Compose Better Songs Using "Melodic Contrast"

Courtesy of Benjamin Samama

How to Use Melodic Contrast to Make Your Songs Way More Memorable

Last week we went over the form of a song: verse, pre-chorus, chorus, post-chorus, and bridge. This week, we'll talk about how to make these sections stand out from each other and how to not get lost in the grey noise that is a four-minute song.

When I was teaching at Berklee College of Music, a lot of beginning writers would bring in a song that was hard to follow. "Where was the chorus?" "Is this the verse?" "It all kind of sounds the same to me!" These are comments you don't want to hear from your audience.

The goal is to make sure that your listeners are aware of what section they are in at all times, even when they're not paying attention – which is what will happen most of the time. Chances are they're either driving their car, taking selfies during a concert, or slam-drunk grinding up on some dude /babe on a club dance-floor. 

What this means is that you need to make it very easy for your audience to know what's happening, and what part of the song we're in. "Can we sing along yet? Almost! The chorus is coming up!"

The main trick for songwriters here is called melodic contrast. What I mean by that is the difference between low- and high-range melodies and fast and slow melodies.

Check out these five hugely successful songs. What do they all have in common?

Taylor Swift, "Wildest Dreams"
Verse: low range and fast rhythm
Post-chorus: high range and slow rhythm

Whitney Houston, "I Will Always Love You"
Verse: low/mid range and fast rhythm
Chorus: high range and slow rhythm 

Shawn Mendes, "Stitches"
Verse: low range and fast rhythm
Chorus: high range and fast rhythm 

Hardwell feat. Jake Reese, "Mad World"
Verse: low range and fast rhythm
Chorus: high range and slow rhythm

Lianne La Havas, "What You Don't Do"
Verse: mid range and fast rhythm
Chorus: high range and slower rhythm

So, what's the overall consensus here? Verses: low and fast. Chorus: high and slow. Pretty much. It's a fairly simple idea, but once you notice it, it's hard to un-notice this in all your favorite songs.

This might be used to more extent in some songs and less in others. Some songs are just as fast in the chorus as they are in the verses, but then at least they're higher (like in "Wildest Dreams"). Some songs might be lower in the chorus than they are in the verses, but then at least there's contrast ("Can’t Feel My Face" by The Weeknd is a good example of this).

I am very aware that production and vocal performance can help a ton with creating contrast in a song, but those are a crutch. A great song needs to work just as much when it's sung on a single acoustic guitar as it does with full production under it. It needs to work just as much when a crappy singer does it at open mic night as when the superstar artist does it in a stadium with a professional band.

Also, notice how the rhythmic emphasis in each of the five songs is on the title. Every single time the notes get longer in the chorus, it's on the title. This is on purpose. The title is a hugely important part of a song. We'll discuss this more in a future article!

Benjamin Samama taught songwriting at Berklee College of Music from 2013–2015 and currently writes and produces pop music full-time in Los Angeles. His songs have been released by dozens of artists all over the world and enjoyed by millions.


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