The Use of Contrast in Songwriting

Contrast, as defined in the dictionary, is: To set in opposition in order to show or emphasize differences. Black and white are two contrasting “shades” (they’re not colours!) and can be used as a visual way to describe contrast in songwriting.

Black and White "Model" Cupcakes
Image by clevercupcakes via Flickr

When you’re first writing a song (and I ALWAYS emphasize this!), you are not thinking about technique or creating dynamics, tension or contrast…you are simply expressing something in its raw form. Many songwriters never get beyond this raw state, never develop their writing or learn to polish their songs, and the lack of contrast is often a result. If absolutely everything in a room was white, how boring would that be? This is what songwriters who are just starting out don’t necessarily recognize in their own songwriting.

So what exactly IS contrast in songwriting? Well, it can be achieved in different ways. If your song has verses and a chorus, contrast may be created between those song parts. For example, the verses might have a melody in a lower range, and the chorus in a higher range. Another way to achieve contrast would be a different chord progression in the chorus as compared to the verse. It can be a subtle as starting the chorus with a different chord than the verses start with. Contrast doesn’t have to be “in your face”, it simply creates a feeling of freshness between the parts of a song. A bridge can be a really effective contrast. You’ve set your listener up, starting them off with a verse and chorus, another verse and chorus, and now you want to give them a breather, so you create a bridge.

So, melody and chord progressions can be used to create contrast, what about lyrics?  The most subtle lyrical contrast would be in terms of the subject by changing the point of view or creating a different idea (but not too different!) between two parts of a song.  A very simple example would be where the verses are in the first and second person (I, me, my and you), and the chorus being in the third person (she, he, they).

But a broader and more effective contrast would be to actually change the form of the song by changing the rhyme scheme or the length of lines and the meter.  You see this happening most of the time between a verse and a chorus;  the verse has its own rhyme scheme and meter and the chorus changes to another set.

Contrast can also be created in the production of the song where the instrumentation changes between different parts.  This has less to do with the songwriting, but if your song is missing some contrast or the contrast is not strong enough, adding or changing instruments in the production and recording phase can enhance the parts so they stand out a little more separately from each other.  What often happens with drums in a chorus, for instance, is that the rhythm stays more or less the same, but cymbals (or what they call a “ride”) are added.  Drums also accent a coming change when they do small fills just beforehand.

Drums are only one example of the use of contrast in production, other instruments like strings can also be effective in signifying a different part of a song.  But for the most part, you want to be able to create contrast in the writing itself so you don’t have to rely on production to do it for you.

Contrast is something that be the difference between your audience being continuously drawn into a song and putting them to sleep! Listen to one of your favourite songs and see if you can spot what they do to create contrast. And then listen to one of your own songs to determine if you are creating enough contrast to keep it interesting!


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Songs That Break The Rules

As soon as we start using the word “rules”, a lot of songwriters coil in disgust at the thought of having to conform to anything.  So actually, I wrote that title to grab your attention in a negative way, but at least I know I’ve probably got your attention :-).

New Discovery!  Silicone Molds...I'm hooked!
Image by HA! Designs – Artbyheather via Flickr

The examples of songs I’m going to present in this article simply jump out of the mold, so to speak, and do things that aren’t conventional, but still work.  In some cases, they are subtle, in others, not so.

My first example is of a song that breaks out of the song form mold.  It’s a song by Sheryl Crow called Soak Up The Sun.  Here is a rather standard song form, where “A” is the verse, “B” is the chorus and “C” is the bridge:


There are many variations of course,  but while Sheryl’s song starts out pretty standard, with an intro, verse, chorus and then another verse, but she changes it around and instead of repeating the chorus, she throws in a bridge first.   She goes back to the chorus and then another verse, but throws in the bridge again before the next chorus.  So her song form looks something like this:


Below this article is a player where you can have a listen, it’s a great song worth listening to anyway.

The Beatles were notorious for breaking all kinds of “rules” and still having huge hits.  They loved to throw in an odd chord change or time signature change, and their lyrics were often off the beaten track.  I’m sure the haze of drugs had something to do with that :-).  As an example, here is All You Need Is Love.  Have a listen below and just try counting the time signature and you’ll see what I mean.

Also below is what some might consider a “novelty” song, but it was written by a prolific songwriter named Harry Nilsson.  This song was #8 on the Billboard Charts in 1971 and what makes it unique is the fact that it has only one chord.  The bass alternates, but essentially it sits on the same chord for the entire song, letting the story in the lyrics take the main stage.  It’s called “Coconut“:

These are only three examples where breaking out of the mold works very successfully, and I’m sure you can think of some others on your own.  If you do, post them here!

And, remember, you don’t have to write like anybody else 🙂

The Real Deal – Songwriting Websites I Recommend

I spend a lot of time surfing the web in search of websites for songwriters, usually because I’m looking for something to write about in my monthly column at the Muse’s Muse 🙂 (For anyone interested, the newsletters along with my articles are archived here).

Occasionally, people will ask to use my articles on their songwriting-related websites, or to link up with me. In the beginning, I would readily allow anyone who wanted to to use my tips or link to my page. But these days, I’m a little pickier! Now I check out these websites as thoroughly as I can before associating myself with them. I have noticed that there are a growing number of websites that offer lots of promises, but they really don’t deliver. I hate to say it, but anyone who wants to charge you for something, should cause you to send up a red flag, with a few exceptions.

Let’s first talk about the “free” websites, good places to start with when you are just beginning your search, and some of these you will return to again and again. The Muses’ Muse is simply one of the best songwriting websites out there, if not THE best. Jodi Krangle, the proprietor, makes little or no money from her website, and yet it always manages to be fresh, up-to-date and an extremely thorough collection of links, articles, advice and services for the beginner to the advanced songwriter. It is a HUGE site, so be prepared to spend a lot of time there! I have known Jodi since I first came online in 1996, and I’ve never met a nicer person! We have continued to help each other to promote and support the idea of songwriting on the web, and The Muse’s Muse continues to exist because of a person who is truly committed to the art and craft of songwriting.

Another really huge, and wonderful website is Just Plain Folks. Again, Brian Austin Whitney has created a wonderful community for songwriters that is almost too much to explain in one small paragraph! You have to see it to believe it. Brian has extended his JPFolks community out into the “real” world, with events all over the US and Canada, and branches of his organization in just about every major city! Again, this website is so full of stuff, it’ll take you literally weeks to go through all of it.

Even if a membership in an online organization is NOT free, ask yourself if you are in a place to truly benefit from their services. For instance, a lot of songwriters ask about TAXI and whether or not they are legitimate. In my opinion, they are. But many songwriters are simply not ready or at a level yet in which to really make use of what they have to offer! You wouldn’t buy a car before you even knew how to drive it. The same rule applies here. If you don’t yet ‘know’ how to write a song, why spend mega bucks on a service where you will be competing with a zillion others who DO know how to write? That sounds very practical, but I have met many, many songwriters who are ready long before their songs really are. So TAXI is a part of my list because I believe they offer a legitimate service for a fee.

Another legitimate service is . I will say right up front that I am associated with them, because I’ve written two courses for their website. Danny Arena and Sara Light are IN the business of songwriting, they teach it and they live it. will eventually become a collection of online courses which the songwriter will pay to use. Many of the gurus I’ve already mentioned are contributing courses to this website and it will become quite a full and fascinating resource for songwriters at all levels. hasn’t fully launched as of the writing of this article, but in the meantime, you can also check out Danny & Sara’s other website, Craft Of Songwriting.

These are only a few of the major websites that I can personally recommend, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t more that are equally as good…there seems to be another songwriting website popping up every month or so. But the ones I’ve mentioned here have built up over time and have become as successful as they are because of all of the hard-working people behind them. Give them all a visit and tell ’em Irene sent you!

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Muses’ Clues Apr/09

M u s e ‘ s C l u e s : by Irene Jackson

From The April 2009 issue of Muse News at Muse’s Muse

Years ago I heard about a songwriting challenge called “50 Songs
in 90 Days”, which was basically a summer-long (for those of you
in the northern hemisphere!) challenge to complete 50 songs
within a limited amount of time, brilliant or not, just to do it.
A lot of songwriters enjoy the challenge of a deadline, and if
you’re one of those, then you might enjoy this challenge. It
started out as a Yahoo group but it grew and was eventually
sponsored by another group called FAWM, or February Album Writing
, which you can find here:

February is over, of course, but check their website out anyway,
because even though you’ve missed the challenge this year, you
may find some inspiration in some of the forums and submissions
on the site. They have also spurred some online and live
regional events in a number of places, mostly in the US, where
songwriters gather to showcase and hobnob. As well, there are
some online events including podcasts and chats, mostly held in
February but certainly worth checking out as well.

One of the best parts, of course, is their Jukebox where you can
peruse some of the songs that have been uploaded to the site by
songwriters participating in the challenge. This year they had a
total of 7375 songs uploaded by 754 active members. You can also
look through the songs page and listen to the latest submissions.
Some of the songs are listenable but others are “locked” for
various reasons.

The website is kept alive by donations, and even though the
challenge is over for this year, songwriters are still able to
join up and for those who are participating, there is a little
meter beside each name to show their progress. There is also a
forum where songwriters discuss their progress among other

To those of you who are constantly looking for inspiration,
Google “songwriting challenge” and you’ll find other songwriters
who have participated in the 50/90 challenge, or who have created
challenges for themselves and are blogging about it.

Inspiration is always out there if you look hard enough!

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Muse’s Clues from Mar.09

I remember a few years ago finishing up a new song and feeling
quite proud of myself for writing something very different than
my usual fare, only a day or two later to discover that I had
completely ripped off a melody and chord progression of a song I
had been listening to previously. It was disheartening and
frustrating, but of course I had to ditch the song! Plagiarism
seems to be a great fear in most of us…not just copying someone
else’s song, but having our own song plagiarized.

I wonder how many times this honestly happens, not just to those
of us who are relatively anonymous, but also to big name
songwriters? And when it happens and they realize it, do they do
the same thing and just ditch the song? You would hope so! Then
again, what if they don’t realize that a song they’ve written has
“been done” before but the song has already had a major release?

This is what happened when The Rolling Stones were about to
release the CD Bridges to Babylon in 1997 with a song called
“Anybody Seen My Baby” that had a very similar hook to KD Lang’s
song “Constant Craving”, released in 1992. Instead of waiting
for a lawsuit, however, clever Mick simply offered Lang writing
credits and shared profits from the song.

I am guessing that this is also what happened to Coldplay’s lead
singer and songwriter Chris Martin when he wrote Viva La Vida.
As it turns out, the melody and chord progression in parts of the
song are strikingly similar to another song released in 2005 by
Joe Satriani called “If I Could Fly”. But Satriani believes that
Martin knowingly stole his melody and progression and so he is
suing Coldplay as a result. There have been a lot of arguments
between fans of both artists as to who stole what, but on a
YouTube video you can watch a two-part video from an objective
viewpoint, examining each song from a theoretical perspective.
Now the theory might be over your head, but it also might teach
you a lot about what might be viewed as plagiarism:

If you are interested in other examples of similar-sounding
songs, on the Prolific Magazine blog, Joshua Kraus compares what
he calls “The 8 Most Blatantly Plagiarized Songs”:

Not all of these songs involved lawsuits, but there are some
interesting comparisons, and all are worth digging around in your
CD collection to have a listen to.

Interestingly enough, another obscure band called Creaky Boards
has also claimed that Coldplay’s Viva La Vida is a rip-off of
their song “The Songs I Didn’t Write” (isn’t that title a strange
coincidence!). Jared Morris of WGMD does a comparison of these
two songs on YouTube:

Of course, the accusations are flying back and forth, but the
reality is that plagiarism is hard to prove, and I do think it’s
quite possible for two songwriters to inadvertently come up with
very similar melodies. Most songwriters have melodies floating
around in our heads all of the time and how are we to know if
they are original or not? There are only so many notes and so
many common chords.

But as to who stole what from whom, I’ll leave that up to the
courts, and you!

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