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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.
3. Creating contrast in motion
Motion has two elements:
The type of movement
The direction we're moving in
There are three types of motion:
No motion at all (repeating notes of the same pitch)
Stepwise motion (where you move from one pitch to the nearest pitch)
Leaps (where you jump from one pitch to another, skipping over one or more pitches)
Directionally, you can analyze the motion as moving upward, downward, up-down, down-up, zigzagging up/down, etc.
Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" is a perfect example of great motion direction changes. Take a listen to the first verse. You'll notice that the melody consists of an upward motion that starts low and moves mostly in steps. Now take a listen to the pre-chorus that follows. Although the motion type has remained the same (mostly stepwise motion), the direction has changed. The pre-chorus starts off significantly higher and moves downward instead. This change creates a beautiful turn in how the melody moves.
P!nk's "Try" is an amazing lesson in melody motion contrast. The verse is mostly a non-moving single pitch melody. The chorus, however, jumps up and has a beautiful stepwise motion that moves downward with a couple leaps at the end of phrases. This contrast really makes the chorus feel like it comes alive.
4. Creating contrast in spacing
When you don't sing is just as important as when you do. Take a look at how much empty space does your melody have? Are you singing phrase after phrase packed closely together? Try creating contrast in the next section by separating phrases more with space.
Dami Im's "Sound of Silence" uses this technique very effectively, where her verses have a two bar phrase followed by 2 bars of silence. This creates a great sense of change when the pre-chorus and the chorus kick in with pretty busy phrasing. P!nk's "Try" does the same thing: the verses are filled with space, where the chorus is making use of all the real estate.
5. Creating contrast in placement
Another thing to look at is the rhythmic placement of your phrases. It may sound fancy, but it really means "where does each one of your phrases begin?" Do they start on the downbeat (first beat of the measure)? Before the downbeat? After?
Celine Dion's "Ashes" from Deadpool 2 is a masterclass in creating variety between sections. Each phrase of the verse begins on beat two (so after the downbeat). Once we get to the pre-chorus the phrases are shifted to begin on the downbeat. Whereas once we reach the chorus, each line is pushed to begin significantly before the downbeat. But that isn't the only type of contrast. Can you also notice the contrast in pitches, pitch range, note lengths, motion, and spacing?
6. Creating contrast in phrase length
Just like in real conversations, each phrase (or sentence) you sing can be short and to the point or long and wordy. And each one of these will create a different effect. If you're looking to create more contrast in your song, take a look at the phrase lengths in your sections. If your verses consist of long phrases that span multiple measures, try writing your choruses so that each phrase is short. Or vice versa.
"Illusion" by One Direction is an awesome example of how phrase length can be used to create contrast. The verse and pre-chorus both consist of very long phrases that are four measures in length. But once we get to the chorus, the phrases are each half the previous length—only two bars each. This creates a sense of things having sped up, feeling lighter, and having more motion than previously.
7. Creating contrast in note connections
This one may seem weird, but consider this: There's a difference in the sound of a flowing stream, vs. a single drop of water that hits a flat surface. One is soothing and connected, the other is aggressive and on its own. Melodies can be performed in the same ways. Legato (where the notes are connected) creates a nice flow from note to note. On the other hand, singing notes staccato (where they are short and disconnected) will create a sense of urgency and separation.
Jason Mraz's "I Won't Give Up" uses this very effectively to create contrast between his verse and the chorus. Each phrase in the verse is sung legato. This gives a beautiful feeling of warmth, love, caring. But once we get to the chorus he changes how the melody is phrased, so that it consists mostly of separated notes. This is a great technique to use as it creates a sense of determination. Which aligns particularly well with his chorus which is all about not giving up, and being willing to try anything.
8. Creating contrast in lyrics
This time you'll be looking at what you're saying. This is particularly useful when writing your bridge or B section (in AABA form). These sections are meant to be a departure from everything we'd heard so far. And what better way to bring that home than by applying that to the lyrics as well? If your song is filled with positive emotions throughout, then consider using the bridge to talk about the negative things that can happen in our lives. Or use this section to shed a new light on the story that rewrites how we feel about the whole thing.
The Beatles' classic "Something" does this between the A (verses) and B (refrain) sections. The A's are all filled with a sense of certainty about this love and the bliss that it's creating. Whereas the B section introduces doubt on whether it's a relationship that can truly work out.
9. Creating contrast in chords
This one is a pretty vast category that can allow you to create a lot of interesting change. For starters, if you want to go mild, try changing the chords you use. If you're sticking to 4 chords in the verse, try changing them up in the chorus. Doing as little as changing their order may be enough to introduce a nice shift. If you want to take it further, try using a couple different chords which you hadn't used before. Pre-choruses and bridges are fantastic places to do this.
Not only can you change the chords you use, but you can also alter how frequently you introduce a new chord. If you play a new chord every bar in one section, try strumming a new chord every 2 beats in another. Or every other bar.
And finally, look at the complexity of your chords. If you're using primarily simple triads in say the verses, then try adding some 7ths, sus4s or add9s to your chords in your choruses. Or throw in a couple inversions. Or possibly some compound chords (where the root note isn't part of the chord structure).
Take a listen to Dave Barnes' "Nothing Like You" for awesome implementation of all of the above. Not only does he change the chords he's using between the verse/chorus and pre-chorus, he also changes the speed with which they are played. The verses have a new chord every two bars, whereas the pre-chorus introduces a new chord every measure, and the chorus finally does it twice in each bar. And to top it off, the chords in the verses and pre-chorus are pretty straightforward (alternating C-F in the verse and G-F in the pre-chorus), whereas the chorus uses compound chords (alternating C-Gsus4 and C/F-G/F).
10. Creating contrast by borrowing chords
If you want to take things further, try reaching outside of the key by borrowing chords that are not part of the original key. It's a great way of making the song feel like it changed keys without actually changing keys. Think of it like visiting your neighbors for a second. You're still close to home, but it feels new and fresh. Hudson Taylor uses this really well in the bridge of "Old Soul" by introducing A minor in place of the A major that's present in the remainder of the song. Mariah Carey's "Hero" borrows even more chords in the bridge. So does Diane Warren who wrote Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me."
11. Creating contrast by changing keys/scales
If you want to be bolder, try changing keys altogether. Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” does this very effectively—the verses are in C minor, whereas the chorus switches things up by being in Ab major. Another example of a key-changing song is “Summer of 69” by Bryan Adams. The entire song is D major, but the bridge is written in F major, which creates a lift into the bridge that then resolves nicely back down to D major for the final choruses.
12. Creating contrast in the arrangement
You can also create contrast in your arrangement. Our article on “9 Ways to Make Sure Your Song Takes Us on a Journey” covers this in many ways, so use it as inspiration. Try to vary things up by introducing new instruments that we haven't heard before. You can also create variety by making the instruments play different rhythms in different sections. So if your verses have long held out chords, give your chorus and/or bridge a busier strumming pattern.
There's so much you can do to keep your songs interesting, and with so many possibilities, contrast is one of the most effective ways to make things feel fresh and new as you progress through your song. And don't forget to analyze what your heroes are doing. You'll probably find that some of your favorite songs use not only one type of contrast, but they use many of them to keep the listener's interest as the song moves between its sections. Try doing the same. Mix and match the different contrast methods as you please.
At the end of the day you're trying to create the best song you can, so add this your daily songwriting toolbox, and I promise your songs will instantly start sounding more alive.