Even in the Songwriting World, Opposites Attract

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Lady Gaga - AlejandroSome of the features of good songwriting have been with us for centuries. For example, composers have known for a very long time that in various sections of the same song, it’s good technique to present opposite-sounding ideas. It’s called the contrast principle, and whether you’re talking about pop, jazz, country or classical, it’s still a very good idea. Here’s how it works.

The musical mind gets numbed by an idea very quickly. This is particularly so if the idea is up front and noticeable. A background that persists throughout a song without changing can be fine, but melodies, lyrics, and their related rhythms can cause us to lose interest if those components’ characteristics don’t show any development or change.

Even harmonies can get to be  a bit monotonous if there’s no apparent sense of development within a song. Something needs to sound like it’s going somewhere.

For example, if your verse melody uses 8th-notes (i.e., 2 notes per beat) as a primary rhythmic motif, using constant 8th-notes in your chorus starts to become a bit dulling to the mind, and listeners lose interest.

The contrasting rhythm doesn’t actually need to be opposite, but it does need to be different.

In Lady Gaga’s latest hit, “Alejandro”, both the verse and chorus rhythmic figures are mainly based on 8th-note rhythmic units, with occasional 16th-note figures. The important difference is that the verse includes quarter notes as an important establishing rhythm (“She’s got both hands…”, “She hides true love…”). The chorus contrasts by concentrating mainly on 8ths and 16ths, with no quarter notes at all. This increases vocal energy, and the rather hooky “Ale-Ale-jandro” provides even more.

Harmonically, it’s the minor-major distinction that causes the contrast for this song. The verse is primarily minor, with lots of interplay between the tonic and dominant chords (Bm and F#m). The chorus pulls the harmonies more toward the relative major key of D major (G  D  A  Bm).

As you can see, the contrasting that we’re talking about here is subtle, and it’s why I think “Alejandro” is a great example. The contrasts are slight. You don’t want to contrast elements too much, or they’ll sound like you’ve pasted two different songs together. Think of this kind of contrast principle as the kind you’d consider when designing the interior of a house. You don’t want every room to look the same, while at the same time, you don’t want rooms to be so different from each other that they fail to connect.

As you write your song, you need to think of elements within that song that you can develop in a sensible way. That means thinking about the following:

  1. Melodic range: think lower for the verse, higher for the chorus.
  2. Melodic shapes: try contrasting downward-moving shapes in a verse with upward-moving ones in a chorus.,
  3. Melodic rhythms: think shorter values for the verse, longer ones for the chorus, and create short rhythmic cells for your bridge to create even more energy.
  4. Harmonies: if your verse and chorus use the same or similar chord progressions, try using a pedal bass note throughout the progression for your verse, and move the bass for your chorus.
  5. Instrumentation: try adding instruments in the chorus, or at least move instruments to a higher basic range.

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