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What is the contrast in music-making and why should you use it?

I know you came to this blog post not to hear about my personal life, but to learn about contrast in music and how you can apply this concept to your own songs. But I'll start with my vision so you can understand where I'm coming from.

I’m not a productivity nerd but I like being productive. I use apps, websites, and templates to decrease the amount of time that I spend on a certain work. But if you get hooked by that productivity mindset too much, you can find yourself hustling all the time.

I was that person. I couldn’t watch or read anything beyond music. I was feeling ashamed of myself while I was trying to watch mindless tv shows. But I burned out myself at the end as you can imagine.

I guess you’re thinking like: “What the fuck are you talking about Orçun? I thought you were going to discuss music-related things here.”

You don’t just need to use contrast to create good music, but you need to use contrast to create a good life for yourself. You can’t work all the time without a good rest. Also, you get bored if you rest too much. You have to find a balance between them.

I have ended up with burn out because of too much hustling. Now I use productivity to use my time wisely. I schedule my time for resting. I don’t feel ashamed while I’m watching The Office all day long because I know I do my best while working.

There are dark shadows in the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast.
Charles Dickens

What is the meaning of contrast in music?

If your song is always loud, energetic, big and wide we won’t perceive it like that. Because we don’t have any idea about what quiet, small and narrow are. We get used to the sound after a while and we perceive it as normal. Even worse, we get bored with the sameness.

Pop music uses this same arrangement for a good reason:

Intro (4 bar), Verse (16 bar), Pre-chorus (4 bar), Chorus (8 bar), Verse (8 bar), Pre-chorus (4 bar), Chorus (8 bar), Bridge (8 bar), Chorus (8 bar)

There are always differences among songs but the main idea is stable. There are always pre-choruses and bridges. The importance of those sections is contrast. They make the arrangement lush and quiet before the bigger sections. This way we perceive those sections even bigger.

Let’s listen to Break My Heart by Dua Lipa for a moment. You will immediately realize the same structure used on purpose. There aren’t any drums and bass on pre-choruses, and there is much more reverb on those sections. Because drums and bass mean energy.

It’s not just the instruments, but also Dua Lipa’s vocal follows this method. Her vocal is much more stable on verses, and more catchy on the choruses. This makes us always seek to chorus melody.

On the bridge before the last chorus, the song has the most lushness. And the last trick is the silence at the end of the bridge. This creates even more energy.

What can you learn from this as a songwriter and composer?

The most common mistake between amateur songwriters and composers is adding new instruments to their arrangements. You don’t need to be a minimalist to not do that. But if you’re adding more and more instruments, you’re trying to hide something from everyone and most importantly from yourself.

You have to leave your home for a couple of days to miss your family. In the same way, we have to miss those instruments in an arrangement. You have to remove instruments in some sections to create this contrast.

The goal should always be to create still verses but enormous choruses for popular music. This begins in the songwriting process. If you’ve written a catchy vocal melody with upbeat chords, try to make them calmer in the verses. You can simplify the vocal melody, chords, and playing style to those chords. You can even create a world apart bridge by changing the chord structure or even you can change the key of the song.

What can you do in the production?

Let’s say that you have written a song with those guidelines and you’re producing the song. Most of the energy comes from drums and bass. So you can use them wisely while you’re producing. Try to simplify your drums in the verses and keep your most energetic rhythmic elements to the choruses. Also, try to simplify your bass on verses by decreasing the amount of the notes it plays. Or you can just use the old rock method, and play long notes on the verses and you can keep your groovy bass riff to the choruses.

As we hear on Dua Lipa’s production, you can mute most of the instruments on pre-choruses for better preparation. Also, you can use more reverb on those sections.

What can you do in the mixing?

Bass and sub frequencies are where the energy lies. You can use those frequencies to your advantage. If you cut the low frequencies below 100 Hz before the chorus slightly, and bring them back on the chorus the audience will perceive the chorus as massive.

You can do this trick also to air frequencies, but it will be more audible. Be gentle while doing these automations because the point is not hearing but feeling it.

You can also narrow your pans on the verses. If you do these two tricks together, you will have a huge chorus. But if it’s not enough for you, you can push your mix bus a dB on the choruses to make it even louder -thus bigger.

Take away

Always think about the big picture while creating music. Think of the audience as a child who gets bored quickly. And most importantly, don’t forget that you can’t create a huge chorus if you don’t make other sections smaller. You can’t change most of these things in the mixing stage, but you can help it. Try this mindset from start to finish in your creating process and let me know if it works or not for you.


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