Create contrast

Give song sections a distinct sound

The challenge

  • You want a section of your song to sound different from the others 
  • You need multiple ways to create the distinction

Melodic Contrast

Creating melodies is simultaneously really simple and very complicated. There’s a lot to be said for keeping it simple and trusting your ear/how it feels. That said however there are really useful ideas that can help you up your melody game.

Here are the five most important melody considerations when you want to create contrast.

1. Follow or avoid root notes of chords

Let’s imagine we are using a well known one, five, six, four (I, V, vi, IV) progression in A Major. Our chords are A major (I), E major (V), F minor (vi), D Major (IV). If our melody uses lots of the root notes of those chords (AEFD) we can be said to be following the roots.

Following roots tends to feel heavy, simple and stable. It could feel unsophisticated but resolved.

Choosing other notes from the chord or other notes from the scale can create a wide range of other feelings. One way to think about the notes available to you is the notion of functional pairs. Try this for yourself. How do these different note choices make your melody feel?

Functional Pairs example in A































2. Change the melody shape

If the melody in your verse is going down perhaps the pre-chorus should go up. Lets imagine that there are 6 basic melody shapes:

  1. Single note (static)
  2. Up
  3. Down
  4. Arch
  5. inverted arch
  6. zig-zag

Try out what happens when you use different shapes in different song sections. Additionally pay attention to what the melody does in relation to the bass movement in the song. Are they moving in the same direction or different direction. Try this out and see how it changes the feel of the song or composition.

3. Chord tones vs non-chord tones

NB: If you don’t have any chords in your song yet don’t worry come back to this one when you have.

Compare your melody to the chords or harmony. Using notes that are in the chords underneath makes for a stable feeling. Using tones that aren’t makes for a significantly different feel. If you use chord tones in the verse try using non chord tones in the pre-chorus or chorus.  

4. Steps, skips, leaps and static motion

How your melody moves make a big difference to the feeling it creates. See the table below for a description of your options. Try using steps in one section and leaps in another.


Static motion





The melody stays on one note. Perhaps with an occasional outing to the note above or below in the scale

The melody moves to notes directly above or below the current note in the scale 

The melody moves by jumping over a note or two in the scale

The melody moves further up or down the scale. Typically anything larger than a 3rd might be a leap.


Modern, emphasises the rhythmic content

Connected, stable and controlled even neat

Energetic and dynamic

Powerful and dramatic


Many Tailor Swift songs

Much baroque classical music  

Pop chorus

The Imperial March Starwars. Super hero themes

5. Lower or raise pitch in comparison to other sections

Lastly a very simple and widely used technique to make change between sections. Take the pitch pitch up or down. This technique is often used in pop and rock. 

Harmonic Contrast

1. Use the same chords or don’t

You don’t always have to make a change. I mention this here as it such a common technique in modern music. Sometimes the change is more subtle. Add tensions to the same chords or make change in another way. You don’t always have to use changes in chords to make the difference. 

2. Add or remove chords

Adding (or removing) a chord early in a section tells us right away that something else is happening. Changing a chord draws attention so another great thing to do is add a chord underneath a key word, message or moment in the song. This is even more impactful when the chord is unexpected. This might mean it’s a borrowed chord or other chord from outside the key.

3. Change harmonic rhythm

If we change chords more frequently there’s an injection of energy into the song. We can also slow the rate of change. Hold onto the five (V) chord a little longer or reduce the number of chords. Perhaps the section would be just find with one chord? Consider the rate at which your chords change and how many chords you use in a section. Experiment with it and see what it does for your songs. 

4. Switch the order of the chords

A super simple but effective thing to do is change the order of the chords you have already been using. Just try changing the cycle and see what it means for the song. 

5. Pay attention to cadences

We use the term cadence to describe the feeling that a musical phrase has finished,  that there’s no more music to do for that section. The cadence typically resolves all the tension that may have been built by other sections of the music. You can learn more about them in our harmony overview. 

Rhythmic Contrast

1. Straight/syncopated

Does your melody predominantly fall on or off the beat. Using syncopated off beat patterns in your main melody or chords transforms the feel of the song. Straight notes sound connected and grounded but less exciting. Just enough syncopation makes us want to move with the music. Too much syncopation leaves us lost. Mix and match these between sections to create change.

2. Longer shorter notes

Try out using shorter notes in the verse and longer notes in the chorus. Note what it does to the feel of the section. Notice the difference it makes to the amount of words in the section. If you analyse pop songs you will find that many use longer notes and fewer words in the chorus. 

3. Melody placement: before on or after downbeat

You can start your melody in three different places: 

  1. On the first or down beat: this feels very stable and connected but can also feel overly simple and boring for the audience
  2. After the down beat of the bar: This ads some drama, the moment of silence builds a little tension in the listener which is released when the melody starts on beat two or three
  3. Before the first beat: this is sometimes called a pickup line or upbeat. The melody or lyric starts before the bar of music leading us into the line.

Use a mixture of these in your song sections. See what difference they make to the composition.

4. Change the length of phrases

Try halving the length of your phrases in the chorus compared to the verse. How about doubling the length of the phrase. Listen to the way that distinguishes the sections from one another. 

5. More or less rest space

Give the listener some rest space. You don’t have to have melody or lyrics all the time. Give the listener time. Change the density between sections and see what that does for my composition. 

Lyrical Contrast

1. Change Meter

Make a change in the melodic rhythm. It transforms the feel of the song. Look back at the section on how to write lyrics for guidance on how to do this. 

2. Line length and density (number of syllables)

It’s common to have longer lines in the verse. This allows the writer to add more story or more images. But because lyrics imply melodic rhythm longer lines typically mean shorter notes. This is often contrasted with longer notes and shorter lines in the chorus.  

3. Type of repetition

Changing the amount and type of repetition used between sections of your song can help create contrast. If you aren’t using repetition in the chorus ask yourself why. It’s your creative choice but bear in mind that you are asking your listener to take in a lot of information. The chorus is where we teach the listener the main message of the song. Check out other peoples lyrics and you will find that repetition is very frequently used.  

The two most common types of repetition used in song are whole phrase and internal repetition.  

As you might expect whole phrase repetition repeats the whole statement. Happy by Pharrell Williams repeats the phrase “Because I’m happy” four times in each chorus.    

4. Abstract metaphors vs direct conversational language

“I want you back” is a direct conversational statement. In message in a bottle, Sting uses being a castaway as a metaphor for a lonely life “Just a castaway, An island lost at sea”. Using a mixture of these approaches can help make your songs compelling. As you write more songs you may realise that often songs balance both of these approaches. Metaphors and abstract language enable you to sumarise an idea, this often happens in choruses.

Direct and conversational language is often used in the verse to transport us. It helps us experience the story of the song ourselves .

Now what?

Now you have explored melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and lyrical differentiation. Now you can:

  • Let us know what you think of this song method
  • Take a look at the other recipes in the songwriters cookbook
  • Send us links to your songs we would love to hear them

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