How to Use Contrast to Make a Song More Interesting

When we talk about contrast in a song, we’re talking about the existence of opposites: one part of a song may be loud, another soft; one part may be loud, another soft. The concept of contrast has been part of music composition for hundreds of years, and so it doesn’t matter what genre of music you write in, contrast is important.

Sometimes, when trying to describe the importance of a certain musical concept, it’s best to talk about what a song would sound like that lacks contrast. Maybe you’ve experienced this with your own songwriting:

  • Your songs sound lifeless and boring;
  • The melody is hard to remember after you’ve heard it or sung it;
  • The chords seem to meander with no real purpose;
  • The lyrics aren’t really captivating.

Often, these symptoms of bad songs can occur without us really knowing what the problem is, and how to solve it. The truth is that lack of contrast is one of the main reasons why songs can be boring. So here are some basic songwriting tips to incorporate contrast into a song.

  1. If your song seems lifeless and boring, it’s usually because too much of the song is too similar. If you use the same group of instruments the entire way through a song, you’ll find that the dynamics (i.e., the basic volume-level) of the song will be too similar. Solution: Try to vary the instruments you use; use certain instruments at the chorus, then drop them for the verses.
  2. If the melody is hard to remember, it usually means that it lacks contour. Contour refers to the highs and lows of the melodic direction. Solution: your song needs some moments where it soars upward, then moves down. Think of it this way: a picture of a mountain is much easier to remember than a picture of a flat piece of land. The mountain gives the photo something to look at.
  3. If the chords seem to meander and wander around, or just seem to not make sense, it could be that you’re using chords that don’t fit the melody. Other problems can be: using too many different chords, or using chord inversions in a haphazard way.Solution: It’s hard to articulate one solution to this without knowing the specific problem that exists, but generally (in pop, folk and jazz) you will want to use chord inversions just to smooth out jumpy basslines. Chords need to make sense, need to feel that they are moving from one chord to the next sensibly. Check out charts of chord changes, and you’ll get a feel for what works.
  4. If the lyrics aren’t working, it’s often because lyrics can feel stilted or forced. Though not specifically a “contrast” issue, lyrics need to be worked and honed as much as melodies. The problem with honing lyrics is that the more you work them, the more unnatural they sound. If you use words in a lyric that aren’t the kinds of words you’d use in your day-to-day conversations, the lyrics will feel stiff. Solution: Keep a scratch pad and reword your lyrics to come up with as many different ways as possible to say what you are saying. You’ll eventually find the ones that really feel innate and normal.
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