The Subtle Nature of Contrast in Songwriting

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AudienceThe worst reaction a song can generate is boredom. Most songwriters would rather deal with outright hatred of their music. Hatred usually means someone didn’t like your tune, but leaves the possibility open that others might like it. But boredom has a way of affecting pretty much everyone who listens. Boredom means that there wasn’t much of anything there to love or hate, and tends to have a much larger circle.

Like a piece of flat landscape, boredom is the result of nothing much happening. In songwriting, the feeling that something is happening comes from that subtle feature called contrast.

Some song aspects that are easy to build contrast into are lyrics and melodic shape. In lyrics, verse questions and situations are answered or otherwise reacted to in the chorus. With melodies, chorus melodies tend to use higher notes, and feature an important climactic high point.

But other elements within a song need to feature contrast, and missing out on those opportunities can leave listeners with a ho-hum feeling. Are you neglecting other ways to incorporate contrast into your songs? Here are three ways to use contrast that you might not have thought much about:

  1. Instrumental Contrast. Some songs can successfully use one instrument, presented in an unchanging way, from beginning to end, but unless that instrument (guitar, keyboard, etc.) or small instrumental collective (string quartet, brass section, etc.) uses contrasting elements, you’re walking a tricky tightrope, and your listeners can get bored.
  2. Thematic Contrast. If your song is a basic “I love you… Why can’t you love me” type of song, your audience will turn away, toward more interesting material by someone else. You need to seek out new ways to present the very important themes of love and human connection. An idea? Try using metaphors. They allow you to sing about one thing while making it appear on the surface that you’re singing about something else. The benefit is that you’re essentially contrasting two completely different subject areas, and it keeps the listener’s brain working.
  3. Harmonic Contrast. Once you’ve chosen a key for your song, you then have the 7 chords that will naturally exist in that key. So try focusing mainly on the minor choices from that key for your verse, and switch to major for the chorus. (Note: Switching to a minor chorus from a major verse doesn’t often work as well, but can be done.)

A sure sign that you need to work more contrasting elements into your music is if song energy stays the same throughout the song. Try this: start playing a recording of your song, and scrub through it. Everywhere you stop, take note of the general sound. Are you hearing the same instruments? The same energy level? The same basic vocal range? Scanning through in this manner can give you a quick snapshot of how others will perceive your song.

What do you do to incorporate contrast into your songs? Leave your comments below.

-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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