Providing contrast in songs that feature a verse melody only – here’s how that’s done.
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When your song follows a verse-chorus format (including the optional use of pre-chorus, bridge, or other miscellaneous sections), what’s really happening is a utilization of the contrast principle. The contrast principle requires that the characteristics of one element of a song should be then contrasted with an opposite (or at least quite different) approach.
The verse-chorus format allows that to happen naturally, since the basic characteristics of verses and choruses involve diametrically opposed features:
- Verse melodies tend to be low in pitch; chorus melodies tend to be high (or at least higher than verses).
- Verse chord progressions tend to be fragile in nature, allowing for ambiguity and creative wandering; chorus progressions tend to be shorter and stronger, pointing unambiguously to the tonic as a home chord.
- Verse lyrics tend to be narrative in nature; chorus lyrics tend to be emotive.
- Verse instrumentation tends to be light and transparent; chorus instrumentation tends to be fuller, higher in pitch, and often more rhythmically active.
- Verse vocal rhythms may use rhythmic interplay and syncopation; chorus vocal rhythms tend to be more straightforward and uncomplicated.
But if you are writing songs that use a verse only, the contrast principle still applies. You need to find ways to incorporate contrast into your song, and it can be a trickier job.
The difficulty comes from the equally important principle that all elements of a song need to work together. In verse-only songs, you need to have contrast happening while a single verse melody is playing. You need to create a sense of contrast while at the same time having all elements communicating.
One of the ways to do this is to create a verse melody that happens in sections. A good model for this (though perhaps a bit dated) is Chicago’s 1975 hit, “Old Days“, written by trombonist James Pankow. Its form is essentially a long, extended verse that consists of 4 sections, each of which contrasts in some important way to the section that just preceded it. After the intro, the contrast is mainly achieved by contrasting chord progressions and harmonic goals:
- Section 1: (“Old days, good times I remember…”) Opening melody, the harmonization of which highlights the tonic chord as an important goal. Each phrase ends on the dominant, making the tonic chord an important feature.
- Section 2: (“Drive-in movies, comic books and blue jeans”) 2nd section, the harmonization of which switches to highlighting the dominant chord.
- Section 3: (“…take me back to a world gone away…”) 3rd section, featuring a shift to the relative minor.
- Section 4: Instrumental, minor.
- Section 5: Instrumental, shifting harmonies back to the original major key.
This kind of contrast is a modification of what many progressive rock composers had been doing already, a format you might call “first-this-section-then-that-section.” In fact, most Classical composers do the same thing: start with an original idea, and provide contrasting ideas as the work progresses. (For a great example of this, listen to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring“. If you’ve never heard this piece before, turn up the speakers and listen to the entire work. You will not be disappointed.)
In very important ways, every piece of good music is a “first-this-section-then-that-section” piece. It’s just that we have certain templates (verse-chorus, for example) that make contrast easy.
But if you want to create something unique, think less about “is this a verse or a chorus?”, and more about creating a multi-section melody that provides contrast as it goes.
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