Repetition and contrast are opposites, so how do you use both concepts in the same song?
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In the most recent edition of the “Songwriter’s Quick Tips Newsletter”, I wrote an article about how to create songs that bring together the important concepts of repetition and contrast. Those two terms are almost opposites of each other, so how do you use repetition while at the same time ensuring that contrast is also playing a part? I’m reposting that article here, because it’s such an important aspect of songwriting.
The contrast principle has been an important part of music composition for centuries. In fact, back in the 13th century, “motets” would be composed that featured three different melodies, all setting three different lines of lyrics, often in different languages, all performed at the same time! The end result wasn’t as chaotic as it might seem, as you can hear.
But what does this have to do with songwriting in the 21st century? Even today, contrast is an integral part of music composition. The mere fact that we think in terms of verses and choruses is acknowledgement of the fact that we like to categorize our melodies, lyrics and chord progressions into ones used for the verse, and others useful for choruses.
At the same time, songwriters need to consider the equally important concept of repetition. Songs without repetition are hard for audiences to remember. Good melodies use repetition as a crucial component. If you listen to The Eagles’ huge hit, “Hotel California”, you’ll notice that while the verse melody is very long, it is made up of very short 2-bar phrases, many of which have a very similar shape: a few high notes, followed by a few that are one pitch lower, finishing with those first high notes again. In other words, a basic melodic shape is repeated over and over again to produce the verse melody.
The thing is, songs with too much repetition, and songs with not enough repetition, result in the same thing: listener boredom and fatigue.
So how do you bring the two concepts of repetition together in a song? How do you make sure that things are repeating enough to create memorable melodies, but not so much that they cause your audience to be bored?
Check out these quick tips:
- Use similar melodic shapes, but invert them in different parts of the song. One of my favourite examples in the past couple of years has been Taylor Swift’s hit song, “You Belong With Me.” In the verse, she starts with downward-moving melodic shapes, an idea that she repeats several times (“You’re on the phone with your girlfriend, She’s upset..”) . Then in the pre-chorus (“But she wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts..”), the direction of the shape changes, moving upward. That’s a beautiful coming-together of repetition and contrast.
- Try a “Palindromic” chord progression.This is a progression that works in two directions. Not many progressions will work both forward and backward, so it will take some experimenting. Once you’ve got one you like, use it in one direction for the verse, and backwards for the chorus. It works to add a strong sense of cohesiveness to your song. Here are some examples of palindromic progressions:
- C F Dm G C | C G Dm F C
- C Bbadd9 Eb F C | C F Eb Bbadd9 C
- C Bb Ab G Eb F C | C F Eb G Ab Bb C
- C G F Bb Am G C | C G Am Bb F G C
- C Dm7 C/E F Am Dm G C | C G Dm Am F C/E Dm7 C
- Use the same verse and chorus melody, but with instrumental modifications. Using the same melody in your verse and chorus is the ultimate in repetition, and it’s risky. You run the danger of your audience simply hearing that melody too many times, over and over again. But there’s an easy way to create the contrast necessary to make it work: Use a very sparse instrumentation for your verse, and then really fill things in for the chorus. Another solution is to use the same melody for your chorus, but sing it an octave higher.
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