Songwriting, and the Contrast Principle

Gary Ewer’s songwriting e-books show you every aspect of how great songs work, and why bad songs flop. If you’re stuck and can’t seem to finish anything you start, it may be time to take a step back and look at songwriting from a different perspective.


Contrast PrincipleIf you compare music from different genres, it would be understandable if you felt that there were almost no commonalities. After all, Black Sabbath and Bing Crosby don’t really have a lot in common. Except for one thing: the contrast principle.

To put it simply, contrast is what can keep your song from boring your listeners. Think of it like a piece of real estate: flat land has nothing that catches the eye, while hilly land is interesting. It has ups, downs, shadows, shapes, and more.

So what do we mean by contrast in a song? Contrast refers to any aspect where opposite characteristics or elements are allowed to co-exist. Let’s look at some specific examples:

PROBLEM: If your melody hovers around the same three or four notes, it may be in danger of boring the listeners. Too few notes means potentially too flat a shape, and not enough melodic contrast.
SOLUTION: Either find ways to incorporate more notes in your melody, or find ways to organize the existing pitches into ascending, then descending patterns (See comment on “Free Fallin'” in this blog posting.)(Opens in a new window)

If your verse and chorus both use a similar harmonic approach (i.e., all fragile progressions, or all strong ones), the song can get a feel that’s too similar throughout.
SOLUTION: Try using mainly fragile progressions in your verse, with stronger progressions in your chorus. (For a description of this problem, read this article.)

PROBLEM: If you’re using a standard guitar-bass-drums instrumentation all the way through your song, you’re missing opportunities to build a more interesting accompaniment.
SOLUTION: Add contrast to your song by adding and subtracting instruments in intuitive ways. For example, as the emotions become more obvious (especially in choruses), add instruments, and have them play louder. Use similar instrumentations for each verse, but make sure that something distinctive changes for the chorus.

Instrumental/vocal range
PROBLEM: Instruments and backing vocals are all in the same basic range.
SOLUTION: Make decisions regarding where certain instruments will play higher and when they’ll play lower. Move instruments up an octave to match emotional outpourings, and move them down to allow the song to relax. Also, make similar decisions regarding where implied chords will be used (mainly in verses), and where thicker textures are needed (choruses and bridge.)

The contrast principle simply means that you want to give the listener “opposites” that can add meaning to your song. Ensuring that you contrast various musical elements means you’re giving your song the “hills and valleys” that an interesting piece of land has.

If you find your song has got all the elements of a good tune, but just sounds boring, check to see if there’s a way to add some contrast to the various elements of your song.


Read more about Gary Ewer’s Songwriting E-books here.

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