If you really want to see contrast at work in music, you should listen to a Classical symphony. Each piece typically consists of four movements, and each movement will be in a different key, and usually a different tempo.
Also, each movement, even if they borrow ideas from previous movements (as 19th-century composers sometimes did), will present new melodies, new moods, and even sometimes a unique instrumentation. And within each movement, the composer would move around from one key to another, creating moods and impressions that kept audiences focused and entertained.
To a Classical composer, contrast was crucial. Without it, music was dull and uninspiring.
Pop music also needs contrast. But in some ways, it’s trickier to create contrast within a pop song than it is in a Classical symphony. The reasons?
- Pop songs are considerably shorter. There’s not as much time to create areas of contrast.
- Pop songs make greater use of a “groove” — a sense of rhythm and beat — which makes tempo changes and rhythmic changes challenging or even impossible.
- Classical music is often written in different movements (sections or pieces), making the creation of contrast easier to realize.
In some ways, contrast can be a distraction in pop music. Changing tempos, keys, and introducing new melodic ideas can all make a song sound overly complex if it’s all happening within three minutes.
So how do you use contrast properly when you’re writing a song in one of the pop genres: pop, rock, country, folk, etc.? Here are some ideas to try:
- Give each section of your song (verse, chorus, bridge, pre-chorus, etc.) a numeric value that corresponds to the musical energy you feel. Got a high-powered verse? Maybe give it a value of ‘8’. But then, perhaps your chorus is an ‘8’, or maybe a ‘9’… You may have just noticed that there isn’t enough contrast between your verse and chorus, so perhaps the answer is to dial the verse back a bit, and let the energy wait until the chorus.
- Take a close look at the kinds of words you use in your verse lyric, and compare it to other sections. Ideally, lyrics should alternate up and down with regard to the emotional content between sections. A verse lyric should be lower in emotion than a chorus. A bridge can be higher or lower, but also a good bridge lyric can move up and down, and create quick areas of contrast.
- If you’ve recorded your song, think about instrumentation. Is the entire song a strummed guitar? If so, can you find a different — perhaps unique — approach for each section, so that your audience can hear things change as the song progresses?
- Hand in hand with instrumentation, think about the basic loudness of the music. If it’s all coming out at the same volume, you may be missing a good opportunity to create different levels that will keep listeners interested.
- If your chorus uses the same (or almost the same) chords as the verse, you may find that doing a quick key change from verse to chorus can add excitement to the music. For example, if your verse is a repeating progression like: C Am Dm G, and you’ve used the same one for chorus, try changing that final G before the chorus to an A7, then transpose your verse progression up a tone: D Bm Em A.
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