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The Importance of Contrast

by Jai Josephs

As songwriters, what we hate to hear most when we're submitting material for a project are comments like "This sounds good, but it really doesn't stand out" or, "This is well-written, but it just doesn't have that special something." One thing that can make a big difference in this area is the effective use of contrast. Contrast enables us to keep our songs fresh and original, while still sounding familiar enough to sing along with on first listening.

Its importance in today's music was perhaps most dramatically expressed by those celebrated teenage music critics Beavis and Butthead. Upon listening to the chorus of a full-on headbanging heavy metal tune on their MTV show one night, Beavis tells his partner, "Wow, this is cool." When the song shifts to a more melodic verse, however, he says to Butthead, "ugh, this part sucks." Butthead, in his infinite wisdom, then turns to Beavis and replies, "Yeah, but if they didn't have a part that sucked, the part that's cool wouldn't sound as cool." While we may not elicit such explicit reactions as this from our listeners, it's a basic truth of life that people tend to lose interest when the same thing is repeated over and over again.

Melody, harmony, and rhythm--the three basic musical components of pop songwriting--are the areas in which we can create musical contrast. An excellent example of melodic contrast occurs in Bon Jovi's rock hit "Livin' on a Prayer" (written by Jon Bon Jovi, guitarist Richie Sambora, and Desmond Child). Notice how the staccato accentuated rhythm of the prechorus section ("We've gotta hold on to what we've got") contrasts with the flowing eighth note melodies of the verse. Although the melodic rhythm remains similar in the chorus, there is a contrast in melodic range, since the melody goes a full fourth higher than it does in either of the two preceding sections. This holds the listener's attention so that as the song proceeds through its verse to prechorus to chorus development, we are constantly hearing fresh melodic ideas.

A song which strongly illustrates the use of harmonic contrast is Don Henley's 1989 hit "The End of the Innocence" (co-written with Bruce Hornsby), which earned him a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance. The entire verse consists, with one exception, of Ab, Db and Eb Major chords that last for one or two measures each. Now look at the progression in the first four measures of the prechorus Fm7 Cm7 / Bbm7 Dbmaj7 / Fm7 Dbmaj7/ Eb.

Henley and Hornsby create three distinct types of harmonic contrast in this section. First, they make frequent use of minor chords (four in three measures) as opposed to the major chords which predominate in the verse. They also employ four part minor and major seventh chords compared to the triads used exclusively in the previous section. The final example of contrast is a change in the harmonic rhythm, or number of chords per measure. Notice that the first three bars of the prechorus contain two chords each, while in the beginning of the verse each chord lasts for two full measures. These harmonic variations make the prechorus sound more fresh and interesting, and contribute significantly to making the song the classic it has become.

The rhythm, or groove of a song, is the third area in which we can create effective contrast. Sometimes this may be very obvious, as in the case of Meat Loaf's "I'll Do Anything for Love" (by Jim Steinman) where the verse section (Some days it don't come easy) is more than fifty beats per minute faster than the chorus. Or it can be as subtle as the difference between the first verse of Counting Crows' debut single "Round Here" where Adam Duritz's vocal is supported only by the sparsely arpegiatted guitar of his co-writer David Bryson, and the second verse where the bass and drums are laying down a solid groove under the guitar and keyboards.

Contrast is a key element in the craft of successful songwriting. It often makes the difference between a tune that is "just okay" and one that may become a hit or even a standard. As you continue to examine and analyze songs you admire, pay attention to this important element and the impact that it has on the listener, and try to incorporate it into your own writing.