As listeners of music, we like to hear contrasting ideas as a song progresses, even if we’re not consciously aware of it. In songwriting, a contrasting idea might mean something like this: one part of a melody that’s harmonized mainly with minor chords, followed by a section harmonized with mostly major ones.
Contrast in a song might also pertain to the range of a melody. For example, you might place a verse in a lower octave and follow it with a chorus in an upper one. Example: “Free Fallin’” (Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne).
Why does this kind of using opposite ideas work? It’s mainly because there is a kind of mental fatigue that happens when a listener hears something repeated over and over again. Switching to something that amounts to being the opposite provides a musical relief and builds interest, even if listeners aren’t overtly aware that it’s happening. It’s a trick that classical composers have used for centuries.
How you know your song might benefit from creating a chorus that uses opposites to what was used in the verse is the boredom factor. Before the song is a minute old, audiences feel that they’ve heard it all, and now they’re looking for something different.
So if find yourself getting bored with your own song, but can’t pinpoint why that’s happening, try these ideas for contrasting your verse with your chorus:
- Create a minor key verse and a major key chorus. This is a common aspect of song design, and you may already instinctively be doing this in much of your music. Not only does it provide musical contrast, it also provides a pleasant “brightening” as it moves from minor to major, something we often like to hear as a song moves from verse to chorus.
- Create fuller backing vocals in your chorus, and leave the verse to a simple lead vocal. The fuller sound of the backing vocals in the chorus goes hand in hand with a build in emotional energy.
- Change the direction of melodic phrases. Take a look at your verse melody. If you find that it’s mainly comprised of short melodic ideas that all have a similar upward or downward shape (think of the little downward-moving fragments that go together to form the melody for the verse of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” for an example of this), you might contrast with a chorus that consists mainly of upward-moving ones. (In the chorus for “Bridge”, you notice that contrast more when comparing adjacent phrases.)
- Remember to contrast “observational” verse lyrics with “emotional reaction” chorus ones. This is standard for most songs, and you should be doing this as a normal approach for your lyrics. Keep the emotional content of your verse low, and switch to something that really touches the heart of the listener in your chorus.
- Contrast shorter verse notes with longer chorus notes in the lead vocal. This is one that often slips under the radar. You’re not likely to notice it until you consciously pay attention, but it’s a great compositional technique, and works this way: You can allow the rhythms of your verse melody to be rhythmically complex and active, but once you’ve moved to the chorus, think of ways to simplify rhythms and elongate notes so that they heighten the emotional content. This is often subtle, but that subtlety is important. A great example: “All of Me” (John Legend, Toby Gad).
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