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How Contrast Works – How It Makes Songs More Interesting to Listen To

The following is an excerpt from the ebook manual, “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting, 4th Ed.” It’s an eBook that covers every aspect of how good songs work, with sound samples that let you hear the concepts at work so that you can apply them to your own songs.

This excerpt, from “Chapter 3: Designing a Song”, talks about contrast, and particularly how it makes songs more interesting to the listener, even though its effects are subtle.

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Music historians will tell you that one of the most persistent features of composition from at least the sixteenth century to present day is the basic principle of contrast. Whether you’re talking about early Baroque concerti or 21st century pop songs, contrasting elements within a song has been standard practice for centuries. Contrast is the component that helps to build interest within a song. It’s the main formal principle in the writing of music:

Form Principle #1
Songs without contrast risk being boring.

In a sense, form is the control of contrast within music. How a song’s energy ebbs and flows, how the melody moves up and down, how the chords move from mainly minor to mainly major, even how music goes from soft to loud — these are all examples of the contrast principle at work. If your songs sound boring and you can’t figure out why, it is usually related to the absence of enough contrast. It’s like staring at a flat field in your backyard with nothing to distinguish one part of it from another. Contrast sets things apart. Contrasting elements within a song brings out beauty in much the same way that landscapers create contours to make a flat bit of land more beautiful and interesting.

In fact, the contrast principle is a little bit more than simply creating a distinction between opposite qualities. The principle actually states that when we perceive two qualities in succession (say, soft and then loud), how we perceive the loudness – how loud it seems – is influenced by the soft section that precedes it. It’s important to make note of that, because some songs display contrast in remarkably subtle ways. Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote”, from her “Hejira” album (1975) displays a very constant wash of sound from beginning to end with what seems like little or no change in dynamics over its 5- minute length. But compare the sound of the opening intro to the return of that intro material at 3’ 02”, and you’ll hear what a subtle opening up of the sound does to the musical energy. The music at 3 minutes is more energetic and louder than the beginning, even though to most people’s ears it sounds identical. The importance of that subtle change in sound is what the contrast principle is all about.

On the previous page I used the analogy of landscapers creating contours to make land more interesting. So how does one contour music? It happens when we compose verses as being separate entities from choruses, for example. As mentioned, much of how we put songs together will happen on an instinctive level, but it is going to be an important part of improving your songwriting prowess to examine these sections and see how they differ from each other. Let’s look at some well-known and well-used formal designs that show up in music of many different genres. We call them “macro” designs, because they refer to the overall layout of the song itself.

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Written by Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter.

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