There are some elements of songwriting that are easy to observe. Dynamics. Melody. Rhythm. There are also elements of songwriting that aren’t always as apparent. One of those elements is contrast.
Contrast is the state of being strikingly different from something else, typically something in juxtaposition or close association.
The strategic use of contrast is all around us. Think of a picture. Contrast is the difference between light and dark. A candle in a dark room, by contrast, draws all attention to itself. In every piece of communication, there are main ideas and there are supporting ideas. Contrast is used to make certain elements stand out. It is used used to give more value to certain things.
In songwriting, contrast can be used in virtually any element. Contrast can be used in the melody, chords, feel, key, vocals, lyrical content, dynamics – even tempo. Most of us would not take notice of contrast in a well-written song. However, a song lacking contrast (by contrast!) would catch our attention.
Ever hear a song with a monotone melody? Or the same dynamic through the entire song? These songs tend to be kind of dull.
Songs with little contrast can also be confusing because the listener doesn’t know how to interpret the song.
So how does a songwriter use contrast? Contrast can be achieved either by emphasizing an element to make it more prominent or by de-emphasizing or minimizing elements to increase the prominence of other elements. Let’s look at a few examples.
Using Contrast in Melody
Monotone (using the same note over and over) melodies are not inherently bad. In fact, using the same note for an entire line except for one or two words will bring out those other two words. One melodic phrase in your song that is monotone may actually stand out from the rest if the rest are the opposite.
You can use contrast in melody between sections of your songs as well. A trap beginner songwriters can fall into is singing a lot of their melody on the root note of the key. (In other words, if you song is in the key of C, the most natural note to sing a melody on is a C note) Falling into this trap on both the verses AND the choruses can be even worse. So having the chorus melody higher, for example, may be necessary to properly differentiate the chorus from the verse.
Using Contrast in Chords
Songs are built on repeating chord patters (what we usually call chord progressions). And, actually, the very nature of a chord progression is built upon this idea of contrast. A song could have one chord. Most don’t. So by adding additional chords, contrast is used. But this is intuitive to most of us.
One way contrast in chords can be used is by interrupting the pattern. Take this common progression for example:
G C G D | G C G D | Em C G D | G C G D
Notice the contrasting chord? Yep – the “Em”. This chord will stand out in contrast to the others. It will in turn affect the melody and bring out the lyrical content as well.
Using Contrast in the feel
Every song has an intangible “feel” to it. The “feel” is usually the sum of all the musical and lyrical elements working together. This is where contrast can work at a broader level.
Probably the most common usage of this is between the verses and the chorus of a song. For example, the verses can have a smooth, minor feel to them while the chorus has an upbeat, rhythmic and happy feel.
See for yourself
The next time you sit down to listen to music, think about the contrast. Listen to the range of dynamics. Listen for the variations of rhythms. Follow the patterns of the chords or the song format. What elements are being emphasized? This will help you understand how the creative and intentional use of contrast can be used in your own songs! A little contrast may be the very tweak your song needs to take it to the next level!