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Using the Direction of Your Melodies to Create Musical Contrast

You may not have considered the up-or-down direction of your song melodies as being all that important, but it can go a long way to adding structure and musical interest to your song. Specifically, contrasting upward-moving phrases with downward-moving ones can be an aspect of musical contrast that keeps listeners listening.

What I’m about to describe applies to many pop songs, but you can go back hundreds of years and see this in effect: a musical phrase that moves upward, followed by one that moves downward.

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For example, take a look at how the well-known English folk song from the 1700s, “Early One Morning“, uses a mostly upward-moving melody in its first phrase, and then follows it with a mainly downward-moving one. Then in the chorus, you still get that up-versus-down effect, but now it happens quicker: the first half of the first phrase moves up, and then quickly moves down again.

Early One Morning

As with many musical attributes, this operates mostly on a subconscious level with most listeners; no one usually thinks about the direction of melodies when they listen to songs. But up-versus-down is one of the most important ways that composers add contrast and interest to a song melody.

If you fast forward to a time closer to our own, you’ll see that popular songwriters do the same thing: they contrast an upward phrase with a downward one. Because most good songwriters create their songs with a good deal of improvisation and “feel”, it’s something they may not be aware of, but the effect is still relevant, and it most certainly still works. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’ is a good example:

Melodic direction - The Times They Are a Changin'

I’ve mentioned the importance of contrast with melodic direction before on this blog. It’s something you’ll see in the Taylor Swift Song “You Belong With Me”, where the mainly downward-moving phrases of the verse are contrasted with the mainly upward-moving phrases of the pre-chorus.

You’ll also see it to a degree in Adele’s hit “Rolling In the Deep”, in which that important upward leap at the start of the chorus (“We could have had it ALL…“) contrasts with the constantly downward-moving verse phrases that precede it.

You see it also in “Penny Lane” where mainly downward-moving phrases (“Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs…“) is switched around, and you hear mainly upward moving ones (“And all the people that come and go stop and say hello…“), and of course in the chorus (“Penny Lane is in my ears…”)

I’ll say it again that it doesn’t really matter that most listeners (and often the writers of the songs themselves) aren’t overtly aware that this contrast is taking place. There’s something natural about that kind of melodic contrast. You may even see it in your own songs when you look back at your older ones, even though you probably weren’t considering melodic direction.

While this usually happens on an instinctive level, you can apply it retrospectively, which is to say that if you’ve found that your melodies sound random or aimless, it’s possible to go back and tweak those melodies to show a bit of directional contrast.

You can also apply a similar kind of contrast to other elements of songs. You can work contrast into your chord progressions, for example, by having a first phrase that moves from the tonic chord to some other one, and then uses the second phrase to move back toward the tonic.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

If you want to know more about how melody and chords interact in songs, that’s covered in chapters 4 and 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook. Get it separately, or at a reduced price as part of the 10-eBook Bundle.

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