Hey! Let’s talk about musical transitions. Why, you ask? Because they’re important AF (as “the kids these days” like to say). Seriously–they’re that important. You can’t write a song without some kind of transition. Well, you could, but this hypothetical song would likely be more boring than grandma’s oatmeal recipe. Messing with people’s expectations is a crucial part of writing interesting music, and it’s really tough to do that if you’re not changing anything. So let’s talk about interludes!
There are different kinds of transitions
I know…”duh, Mr. Robot.” Fair point. Anyway, I can think of four broad categories of transitions off the top of my head. I’m probably missing some, but we’re just going to focus on one of them, today, so who cares? I do, but anyway, here are the ones I’ve come up with, in order of complexity:
- Just going for it: This is where you take two parts, and you stick ’em together without doing anything to ease the transition.
- The interlude: Basically, you take two parts, and you stick a gap in between–this often functions as a way to reset people’s ears–a palate cleanse, if you will. That’s what we’re gonna talk about here. It’s also why I made this one all bold and fancy. 🤵🏻
- Tension and release: Here, you take two parts, and you build a sense of tension which reaches a pinnacle at the end of the first part, and then gets released at the start of the second. Risers are a good example, but there are tons of ways to do it.
- Leading the listener: This is probably the most fun and rewarding (IMO), but/because it’s also the most challenging to pull off. Here, you take two parts and use harmony and/or melody and/or rhythm to lead the listener’s ear on a journey that connects the two parts.
Each of these come in different forms, and there can be a lot of overlap between them. We’ll go into more depth in each, but today we’re going to look at interludes. Cleanse that damn palate–that’s what I always say!*
Anyhoo…interludes are super effective and can be as simple or complicated as you like. Let’s break down some of the different kinds of interludes you can use, and look at some examples.
*I never say that.
The cut-out/the fade
Just add a bar or two between two parts, and either stop the music dead in its tracks, or hold out the last note until the next part comes in. Doesn’t get much simpler. You can also add a little bit of spiciness by introducing some other small element to it, like a different drum beat, vocal, or other instrumentation.
Check out this great example from a song I’m certain you’ve never heard before. The last notes fade away to nothing while the kick drum lets you know IT IS NOT OVER YET, before launching into that iconic chorus (not that you would know, since you’ve definitely never heard this song until now).
The unrelated interlude
This is a great way to keep the music moving while still doing that whole palate cleansing thing. Here, you introduce a brand-new element to the song–whether that’s a new melody, rhythm, or instrumentation to temporarily distract listeners from what came before, and keep them guessing about what’s coming next.
Little Dark Age is a fantastic song with some great transitions–but it’s MGMT, so that statement is a little redundant. The end of the main chorus part is a turnaround that naturally tends to lead the listener away from the chorus (here, at about 1:23), and then at around 1:28, it goes into an unrelated interlude. The bass drops out and the instrumentation changes, but the drums keep driving the song forward, before resolving back into the second verse.
Leading the listener: interlude edition
This one is very similar to the transition type–almost identical, in fact.
The difference here is that the transitional part is inserted in between the two parts you want to connect, rather than being included in one or the other.
Like the transition type of the same name, this is the most difficult–and rewarding–to do well, because you’re not really so much cleansing the listener’s palate here, you’re changing it on the fly.
The quintessential example is the pre, or post-chorus. Here you can hear how the verse gives way to a ‘leading the listener’-style interlude into the chorus on my last release–you’ll notice that the main acoustic part remains very similar to the verse, while the vibe of the rest of the part changes quite a bit, preparing you for the chorus.
When does this transition type work?
The interlude is super-versatile and works in almost any musical situation. Here are some of the scenarios where I find myself reaching for this kind of transition:
- The two parts you’re trying to connect don’t play nice with one another. Maybe they’re in drastically different keys, or there might even be a tempo or time signature change involved. Or maybe they do work, technically, but it just isn’t doing it for you. A brief interlude to clear out the listener’s earholes will probably work wonders.
- You’ve got time constraints. If you’ve got a deadline–whether it’s self-imposed, or you need to deliver something on time because you’re getting paid to–this kind of transition is super-easy to pull off quickly, and almost always works.
- You need to break out of a rut. If you’re the type of person who has hundreds or thousands of four or eight bar loops sitting on your hard drive taking up loads of virtual binary space, (and spoiler alert–you are…we all are), this kind of transition is your best friend in the whole wide world. It allows you to chain parts together quickly, and start transforming loops into songs. The real power here is that it’s a great way to get over that terrifying hump of “WAT 2 DO NEXT?? IDK 🤷♂️”. Successfully stringing a couple of parts together provides an incentive to keep pushing to finish a track. It’s sort of like exercise–nobody really wants to start doing that shit, but if you lace up your sneakers, and step out the door, well, you’ve already started, haven’t you? Might as well finish.
When does this transition type not work?
Honestly, it’s kinda difficult to fuck this one up. If you do, you should be upset with yourself. Your family should probably also be disappointed in you. I’m disappointed in you. You are a bad person. 😞
Just kidding–you’re not a bad person, probably. The only thing you should really keep in mind here is not to overuse an interlude the same way too many times. That doesn’t mean you can’t use multiple interludes in the same song. Just be mindful that using the exact same interlude numerous times will start to become obvious and can come off as gimmicky, or even stupid. Once is cool. Twice is usually okay. More than that, you’re skating on thin ice, bucko.
Here’s an example from a new song I’ve been working on called I Used to be an Optimist. The idea is the same for both interludes–they connect the verses to the choruses. Even though they perform the exact same function, they’re obviously handled differently. The first transition is a simple four beat interlude with vocals…
The second is a bit longer, and…you know, different…
How annoying would it be if I used the same “listen, listen” transition twice in the same song? You’d probably say to yourself, “yeah, already heard that one, buddy”, and trust me, nobody wants someone saying that to themselves–not even robots of any speed. The point is, mind your shit–keep it fresh, or something. Whatever the hell that means. 🤷🏻♂️
So you should now have a good idea of just how versatile and useful the humble musical interlude is, and when, and how to apply it in your own music. It’s one of the most important (and easy) types of musical transition to master, and is an incredibly efficient way to get unstuck, if you’re having trouble getting a song moving.
Like I said at the outset, this was mostly off the top of my head, so I’m probably forgetting something. What did I miss? How do you use interludes in your music? And what are some of your favorite examples?
Oh, and take good care of yourselves, and your pets.