Contrast plays a crucial role in keeping listeners interested in your music. Here’s how.
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There’s been a principle in musical composition that has existed quite literally for centuries: making a clear difference between adjacent sections within a song. Called the contrast principle, it is so important that you see it in all genres: classical, pop, jazz, country, folk, or any other performance genre you can name.
Using the contrast principle means finding ways to make clear differences between adjoining sections, and in most music of the pop genres, that means making sure that there is something obviously dissimilar when comparing your verse and chorus.
The tricky bit about the contrast principle is that a verse and chorus also need to exhibit a sense of similarity as well. That’s the tightrope that every composer of songs deals with: getting the balance between similarity and dissimilarity right.
The reason for finding similarities is obvious: your verse and chorus both need to sound like they come from the same song. But why the need for dissimilarity? Why does the success of music depend, at least in part, on how well you contrast song sections?
The answer lies in the nature of the listener. Their minds get quickly bored with a musical idea, and within 30 seconds or so, listeners usually need to hear things changing within the structure of the song. That means that we need to offer a new melody, a new lyric, new chords, and so on. And in the context of music, “new” means “contrasting”, or suitably different enough to intrigue us.
If you find that your latest song seems to lack that critical something that makes it exciting and/or interesting, it could be a lack of contrast, especially between the verse and chorus.
Here’s a short list of the musical elements that usually benefit from the incorporation of contrast between verse and chorus. Not every song will use all of them, so it’s not a checklist. But if your song is lacking all of them, it’s time to rethink:
- Chord Progressions. It is possible to use the same progression for your verse and chorus as long as other elements show enough contrast. But you’ll find that contrasting your verse and chorus progressions does much to make a song interesting. So try a minor verse contrasted with a major chorus. Or try a verse progression with lots of altered chords (i.e., chords that don’t belong naturally to your chosen key), switching to a short, tonally strong progression for the chorus.
- Vocal rhythm. Generally speaking, a chorus melody should use notes of longer rhythmic values. This works brilliantly if it’s contrasted with a verse that uses quicker, more active rhythms. (Listen to John Lennon’s “Woman” from his “Double Fantasy” album to hear the power of this effect.)
- Instrumental rhythm. Find ways to make a difference between the kind of beat and rhythm you use in your backing instruments between verse and chorus. For example, in Kelly Clarkson’s “Heartbeat Song” (Mitch Allan, Kara DioGuardi, Jason Evigan and Audra Mae) from her new album “Piece by Piece”, you’ll hear a fast verse drumbeat (approx. 148 bpm) that then switches to a halftime feel at the chorus.
- Lyrics. This is standard enough to be intuitive: contrast your verse and chorus by making your verse lyrics mainly observational (narrative) in character, switching to words and phrases that are more emotional in the chorus.
- Melody. Find ways to contrast verse and chorus melodies by looking first at their basic ranges. A verse melody should sit lower in pitch than a chorus melody. In addition, a chorus melody should be tighter, more hook-like, and use a more constricted melodic range.
In addition to the points above, try to keep any one section of your song from getting overly long. Song intros of 4-minute pop songs typically work best if they are less than 20 seconds in length, and you should be getting to the chorus usually before the 1-minute mark.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)