Great Songs Come From Mixing Opposites Together

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Song energyYou don’t get much time to grab your audience’s attention with a new song. Within seconds, listeners are judging what you’re putting out there, and unless something interesting has happened pretty much right away, you’ve lost your chance to build your audience base. This fact, that something interesting has to happen within seconds, explains why so many song intros in the pop music world exhibit a measure of weirdness. Weirdness says “Keep listening!”, You’ve got to entice listeners to keep listening, and you’ve got to do it right away.

But weirdness only works for so long. Too much weirdness that goes on for too long means you risk losing listeners. That’s why in the balance between predictable and unpredictable, predictable usually wins.

So once your intro is done and you’ve gotten into the verse and chorus, what keeps a listener listening? In most cases it’s the mixing together of opposite and contrasting musical ideas within the same song.

Without contrast, without the mixing together of opposite ideas, your songs will bore your audience, and they’ll move on to someone else. And it takes a lot of work to build an audience once you’ve lost them.

There are lots of ways to present opposite ideas within a song, but listed below are five of the most common elements that you should be considering.

  1. Melodic range: This is perhaps the most common and most easily-understood opposite. If your verse and chorus both sit in the same basic vocal range, you probably haven’t made enough of a difference between the two. Verses should be lower in pitch, generally, than choruses. And bridges (after the second chorus) can be even higher.
  2. Melodic shapes: For some reason, this doesn’t occur very often to songwriters, but it’s something professional songwriters do all the time. If your verse uses mainly downward moving melodic cells (2- or 3-note motifs), then reverse the direction in the chorus and use upward-moving ones. No one will notice that you’ve done that, but the contrast it provides generates strong listener-interest.
  3. Melodic rhythms: Usually, the more emotive your lyric, the longer the note. So consider using longer note values in the chorus, because the chorus tends to be where you create more of an emotional connection to your listeners.
  4. Harmonies: There are lots of examples of songs that use the same, or at least similar, chord progressions in the verse and chorus. But if you’re looking to inject harmonic interest, try this: work out a verse chord progression that uses mainly upward-moving bass lines, and a chorus progression that uses downward a moving bass. Like this: VERSE: C Dm  C/E  F  Am  G… CHORUS: C  G/B  Am  F  Dm  G  C…
  5. Instrumentation: This is more of a simple “contrast” element rather than an “opposite”, per se, but contrast comes from your approach. If your verse instrumentation is sparse, go for a fuller chorus instrumentation. It makes your audience feel that they’re on a bit of a journey.

It’s easy to assess your song’s level of contrast. Simply play back what you’ve done, and keep asking yourself, “What changes throughout this song other than the melody?” If you find it hard to identify anything that changes in any great way, and if you find yourself getting bored with your own song, it may be time to look for ways to mash together some opposites.


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