Why the Contrast Principle is Crucial in Songwriting

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Guitarist-Singer-SongwriterContrast is a feature of music that puts opposite ideas in fairly close proximity to each other. A quiet verse becoming a loud chorus, a low melody moving higher, a minor section moving to a major one… these are all typical examples of how the contrast principle plays out in songwriting. It’s good to be looking for ways to feature contrasting elements in music. Without them, your music runs the risk of boring the listener.

If you look out onto a field, and see nothing except flat land and little else, you’re experiencing the problem that comes from not enough contrast. Without some distinguishing landmark, the field offers little to stimulate the imagination or excite the viewer. In short, it’s boring.

But add rolling hills, trees or shrubs, and perhaps a river, and you feel your senses come alive. It suddenly becomes land that you not only want to look at… you suddenly feel the need to walk toward it, to experience it, smell the flowers, and to live in it!

This is what happens when you properly balance contrasting elements within a song. The music suddenly sounds interesting, stimulating, and as a listener, you want to keep humming that song all day long.

In short, contrast in a song brings out the beauty of the song.

So contrast is vital to good music. But it begs the question: how much contrast is right? And how do you actually provide the contrast? What’s the musical equivalent of adding trees and shrubs and rolling hills to a flat field?

There are several typical ways of providing contrast in music. Check out the following list, and look for ways to incorporate some or all of them into your music?

  1. Formal contrast. Do you notice a build of energy between verse and chorus? You should. That energy build can come from increasing dynamics (i.e., getting louder), building the instrumentation, creating busier rhythms and so on. A well-constructed song usually features rising and falling energy levels as it progresses.
  2. Lyrical contrast. Parts of your lyric should describe situations, people, relationships and circumstances. This is usually done in a verse. Other parts should describe emotional responses, which typically happens in the chorus. A bridge lyric will usually present a melange of both characteristics. Look through your lyric and be sure you’ve provided this vital sense of contrast.
  3. Instrumental contrast. There is no rule that says that all songs need to feature a changing and contrasting sense of instrumentation throughout, but if you’re looking for a way of increasing the sense of contrast within your song, consider developing contrasting elements in your song’s instrumentation. This usually means building it up for the chorus by adding instruments, and reducing it for the verse.
  4. Harmonic contrast. Harmonic contrast comes from the juxtaposition of major and minor chords. As one possibility, try focusing on minor chords for a verse, and major chords for a chorus. Changing key can provide a welcome feeling of contrast. Less commonly, you can even consider injecting a sense of contrast by changing key between verse and chorus.
  5. Melodic contrast. Flat melodies, like flat land, can leave listeners wanting more. It’s quite possible to have sections of melody that dwell on one or two notes, but you’ll need to contrast that with melodies that show ample highs and lows.

The end result of contrast used correctly in music is that, just like looking at a beautiful field with rolling hills, shrubs and flowers, you’ve provided something captivating for the listener that makes them want to keep listening.


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