Van Halen - Jump

How Contrasting Musical Ideas Makes a Song Better

Contrast is an important part of what pulls listeners in and keeps them listening to songs. Contrast works even if the listener isn’t aware of its presence. But knowing the importance of contrast isn’t going to do much for you if you aren’t sure how to create it.

So how do you create contrast? It’s helpful if you think of the word contrasting as being synonymous with opposite. A song that incorporates musical opposites will kindle listener interest, causing people to want to keep listening.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” - 4th ed.Words and music need to act as partners in a song, but how do you make sure your melody is helping your lyric? That’s what Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” deals with. Get that eBook as part of the 10-eBook Bundle, or purchase it separately.

In the songwriting process, you’ll often find that contrast happens as a natural part of that process; it may not be something you have to think about. But how you know that your song doesn’t use enough contrast is that the song sounds boring, as if not enough is happening.

What do you do to create contrast within a song? Try the following:

  1. Chords: As one example, try using mainly minor chords in the verse, and switch to mainly major chords for the chorus; (major versus minor)
  2. Lyrics: Write a verse lyric that describes events and people, and switch to a chorus lyric that describes emotions.; (narrative versus emotive)
  3. Melodic range: Write verse melodies that sit mainly in a lower vocal range, and switch to chorus melodies that sit in a higher range; (low versus high)
  4. Melodic direction: Throughout a song, follow a section or phrase where the melodies move downward with a section or phrase where the melodies move upward; (downward versus upward).

For point number 4 above, think of the song “Jump” by Van Halen. It starts with a short melodic phrase where the melody leaps upward (“I get up…”), followed by a phrase where the main gesture is downward (“And nothing gets me down…”).

That song shows other important contrasts as well. For example, the pre-chorus (“Oh, can’t you see me standing here?/I got my back against the record machine…) starts on a minor chord, and that serves as a great musical opposite to the predominantly major sound of the rest of the song.

As I say, the way you know that contrast is not playing enough of a role in your songs is that things just sound boring, where you aren’t doing enough to make listeners curious about what else might happen in the song.

In fact, you can use that short list of four contrasting elements as a kind of checklist to run your song through. And you can add to that list as well: loud versus soft, full instrumentation versus lighter instrumentation, and so on.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Hooks & RiffsHooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.

Posted in songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.