Swapping Major and Minor Harmonies to Create Contrast

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I used to joke with a friend of mine that I liked when he parked his car close to mine: it made my car look so good. In songwriting, there’s a parallel. If you want a particular element of music to be noticeable, you want to put it near something that shows an opposite characteristic. It’s the contrast principle, and  it’s a vital part of making songs memorable. I love this principle particularly as it pertains to chord choice, because there are several ways it can happen.

Contrast in chord progressions usually means that you’re juxtaposing major and minor sounds. We tend to think of minor as the stereotypically “sad” sound, but there are all sorts of shadings of emotions that come from minor tonalities. Minor chords can make music sound morose, but can alternatively give a sense of power and authority.

So here are some ways you might want to balance your use of major and minor chords within a song:

  1. Minor to major within a verse. Moving from mainly minor chords to mainly major ones within the same verse can give the feeling of hopefulness or cheeriness, and can set up a strong chorus with positive vibes.
    Example: Am  F  Am  Dm  Am  F  Dm  G  | C  F  C/E  F  C  F  Am  G (followed by a major key chorus)
  2. Minor verse to major chorus. This has the same effect as the example above, but has the greatest impact on the chorus itself: it makes it sound almost like the sun just came out.
    Example: Am  G  F  G  Am  Dm  Em  F (repeat) ||C  F  Dm  G  C/E  F  Am  G (followed by a major key chorus)
  3. Using the same progression with minor/major substitutions. The effects here are subtle, and that’s the charm. It works especially well if you have a progression that you really love, and with a couple of substitutions you can use it in both your verse and your chorus.
    Example: VERSE: C  F  Dm  G  C  F  Am  G ||CHORUS: C  F  Dm  G  Am  Dm  Am  G. Essentially, both progressions use chords that have the same function, but some major chords are switched for minor ones, offering a subtle shading of mood.
  4. Using modal mixture chords. This is a great way to write a song in a major key, and then “borrow” a minor chord or two from the parallel minor key. Again, a very subtle effect that works nicely in music of all genres.
    Example 1: C  F C  G  Am  Ddim  G (the Ddim is a modal mixture chord, borrowed from the key of C minor.
    Example 2: C  C/E  Dm  Fm  Ab  Bb  C (the Fm, Ab and Bb are all modal mixtures).

In most cases, listener boredom comes from too much of a “sameness” happening throughout a song, and not enough contrast. The contrasting of major and minor, in small doses like described above, can go a long way to taking your song from monotonous to exhilarating.


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

  1. One thing I ended up doing and had some fun with was writing the same melody notes in a minor key, and then using them again when I’d moved into the major. Totally different feel, very fun.

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