Ever get bored halfway through listening to a song? Wonder what makes hit songs so much more captivating? The secret lies in contrast. In this article, we’ll look at twelve songwriting tips to create contrast and introduce the unexpected, making your songs sound more interesting.
What is contrast and why is it important?
If you look up contrast in the dictionary, you'll find the following definition: the state of being strikingly different from something else, typically something in juxtaposition or close association.
It's the concept of having two elements, which differ significantly from each other. Think of black and white. Loud vs. silent. Wet vs. dry. Hot vs. cold. Each of these on its own works fine, but after a week of extreme heat, you'll eventually grow tired of it. That's why having a day of cold weather is a nice change.
The same applies to songwriting. If your entire song revolves around three notes that are repeated in the same way, ultimately your audience will get bored and stop listening. People's attention spans are short, meaning it's your job to keep things interesting enough to keep your audience glued.
How can you create contrast in your songwriting?
One of the easiest and most effective ways to create contrast is between sections of your song. Once you've written one section (say, a verse), analyze it from different perspectives and then use contrasting tools to write the next section (pre-chorus or chorus).
What follows are 12 different angles to look at when writing your song that can help you create movement into unexplored territory.
1. Creating contrast in pitch
One of the more important places where you can create contrast is in pitch. Let's say your song is in D major. Take a look at your verse, if your verse primarily circulates around the notes D3–G4, try writing your chorus so it utilizes higher pitches, for example, F#3–D4 or A3–E4. You're trying to create an audible change in the pitches that we hear you sing in the two neighboring sections (verse/chorus, chorus/bridge).
Aside from looking at the notes themselves, also look at the pitch ranges your melody encompasses. If your verse is limited to 3 notes, try to expand the melody in the chorus to span a larger range (try 5, 6, 7 notes).
As I'd explained in the "9 Ways to Make Sure Your Song Takes Us on a Journey" article, you want to create a melodic journey, which will reach a culminating point somewhere around the bridge. So if your highest notes are going to be there, then make sure to plan accordingly and write your verse using much lower notes. That way, once you reach that powerful moment, it's the first time we're hearing you sing those notes. That will make that moment special.
2. Creating contrast in rhythm
Look at note durations. Does your verse melody primarily consist of short notes? Try singing more long notes in the next section. Particularly starting the next section with contrasting note lengths will make the change more audible. After a verse of short rhythms, hearing a nice long held out half note will definitely grab people's attention. So give it a try.
Jason Mraz's "I Won't Give Up" uses this technique in reverse. Every one of his phrases in the verse ends in long notes ("your eyes," "night sky," "sunrise," "hold"). Once he enters the chorus, however, the notes are essentially short. This works really well with what he's singing about in the chorus.