The element of contrast in music has been around for centuries. And still around today.
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If you look back into the annals of classical music, you’ll see that the contrast principle has been a crucial part of what makes music work. Contrast simply means that you put opposite-sounding ideas in relatively close proximity.
In the history of classical music, contrast played its most important roles in two ways:
- Dynamics (loud vs. soft).
- Style (agressive vs. peaceful).
So when you listen to Beethoven’s famous first movement of his Symphony No. 5, you can hear how the music keeps fluctuating between loud and soft throughout the entire movement. You’ll also hear that the aggressive first theme (built on the iconic “da-da-da-DUM” motif) is contrasted with the much more peaceful second theme.
As music evolved and the world encountered new styles and genres (e.g., the rise of folk, jazz, blues, pop, etc.), those two elements (loudness and style) also evolved. The biggest influence on the importance of contrast, at least as it pertains to loudness and style, is the length of a piece of music.
A classical symphony could be anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or longer. For one musical work. A pop song is pushing it if it approaches 4 minutes. In longer music, contrasting musical styles, from aggressive-sounding to peaceful, and then back again, is a crucial part of what keeps people listening.
But if you look at popular music of the early 20th century, you’ll see that songs are comparatively short, just like today’s songs, usually between 3 and 4 minutes. Listen to Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’“, a big hit in 1929. You’ll hear that the two contrasting elements that were so important to classical music — dynamics and style — are not important elements in this early version of pop music.
The style of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” stays essentially the same throughout the length of the song, and the dynamics don’t change much either. That kind of contrast requires time, and 3 minutes is usually too short to make much of the distinction.
Does that mean that the contrast principle, so important to classical music, became unimportant in pop music? No, because music does more than contrast volume and style. There are other characteristics of music that are good candidates for contrast in short, 3-minute songs:
- Melodic shape (up vs. down)
- Chord quality (major vs. minor)
- Lyrics (narrative vs. emotional)
“Ain’t Misbehavin'” doesn’t have a chorus per se, but certainly we can see contrasting melodic shapes at work throughout the entire length of the song:
You see this up-and-down motif all through the song, and it’s every bit a vital kind of contrast as loud vs. soft was to Beethoven. You can also see the contrasting of chord quality, as the music moves from major into a minor-sounding bridge, before a quick return to the major verse:
Like Jack Horner /In the corner
Cm Ab Don't go nowhere /What do I care? F7 C7 Your kisses are worth waiting for, believe me. Bb Bø C7 F7 Bb C7 F7 Bb7
You can see that you get a Cm, but right away the music is looking for ways to get back to the original key of Eb major.
If you fast-forward to pop music of the 21st Century, you’ll see that the 3 areas of contrast that applied to early 20th Century pop music still apply. We still get music that mainly contrasts melodic shape, chord quality and lyrics, with minimal attention to contrasting style or music volume. Listen to “La Loose” by Waxahatchee to get a good picture of how 21st century pop music employs the contrast principle.
Now it’s time to you look at your own songs. Are you using contrast properly? Will your audience get to hear melodic shape, with melodies moving up and down in musically interesting ways? Will they hear major chord areas contrasted with minor ones? Will they hear narrative style verse lyrics contrasted with emotional chorus ones?
The contrast principle hasn’t disappeared. It has evolved, and still remains a crucial part of what will keep listeners hooked on your music.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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