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The True Nature of Contrast in Songwriting

We tend to over-simplify what we mean by contrast in a good song, and thereby misunderstand its power.

Contrast, in musical terms, means considering musical opposites: loud versus soft, high versus low, and so on.

When we over-simplify contrast, we simply think that the contrast principle requires us to mix loud and soft sounds, high and low melodies, major and minor chords… that sort of thing.

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But that’s not what the contrast principle is all about. If it were, we’d have no good way to describe why some songs are great even though they use melodies that all sit mainly within the same small melodic range, like “Hound Dog” (Jerry Leiber/ Mike Stoller), or songs that don’t feature much of a change at all in volume, like Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” from her 1976 album “Hejira.”

But it is true that we like contrast within a song, so what is the true nature of contrast in songwriting?

The Contrast Principle

If you ask a psychologist what is meant by the contrast principle, they’ll say something like: if you put your hand in a bucket of cold water, and then put it in a bucket of warm water, the warm water will feel even warmer than it really is, because you’re conditioned by the first experience: your hand in the cold water.

If you lift a very heavy weight, then put it down and lift a very light one, the lighter weight feels even lighter than you’d normally expect it to feel, because you’re conditioned by the first experience: the feel of the heavy weight.

We experience this contrast principle in less tangible ways, and this is where music comes in. We listen to the start of a song, and based on those initial impressions, will hear other things in the song in comparison to the first things. And we like noting the existence of musical contrast, even if (and some might say especially if) it’s subtle.

So contrast does not need to be obvious or flamboyant. In order to fulfil the requirements of the contrast principle in music, a touch of contrast can go a long way, as in these examples, some of which are strictly songwriting issues, others being production issues:

  1. Contrasting major with minor. While it’s a common technique to contrast a minor verse with a major chorus, many or most songs will keep the verse and chorus in the same key. The contrast principle might take the form of something far more subtle: starting a verse progression with a minor chord, but staying mainly in a major key. Play through these two progressions, and note how bright the first progression sounds, even though the only difference between the two is the opening chord:
    1) C  F  Dm  G  C  ||  2) Am  F  Dm  G  C
  2. Contrasting soft and loud. We usually think of choruses of songs as being louder than verses, and while this is true, the actual difference may only be slight. That’s because the contrast principle says that if the verse is soft, any increase in volume for the chorus, however slight, will be perceived to be greater by virtue of the existence of that soft verse. Listen to Imogen Heap’s “Half Life.” Listen how the changes in instrumentation/production, and the accompanying volume changes, sound far more obvious and ear-catching than the decibels warrant.
  3. Contrasting full and sparse instrumentation and/or production. When a song starts with a very quiet and transparent instrumentation, any change, however slight, to that instrumentation makes much more of an impact than what you’d normally expect. Listen to the gradual build of instrumentation in Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” to see what I mean.
  4. Contrasting low with high melodies. Every song has its basic range, but we usually note that the highest notes won’t be at the very beginning; they’ll be in the chorus or bridge. But there’s no need for a song’s highest note to be much higher at all than the highest notes of other sections. Even just a semitone can sound dramatic if it’s placed on a strong beat, or paired with a powerful chord or instrumental moment. Also, a chorus may sound a lot higher than a verse, even though its highest notes may only be a tone or so above the verse.

There are lots of other examples but what’s really important to remember is this: in music, the contrast principle is not simply an acknowledgement that opposites should occur. It’s more subtle than that. We take a strong musical message from the first notes we hear in a song, and then everything else is compared.

And in making those comparisons, we notice that even slight differences are all that’s really needed to make a song musically meaningful.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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