but not turned on yet) and how on the far left you can see freq, gain and Q knobs. When we finally activate node 8, we will then be able to tweak those parameters.

Lets start with a basic EQ. I'm using the EQ 8 in Ableton but this applies to every EQ. In the picture above we have an EQ 8 in it's default position. Notice how there are boxes and numbers on the bottom of the EQ. Each box represents a node point, and when you click one of them, you enable the node which then allows you to tweak the parameter knobs on the far left. You will see a frequency, gain, and Q knob. Since we are really only concerning ourselves with a low pass filter at the moment lets only focus on the frequency (freq) knob. If you are interested in how these other parameters work you can check this video out. Also another thing to note, see that grey area on the analyzer window right above the node point selection? That is a visual representation of our audio passing through the EQ un affected.

 

This is the same EQ as earlier, but we now have our 8th node point actived. The symbols above each number represents the type of mode for your node point. the 1 point is a high pass, 2 through 7 are bell curves, and 8 is a low pass. Now that 8 is activated in the low pass mode we can see an orange line on our analyzer window. This is  a visual representation of how our filter is working. If we move the frequency knob down in value we would see the curve move to the left, and vice versa.

This is the same EQ as earlier, but we now have our 8th node point actived. The symbols above each number represents the type of mode for your node point. the 1 point is a high pass, 2 through 7 are bell curves, and 8 is a low pass. Now that 8 is activated in the low pass mode we can see an orange line on our analyzer window. This is  a visual representation of how our filter is working. If we move the frequency knob down in value we would see the curve move to the left, and vice versa.

Now lets activate our 8th node. Since the mode for node 8 is a low pass, which is indicated by the symbol above the box, we will see an orangish curve appear on our frequency display. The picture above is a visual representation of what a low pass filter look like. If you compare the first and second picture of the eq, you can see that when 8 isn't activated there is more data on our frequency display. If you look at the second picture where our low pass is on, you will see less data after our curve. This is how low pass filters work. The same holds true for hi pass, but just think in the opposite direction. If you want less high frequency content to pass through your low pass, then lower your frequency range, if you want more, then raise your frequency knob. It should also be noted that a low pass filter is the SAME thing as a hi cut filter, and a high pass filter is the same as a low cut.

 

Above is an example without and with the filter respectively. You can hear an obvious difference between the two. As i said above, if you want more fidelity and more highs, then raise your frequency, if you want less definition then lower your frequency. 

There you have it. Thats a filter and thats pretty much how they work, or at least how low pass and high pass filters work.  Now i was just using an EQ to show what a filter is doing, but there are countless filter plug ins out there specifically made just to filter. There are simple plug ins like One Knobs Filter which is just a knob that you raise and lower, there are more complex filter plug ins like Soundtoys Filter Freak, and everything in between. Since I'm using Ableton, I'm going to be using the factory audio effect, Auto Filter, but as we learned earlier, you can simply just use an EQ if thats all you have available.  

Explanation aside, filters are inedibly simple, and as we are about to learn, powerful tools to add variation in your track. 

Lets jump into a real world example. This is a track off my Bumps 2 Swim 2 EP called, Call When Outside. 

 

If you give this song a quick spin you can see that the arrangement is prety basic. We have an 8 bar intro, a 16 bar verse section, and an 8 bar hook and then it repeats. However, if you go back and forth between the first and second verse you will hear a difference. The second verse is my B section, and in this case, we are using a filter to create that variation.  If you hit play at roughly the 1:30 mark and let the song play out a bit you will hear the transition from hook into our second verse. 

The above audio clip is a snap shot of the section i'm referring to. Do you hear that wobble thats happening? Almost like a wave that goes up and down every beat? Well thats some low pass filter magic. What's so cool about filters is that they are an incredibly simple tool, but when you pair it up with some automation, you can come up with some creative ideas. In this instance I automated the filter to go up and down throughout each beat. I decided to use this technique for a couple of reason. One, I didn't want the same sound as the first verse since I knew the listener was going to expect it, and two, I knew it would add a unique movement coming out of the hook. In order to accomplish this sound, I put an auto filter effect on my chord section and I automated the frequency to start pulsing immediatly after the hook.

 

Automation is the key to making these filters become a creative tool. See that red line that has a bunch of curves and peaks and valleys? THats out automation lane, and in this case it's automating the frequency, more specifically the frequency of our auto filter.

Automation is the key to making these filters become a creative tool. See that red line that has a bunch of curves and peaks and valleys? THats out automation lane, and in this case it's automating the frequency, more specifically the frequency of our auto filter.

That gif above is showing you how I got that wobble on the 2nd verse. It's nothing more than just simple automation on ableton's auto filter plug in. Below is a close up of the auto filer that i'm using.

This is a zoomed in shot of how the automation is affecting the auto filter.

This is a zoomed in shot of how the automation is affecting the auto filter.

Notice how similar this auto filter looks compared to the EQ we were looking at earlier? Well it's becuase it is essnetially the same thing just with slightly different controls. You can do some pretty crazy stuff with these parameters, but in this case we are only automating the frequency knob. Notice how its sweeping up and down over and over again? Well that motion is what gives you that wobble. Just for reference this is what those chords sound like if we disable the auto filter.

You can still hear a bit of pumping because of a side chain I have going on, but notice the lack of movement now that we disabled the filter. The more creative you get with you automation points, the more variation you can add with this simple tool. You can even keep it really simple and just have the filter drop down to a low value and slowly sweep up. 

You can also keep your automation points simple. Here is the same idea, but instead of having the filter wobble, it simple drops down and slowly sweeps up. Notice the curve.

You can also keep your automation points simple. Here is the same idea, but instead of having the filter wobble, it simple drops down and slowly sweeps up. Notice the curve.

This is highly effective, and a tool i use a lot to clear out energy and then get the listener anticipating the next hit. Pair this with a drop out of drums or chords and you can create quite an impactful entrance of your next section. Listen to the audio clip below to hear an example, this time with everything in it.

Still adds a great variation to the track, and it took all of 30 seconds to do. 

So whether you are adding gradual sweeps, or creative wobbles, filters and automation are an excellent quick tool to make a strong B section. And this was just low pass filters. You can do the same thing with hi pass filters, and band pass filters and even comb filters, so do some experimenting and see what you can come up with. I will most likely be doing an article just about creative uses for filters because you can really do a lot with these tools.

2. Change Up Your Sound

As an artist it's pretty easy to get caught up in the process. Sometimes the smallest change can create a significant impact to the listeners experience and can have them hitting that replay button over and over. With that said, what may seem like a small modification to a creator doesn't always mean it will be perceived that way by the listener. A great example of this is the simple act of changing up your instrument for your B section. By doing this, you surprise the listener by taking them to an unexpected place. This also gives you more control and another opportunity to re direct the mood of your track. And all you have to do is create a new instrument and drag and drop your MIDI. Want to bring an organic human feel to your B section? Then switch those synth chords to rhodes chords.  Want to create a breakdown section where people can take a breather and reset them for another drop? Then switch your sound to a washy pad, or choir. Or you could switch out your snare for a weird percussion hit soaked in reverb. It's up to your imagination, but try and implement this on your next track and I think you will see how this simple change can really be a powerful change up. As a quick example lets revisit the same track we were working on with the filter.

I removed the filter so it now comes out of the hook wide open. Lets take a listen:

And here is a version where i switched up the main chord synth and arp sounds.

I took all of 2 minutes to pick the change up sounds, but the more time you spend picking the right sound, the better the change up will be. As i said earlier, this variation can seem almost too simplistic, but that's only because your looking at it from the artist perspective. To the person consuming your art, it is a surprise, and more often than not, a welcome one. There is sophistication in simplicity, and sometimes the most "complex" additions have equal impact as the simplistic additions.  I firmly believe that as an artist you want to create the perception that you are predictable only so that you can have the power to flip everything over and show a new side when people are least expecting it. This doesn't mean make repetitive and predictable music, but instead utilize patterns to bring energy and excitement to your productions and art.

3. Chord Inversions

Ok lets jump into some music theory real quick. Another way to add variation to your song, and B section is by inverting chords. This is a simple tactic that can bring a subtle change to your music and while the average listener may not register the inversion, their subconscious surely will.

So what exactly is a chord inversion?  Well think of it as a shift in the notes of a chord. So if you had C major for example (C,E,G) you could invert this chord by shifting C up one ocatve. So now your chord is E,G and C up an ocatve.

The first chord is a C major in root position. It goes from C to E to G. The Second chord is the same chord, but just in first inversion positoning. So it is now E, G and C just transposed an ocatve up. If you played this back the voicing would sound different but it would in fact be the same chord

The first chord is a C major in root position. It goes from C to E to G. The Second chord is the same chord, but just in first inversion positoning. So it is now E, G and C just transposed an ocatve up. If you played this back the voicing would sound different but it would in fact be the same chord

So just by tranposing your C note  (if you are in ableton it is as simple as selecting the note and pressing shift + the up arrow) you have created an inversion, specifically the first inversion of that chord. You can keep going and transpose your E up an octave which will leave you at the 2nd inversion. Your chord would then look like G, C and E. Once again this is still a C Major chord, but now in a 2nd inversion voicing. This will have a different color to it, but will still be a C major chord. The closer a chords notes are to one another, the more tense, or dissonant the voicing will be.  The farther apart the chords are, the more resolution. If you are scratching your head I HIGHLY encourage you to check this resource out. It's a really great visual and semi hands on explanation of inversions. 

Inversions are beneficial for a number of reasons, voice leading for instance, but in the case of B sections and variation, it is a great way to re introduce a section with a  subtle difference in color. Now that we have a basic understanding of chord inversions, lets try and apply it to the beat we were working on in the filter section. 

These are the chords that happen throughout the track.  I have a call and response where i have another instrument hitting the same chord every half bar. 

These are the chords that more or less repeat throughout the entire track. It switches in and out of C major A minor in to C minor.

These are the chords that more or less repeat throughout the entire track. It switches in and out of C major A minor in to C minor.

These are pretty basic chords, with not a lot of fancy stuff going on.  One thing to note is that these are 7th chords and not traids, meaning we have an extra note extending off of our basic triad. We also have an additional bass note underneath the chords for added body. If you want to get a little hands on, feel free to download this midi file here.  If you are not really sure what a 7th chord is you should take a quick second to watch this video. Don't mind the title. This guy does great job of breaking down this concept.

So technically what i'm about to show you aren't chord inversions, but it is the same premise. The idea is that you want to transpose the notes from the chords you already have to bring a different color to them. Lets work with the same track, and use the version with the new instrument added from earlier.  So the picture above are the chords that are arpeggiated, you can hear it by scrolling up to the last audio clip, and  there are response chords that play directly after on the 2 beat of the bar. Those chords are being played by the synth and then the rhodes in our B section. So my process for how I invert chords is always different each time, but if you are new to inversiosn i suggest just messing around until you get something that sounds cool.

 

Here is an example of a quick inversion of chords. 

Here is an example of a quick inversion of chords. 

Above is a quick example of how I invert these chords. I did this very quickly and I would encourage you to spend more time on it, but you can see how simple the process is. I'm just highlighting a note and hitting transpose and shifting it either up or down and octave. This isn't going to completely shift your sound, but it will provide a nice color difference in your track. As you get better with inversions you will start to learn what works and what doesn't. I sometimes like to focus on my top notes and creating a different top melody for my b section. You can also mess with the tension and resolution of each chord. Remember how i said the more space between notes the more resolution? Well look at the third chord in the example above. See how spaced out those notes are after I transposed?  Well it will have a more open feel and will seem like it resolves more. You can also do the opposite and invert the chords so they have notes that are closer which will create some tension. You could try doing that before a spread out chord for some nice tension and release. This same concept holds true for bass lines. You can move the bassline according to your chords as well.  So instead of having the bass line just play the root of the chord, you can have it play the 3rd or the 5th, or even 7th and so on. You should actually be doing this throughout your basslines, and not just in your B section. This is a great way to keep your basslines from being sterile.

Here is the same track we've been using, but this time with inverted chords and a transposed bassline in our B section.

Once again, this was a very quick process, and I would spend more time on it if this was going to be a finished project, but i think you get the idea. The important thing with this technique is trusting your ears. It's easy to get caught up in music theory and be paralyzed by the notion that you don't know enoug It doesn't have to be that complicated. Just mess with things until they sound good. Simple as that. As you start to learn more theory, these concepts will take on whole new meanings and you will start to figure out new and powerful ways to utilize them.

4. Add and Remove Parts

Keeping with the theme of simplicity, here is another method that is super simple. Adding and removing parts of your song is a great way to ramp up momentum or clear out energy. And by adding and removing parts I don't just mean whole instruments, I also mean notes.  Something that i see done a lot these days is adding more notes to a chords voicing in a B section.  This plays off of that concept of closer notes makes more tension and more spaced notes make for more resolution within a chord. If you add more notes to a chord and have the additions close to the preexisting notes, you are going to create more... yeah you guessed it, tension. So in the context of a build up, this is a great way to get the listener ready for a hook section which resolves this tension and brings a ton of energy. This is something you see a lot in neo soul, and future beats. There is a heavy focus on voicings and playing with the tension and release. You will see a lot of notes in chords that are a semitone away, which by themselves may be dissonant, but in the context of the song, add to the flow of the composition. 

On a more macro level, just removing your chord section and letting your bass and drums do all of the work is also a great approach. This is especially true if you have a groove that you really love. It's a great way to show it off for a bit before the chords or melody come back in. You can also add in parts too. I sometimes like to add a little pluck that emphasizes the off beat to give subtle deviation from the groove. I'll then remove it for the rest of the song, but that simple addition goes a long way. Some of my favorite moments in music are the ones that come and go even if it's only 4 or 8 bars. While I will usually like the song as a whole, it can be those small parts that keep me coming back for more, which is something i try and emulate in my own productions. 

5. Change up your Rhythm

This technique is something that I have been using in a lot of my music. It's incredibly effective, and can create a really cool variation that can wow a listener if done correctly. Lets depart from the example we have been using and lets explore this track:

 

If you give this track a spin you can actaully hear all of these techniques being put to use. The part I really want you to focus on is the 1:20 mark when that B section drops in. If you go back and forth between this section, and the other parts of the song, you will hear a distinct difference in groove. Here is a snap shot of the session so you can get a better idea of what you are hearing

This is the chord and melody section of the track. The section highlited is the B section. It's a pretty obvious difference. The B section has a lot of staccato parts that happen frequently while the part leading up to the B section are longer chords with less movement. 

This is the chord and melody section of the track. The section highlited is the B section. It's a pretty obvious difference. The B section has a lot of staccato parts that happen frequently while the part leading up to the B section are longer chords with less movement. 

If you look at the highlited section, which is my B section for this song, you can see a lot of short chord notes that happen frequently. The part leading up to this section are long chords with less movement.  The result is a rhthmically different B section that sort of explodes out of the song because it deviates from the groove we had heard up until this point. Now that you can see the arrangement visually, try listening to the track again and follow along with what you are hearing. This snap shot spans around :40 to the 1:40 mark. Now it may sound like there is a drum change up, but pretty much the only variation here is with my chords and melody.

Now lets zoom in to see whats going on 

This is what the chord structure looks like leading up, and after the B section:

 

This is the chord structure both before and after the B section.

This is the chord structure both before and after the B section.

These are pretty basic chords that more or less span the length of each bar. Not a ton of movement but when paired with a few other instruments, my drum groove and bass line, the track moves along quite nicely. Now this is how i changed those same chords for the B section:

 

These are the same chords as above, just made smaller and chopped up

These are the same chords as above, just made smaller and chopped up

These are literally the same chords. Didn't invert, did transpose, just simply made them shorter and made them happen more frequently.  This definitely took some time to get in the right pocket, but I didn't have to make new chords or play something out.  I instead just had to work creatively with what I had to bring some new movement to the section.

This is what those chords sound like:

There are two other elements that really help hammer this section home. If you go back up to the snap shot of this arrangement you will also see that I removed a bunch of parts that were playing throughout the song. This really helped clear out space to emphasize the new chord rhythms that I added. The other part that really gives this B section unique movement is this chord progression that I actually bounced down to audio... If you haven't already go check out my last article about creative post production tricks with audio to get some insight on this process.

This is other part that really gives groove to the B section. This is bounced down audio, but it is the same chord progression from earlier. That space between the long clip and the short clip is the break down. Notice all of the chopped up audio inthe B section. This is where that groove gets amplified.

This is other part that really gives groove to the B section. This is bounced down audio, but it is the same chord progression from earlier. That space between the long clip and the short clip is the break down. Notice all of the chopped up audio inthe B section. This is where that groove gets amplified.

This audio is just bounced down from the chord progression we were working on earlier but played on a different synth.  I bounced it down because it gave me the ability to tweak and manipulate it in a particular way.  With audio you can really get precise with your chops.  This audio is just mimicking the chopped up midi chords in this section.  You can preview what this audio sounds like in the clips below.

Notice how the chopped audio lines up with the midi above in order to emphasize this groove.

Notice how the chopped audio lines up with the midi above in order to emphasize this groove.

With that chopped up audio I was able to empasize the chord rhythm even more.  With a few post production tricks that i talked about in my last post, I ended up with the B section that you can hear in the track. Once again, all i did was shorten the chord lengths, and messed with their timing.  So while this may sound complex, it's really quite simplistic once you dissect it.

Conclusion

A wise man once said something along the lines of "People don't pay you for your skill, they pay you for your style". To me this means that there is sophistication in simplicity, and while spending hours on a complex idea is a awesome, you can sometimes create just as much impact with a simple approach.  While I'm not suggesting to ignore complex methods, I do think you can make really powerful creative decisions using less effort than you think. At the very least, these methods are great starting points. Try building off of them, combining them, and adding your own unique twist. Your B sections will thank you for it, and so will your listeners. On that same note, use these throughout your song! Not just B sections. You can implement these throughout and create constant variation.

Hope you guys enjoyed this post. If you dig it let me know! If you hated it let me know! If you have any ideas or things you want me to cover in a future blog post, let me know!  

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Thanks for tuning in !

LF