“Cowboy Guilt” from TORRES (@torreslovesyou) shows how the contrast principle is alive and well, after all these years.
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The verse and the chorus sections form the bulk of most pop songs. Beyond those two sections, songwriters can and will add in optional sections such as pre-chorus before the chorus, and then a bridge, bridge-solo, bridge-instrumental, or some other such section to follow the second chorus, before the eventual return of that chorus.
Most of those ideas actually have their roots in Classical music design. With a Mozart or Beethoven symphony, for example, there are two main themes (melodies). Beyond using those two melodies, classical composers usually add in a transitional melody that takes the music from the first theme to the second one. They also include a lengthy development section, not unlike a pop song’s bridge section, that follows the second theme, before the original first and second themes return to be heard again.
For most Classical composers, then, the job was/is to create two melodies that would serve as a first and second theme. Once they have those two main melodies, they have enough material to create an entire first movement to their symphony, since any new ideas in the movement would usually evolve from those two original melodies.
When composing two melodies for their symphonic movement, a Classical composer usually tried to make them contrasting in nature. In other words, if you think of Beethoven’s famous Symphony No. 5, everyone knows that iconic first melody:
Unless you know the symphony well, you may not know the second melody that Beethoven created for the first movement, which begins a minute or so after the start of the movement:
When you compare the two melodies, you’ll notice the ways in which Beethoven deliberately made them sound different:
- The 1st melody is generally loud; the 2nd movement is generally soft.
- The 1st melody is aggressive in character; the 2nd melody is gentle.
- The 1st melody is comprised of short, 4-note “cells” that have a downward shape, even as the cell moves higher. The 2nd melody is comprised of longer 8-note cells that have a general upward direction, only turning lower as it ends.
Not every first melody/2nd melody comparison of every Classical symphony will display all these traits, of course, but the point is that the composers make a conscious effort to compose their two melodies sound different — to provide musical contrast.
Pop musicians should do the same thing, and the best ones out there do. Take relative newcomer on the music scene, TORRES (Mackenzie Scott), who has recently released her new album “Sprinter.”
If you compare the verse and chorus structures for the song “Cowboy Guilt,” you’ll see the contrast principle at work, in very much the same way that Beethoven would have done it in any other circumstance. The two main contrasting characteristics:
- The verse melody is comprised mainly of melodic leaps in a downward direction. The chorus melody is comprised mainly of melodic steps in an upward direction.
- The verse melody uses a dotted-quarter note/eighth note rhythm. The chorus melody contrasts with a mainly quarter note rhythm.
In addition to those two traits, you’ll also observe that the instrumental intro offers upward leaps, contrasting immediately with the downward leaps of the verse melody.
It’s quite likely that much of this was done on an instinctive level. I doubt that anyone in the recording studio said, “Hey, let’s create some contrasting motivic shapes where we highlight the melodic and rhythmic differences between verse and chorus. That’d be cool!”
Nonetheless, the best songs out there give listeners, even on a subconscious level, contrasting musical ideas that heighten musical interest and keep them coming back for more.
The contrast principle, in the way that’s been described in this post, has been around for centuries. And if you take a close look at the melodies of the best songs from the pop era (1955-present), you’ll still see its importance hasn’t really waned at all. Contrasting musical elements is the best way to keep an audience intrigued — and humming your tunes.
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.“)