One of the fundamentals to songwriting is creating contrast between sections. I say “fundamentals” because it is one of the first things you might learn, but like most of the basics, it requires practice and persistence throughout your lifetime of writing music. Even after more than a decade of songwriting, this is still something I have to think about it—at least, finding creative ways to do it.
There are a number of different ways to vary your sections. We often do this to signal a new section and a new idea, maybe even a different emotional state. Here are some that might help.
1. Wordy vs. Sparse Melodies
This is the first one because this is extremely common in pop music right now. It has always been a tool, but as songs use more of a rap or talking-like melody, there are many instances where songwriters jam many words into one line, usually in the verse. Then they will contrast this by really shortening the number of words in the next section, like the chorus.
Here is an example with “you broke me first” by Tate McRae:
In the Verse:
Maybe you don’t like talking too much about yourself
But you shoulda told me that you were thinking ’bout someone else
You’re drunk at a party or maybe it’s just that your car broke down
Your phone’s been off for a couple months, so you’re calling me now
And then the number of words significantly decreases for the Pre-chorus and Chorus:
I know you, you’re like this
When shit don’t go your way you needed me to fix it
And like me, I did
But I ran out of every reason
Now suddenly you’re asking for it back
Could you tell me, where’d you get the nerve?
Yeah, you could say you miss all that we had
But I don’t really care how bad it hurts
When you broke me first
And the Post-Chorus, which is just one line with a lot of instrumental in between.
You broke me first
Not only does this feel like the songwriter’s thought process is evolving and the story continues forward, it is extremely effective in keeping the listener’s attention. We could also do this the opposite way by writing a wordy Chorus and a sparse Verse. Find what works within the emotions of your song and test this out.
2. Starting the melody on, before or after the first beat
I find this is the tool that we struggle with the most. It can feel the most instinctive to start our melody on the first beat of the bar every single time. Most people won’t notice this, but intuitively, we might feel like the song drags on a little bit, all the sections sound the same.
If we start the melody on the first beat, it might look like this:
Or even this (the emphasized note/word is on the first beat):
If we start the melody before the beat, usually the last word of the phrase (“chance”) lands on the first beat:
If we start the melody after the first beat, there is a rest on the first beat:
3. The number of lines
Sometimes it seems like every section has four lines, and sometimes that’s true. An easy way to contrast your sections is to vary the number of lines, and you may have specific reasons for doing this. The first reason is to make the sections sound different, of course. You may also change the rhyme scheme here to create a different sound.
The second reason is to make a section sound stable or unstable, depending on the context of your lyrics and melody. You can use an odd number of lines to make the section unstable or an even number of lines to make the section stable. Pat Pattison writes about this in Writing Better Lyrics.
In Ed Sheeran’s song Afterglow, we see this technique being used when his Verses and Choruses are all three lines and his Post-Chorus resolves with a stable two lines. For an in-depth analysis, check out the full blog post.
4. Speed up/slow down the rate of chord changes
This one is admittedly less common. Since many songs these days are written on a loop, it doesn’t allow for much in the way of changing the chords between sections. If you write with an instrument, try using the same chords for twice as long in one section (two bars per chord) and once in another section (one bar per chord). You can also change the chords.
When we do this, it feels like the section speeds up from one section to another, even though the tempo has not changed at all. This can be effective in showing that the emotion has changed from one section to the next.
For example, listen to “Line by Line” by JP Saxe and Maren Morris.
In the Intro and Verse, the chords change every bar. They set the rate of the chords here.
In the Pre-Chorus, the chords are now changing every two bars. They also change the rhythm of the guitar riff. It feels as though they have slowed down for this moment in the song.
In the Chorus, they go back to changing the chords every bar with a similar riff as the Verse. By doing this, they have created enough contrast to make the Chorus stand out as a different section.
5. Melody line going up/going down
This one can be more subtle since many melodies (Verse melodies in particular) only move in intervals of a third. If you contrast your melodies by moving the opposite way each section, it feels like a new section.
Listen to “Lose You to Love Me” by Selena Gomez.
In the Verse, the melody first goes up and then down. In the second part of the Verse, she uses a static melody that ends by going up.
In the Chorus, the melody first goes down and then up.
In the Post-Chorus, the melody is static and ends by going down.
Listening to interviews on the song, the songwriters may have done this very intuitively. Either way, the direct opposite melodies are effective in making the sections sound different, even though the range of the vocal melody is not very large at all.
6. Differ the vocal range
This is the classic example. Though big choruses have fallen a little out of favour in pop music, there are signs of it coming back (listen to “drivers license” by Olivia Rodrigo”). Making the vocal ranges of section to section different is probably one of the most effective ways to make each section sound extremely different.
This can be seen in “willow” by Taylor Swift, who manages to make a big leap to a higher range in her chorus without it sounding dated.
In the Verses, the melody stays in her lower vocal range. The melody is mostly static and jumps up a third. The Verse in its entirety is five lines—an odd number of lines—and begins on the first beat of the bar. The phrases are sparse and make the section feel slower.
In the Choruses, the melody jumps up much higher. The melody mostly goes down. The Chorus is four lines—an even number of lines—and begins the melody after the first beat of the bar. The phrases are quite wordy and have a feeling of speeding up.
While there are many ways to vary your sections, most songwriters only use a few of these per song. Some of these are more effective in one song versus another. Sometimes you won’t even want to think about these when writing a song, and that’s okay. These are great tools as well as fun things to notice when you’re listening to music.