Rhythmic Contrast: The Long and the Short of It

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.

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Singer and rhythmsThe contrast principle has been mainstay of music composition for centuries. Basically, the principle states that whatever you choose to do in one section of your song, try to introduce an opposite approach in another. Rhythm is one element that can really come alive with the contrast principle: choosing shorter note lengths in your verses and bridge, and longer ones in your chorus.

A classic example of rhythmic contrast in action is the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” It uses short, choppy phrases as the basic rhythmic element in the verse:

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game…

The chorus switches to longer note values:

All you need is love,
All you need is love,
All you need is love, love,
Love is all you need.

Shorter (hence quicker) note values suit a verse, because they usually resemble the way we would tell a story or explain a situation. Longer note values work in chorus melodies because choruses are where we express emotions and reactions, and the longer note values often allow us to do that more easily.

But that doesn’t mean that you need to do that for every song. In fact, the contrast principle implies that if you make the same sort of contrast in every song you write, you’re not using the contrast principle!

So find ways to add contrast to every element of your song. Here are some ideas:

Melody: If your verse melody uses a certain melodic shape, try inverting that shape in the chorus.

Lyric: You should already know that the kind of words you use in a verse are not the kind of words you use in a chorus. Use the verse to tell a story or set up a situation, and a chorus to describe  your emotions.

Instrumentation: Use a chorus to add instruments to your verse instruments. It doesn’t usually work to make a wholesale change to your instrumentation, since continuity of instrumentation is a necessary part of songs. But try adding something to the chorus to make a distinction: strings, horns, extra drum/percussion, etc.

The rhythmic contrast principle works in almost any genre of music, from Classical to hip hop and modern day pop.

If you find that your own songs feel boring and you can’t tell why, check out the rhythms you’ve been using, and see if there are ways to add some contrast between the verse and the chorus.
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