Placing opposite ideas near each other is an important feature of good songwriting.
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A colleague of mine was once asked what music was. His reply was, “Anything written with musical intent.” In context, his answer made sense, considering that the conversation the group of us were having was concerning John Cage’s 4’33”, a piece of music written for any instrument, the main instruction being that the player was not to actually play the instrument at all, for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. (Yes, there are several YouTube videos of various “performances”, like this one from the BBC, that you can “listen to”).
But considering that the title of that piece of music included a timing – 4 minutes and 33 seconds – my colleague amended his answer to be, “Anything written with musical intent, that takes time.”
This may seem to be straying somewhat from the topic of songwriting, but in fact that last bit, that music “takes time”, is an important feature of all music. When we write music, we’re creating a musical journey that occupies an audience, and requires us to hold their attention for a specified period of time.
But simply “taking time” won’t do in songwriting. Whether we’re aware of it or not, it’s the power of opposite ideas that generates interest in the world of pop music. Creating opposites within a song feels natural, and will go a long way to getting listeners to come back to your song.
Enticing an audience to want to listen to your song over and over again – that’s probably the trickiest part of songwriting. In the case of 4’33”, it’s the novelty and cheekiness of the performance that audiences find beguiling. But in songwriting, it’s usually the power of opposite ideas that pulls listeners in.
Most great songs will place opposites near each other: a soft part here, a loud part there… that sort of thing. And it doesn’t just apply to pop songs. Symphonies, concertos, jazz ballads, Classical string quartets… they all make great use of the juxtaposition of contrasting elements to produce listener interest.
Besides placing something quiet near something noisy, what other “opposites” should you be thinking of as you write your next song? Here’s a quick list:
- Melodic range: There is a natural tendency to have lower melodies of the verse followed by higher ones in the chorus.
- Melodic shapes: Look at the short melodic motifs that comprise the verse of your song, and try creating melodic ideas for the chorus that reverse the direction. An example I like to give is clearly demonstrated in Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me“, which has downward-moving shapes at the beginning of the verse, followed by upward-moving ones in the pre-chorus.
- Melodic rhythms: We’re usually concentrating on the notes of a melody, but the rhythm of your melody is a vital part of song energy. The general rule is to use shorter rhythmic values in the verse, and longer ones in the chorus. That way, you’re generating energy with the quick notes, and allowing longer notes to accompany the more emotive words of the chorus.
- Harmonies: There are several ways to use the concept of “opposite” when it comes to your chord choices: 1) Try mainly minor chords for your verse, major for your chorus; 2) Create a chord progression that sounds good both forwards and backwards. Then try one direction for the verse, the other for the chorus. 3) Create a verse progression that uses a downward-moving bass line, and one that uses an upward-moving bass line for the chorus.
- Instrumentation: There can sometimes be a dangerous “sameness” if you use the same instrument played the same way for the entirety of a song. Try adding instruments in a chorus, or play them in a different way in various sections of your song. (i.e., finger style in one part, strummed in another)
A song without contrasts is a tough sell. Even if all you do is create a quiet section, followed by a louder one, you’re demonstrating the power of opposites, and that concept goes a long way to creating hit songs.
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