Contrast: The Power of Shock and Awe

Which do you think doctors and nurses find more interesting: a heart monitor with a steady rhythmic pulse, or one that suddenly careens from 140 bpm to a flat line? I can guarantee it’s the latter. I mean, just look at how excited they get when that happens.

You see, steady and stable is boring, but contrast… that’s interesting.

Black vs. White
Contrast is one of the most important tools in any artist's toolbox. It guides the eye or the ear, creates interest, and highlights what is important. Nearly any part of an artist's work can be made more dramatic or impactful by exaggerating its contrast; moving things quickly from busy to sparse, loud to soft, complex to simple, high to low, and on and on. Using contrast in your songs, in both the writing/ arranging and recording phases, is crucial to engaging listeners and keeping their attention.

How much contrast is enough? At a minimum each section of song should stand apart from the others. This gives listeners the sense of progression through the song and helps maintain interest. Vary the rhythm of the vocal melody between sections. Change the rhyming scheme. Add or change instruments in the accompaniment. Whatever it takes to differentiate the verses from the choruses, and all parts in between.

Loud vs. Soft
Dynamics. In today's world of hyper compressed audio, this has almost become a lost art. That's too bad, because following a really quiet passage with a thunderous one is a guaranteed way to turn some heads. That goes for live performances too. The best live bands I've seen were ones that new how to use dynamics as part of their music. If you have ever seen Stevie Ray Vaughn bring a song down to a barely audible whisper, and then come raging back to full volume with a screaming guitar solo, you know what I'm talking about. Brought people to their feet every time.

The best recordings also use dynamics to hold control over the listener. Recordings can use contrast in other ways as well. For example, you can make verse sections narrow and choruses wide, or verses "dry" and choruses "wet". You can also make certain sections acoustically dense and others sparse.

Thunderbolt and Lightning
While contrast doesn’t always have to mean wildly careening changes, sometimes it's the perfect prescription. Have you ever noticed it's almost impossible not to bang our head during the reprise of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody? That's because it is a masterpiece of contrast. Freddy and company utilize dramatic changes in mood, rhythm, range, dynamics, and intensity. The opening verses are a loungy piano ballad, the bridge section features quirky, operatic vocal harmonies, and then they blow your socks off with a loud, infectious guitar riff. That's how it's done.

If your song is flat-lining, it might be time to warm up the defibrillator paddles and shock it back to life with a little contrast.



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