In songwriting, the contrast principle tells us that listeners need to hear stress and resolution. Here’s how that works.
Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle, and kick-start your songwriting career.
The contrast principle states songs should present opposing ideas as it progresses. Song energy is generated every time your audience hears those opposing ideas, even if they aren’t explicitly aware of them. For example, if one part of your song uses mainly major chords while another part uses mainly minor ones, that’s the contrast principle at work. But that’s a fairly obvious example. The contrast principle also applies to much subtler aspects of musical composition. To improve your songwriting technique, take a look at the following ideas that relate to the contrast principle. There may be something that you can apply to your own compositions.
I always use the two terms “fragile” and “strong” to describe how chord progressions work, but the same idea applies to pretty much every aspect of musical composition. Chord progressions should alternate between fragile and strong, starting with fragile. So if you plan to use fragile (i.e., tonally ambiguous, and possibly complex chords), let those happen in the verse and bridge, allowing the chorus between them to present stronger (i.e., tonally clear) progressions. This sense of fragility also applies to melodic phrase lengths, lyrics, melodic shapes, and so on. Verses and bridges can be used to “explore”, but your chorus should contrast that by presenting clear musical ideas that are easy to sing, easy to remember, and incorporate important hooks.
We know that chorus melodies tend to be higher in pitch than verses. A song’s climactic moment will usually be in the chorus. That sense of lower-pitched verses contrasting with higher-pitched choruses is a vital part of song contrast that usually needs to be observed.
Bridge melodies need to contrast with that. A common way to do it is to ensure that your bridge melody is even higher than your chorus melody. But there are many alternatives you can try: a bridge that alternates back again to a lower melody, for example. Often bridges will build energy, setting up a return to an exciting couple of choruses to finish, but you can also try letting energy diminish at the end of a bridge to present a quiet chorus before building again. There are lots of possibilities here, but remember, contrast is key. Building energy, and then alternating back to diminished energy is an important part of the contrast principle.
We don’t often think about contrast when we’re writing lyrics, but remember that verse lyrics should pose questions, describe situations, and set the scene. Chorus lyrics should answer those questions or respond to the verse somehow with emotion-based observations. Bridge lyrics will generally enhance that sense of contrast by describing something, and then quickly responding to it. So bridges again become places where energy is enhanced.
The contrast principle applies to instrumentation when you choose to have verses with smaller instrumentations than choruses. But alternating back and forth between small and full instrumentations is only one way to observe the contrast principle. You can try a song format where the instrumentation starts small, and continues to build with each successive verse (like Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”). The constant build becomes an important contributor to song energy and contrast.
Not all songs will use all ideas listed above, but keep in mind that contrasting opposites should probably apply to at least one element of any song you write. Your own songwriting instincts may allow this to happen naturally, but take a moment to analyze the music you’re writing just to make sure.
Follow Gary on Twitter