When you think of contrast in music, you often think about that one LOUD standing chord with a SILENCE before and after. This is the most extreme form of contrast: White – Black – White. I discussed this type of music earlier in a blog on SILENCE, because a lone standing chord by itself has trouble creating SPACE. There is no MUSIC, no 4D experience, in that type of silence. It sounds empty and so does the chord. Only because of the “smack in the face experience” of the tutti chord, it appears to be emotionless.

Photo by Godisable Jacob on

The music must make the emotion

Comparing scores from Debussy and Melillo, I found different ways of composing contrasts. The most obvious difference between the two composers is writing contrasts as “walls” as opposed to contrasts as “waves”.

An exciting contrast displays the tension between emotional opposites.

Hard, abrupt changes in orchestration form contrast in the work of Melillo. You can see black and white ‘walls’ in the score. The score has obvious blocks. The great thing about these compositions is, that despite the abrupt silences, there is almost everywhere music in them. Melillo does consider SILENCE and thinks about SPACE while composing. It’s very hard to compose this type of music in a meaningful way.

Debussy on the other hand, changes contrasts less abrupt, leaving time for the “white” to vanish and the “black” to appear. This does not mean that the music is ‘grey’. It means that there is always Yin and Yang, at the same time. There is always a tension between the opposites. Between ‘full’ and ’empty’. There is a pulling and a pushing of voices over TIME horizontally (over TIME) and vertically (in orchestration). This tension between the opposites feels as ‘waves’ in the music of Debussy.

Photo by Ian Panelo on

Emotions come in ‘waves’, not in ‘walls’

With Debussy, change in FORM and harmonics doesn’t mean automatically a harsh change in orchestration. There is something kept until the new is established. The coloring of the contrasts, the more gradual changes with overlapping lines, make his music more comfortable.

When you design contrasts you can make them black-white, like Melillo, but you can also color them, like Debussy. The colored contrasts are less extreme, but still there, adding a sound-color to give it an expression, an emotion. The colored end result sounds more seductive, the extremer contrasts sound more aggressive.

Thinking about contrasts, sketch.

Maybe thinking about contrast is thinking about stretching emotional space in waves over a subjective flexible sensation of TIME. Instead of cutting chunks of emotions, walls. Maybe we have to think about how the MUSIC feels to connect all people, sometimes with a spacial emotional universe we all share. There are no walls there, but waves.

Even an angry aggressive emotional outburst feels like a wave. You might hit a wall, but people themselves are emotionally organized in waves and nuances, not walls and contrasts.

What contrasts can we write?

Composing contrasts, we must consider all variables that make up the music. Otherwise we end up with a one dimensional, emotionally meaningless contrast. Let’s list up what kind of different contrasts we could establish:

  • SOUND:
    • Orchestration: with it’s dynamics and articulation.
    • Harmonics: consonance – dissonance.
    • Keys: key 1 – key 2.
  • SPACE:
    • Huge, airy space – small dense space.
    • Negative – positive (music in) SPACE.
    • Growing or shrinking volume.
  • FORM:
    • Regular – irregular.
    • Expanding melody-lines v.s. short chunks of music.
  • TIME:
    • Subjective feel of expansion – shrinking of TIME.
    • Fast rhythm – slow rhythm.
    • Change of meter.

Smart contrasting technique: A composer can use combination of all those things, or all at the same time. Thinking ‘waves’, Yin and Yang, negative – positive space, pushing and pulling, partial orchestration changes. It’s all smart balanced orchestration and FORM. A Yang in trumpets means a Yin in flutes, pulling the tempo means a change from basses to trumpets. In the FORM a melody, flutes, can be followed by repetitive small pattern-blocks, percussion.

Photo by Pixabay on

This view emphasizes that everything in music is connected: Integrity.

Integrity: everything is connected. The quality and quantity of SPACE depends on the development of SOUND over TIME. A change in FORM means a change in orchestration. All elements of a composition changes when one element changes.

Even the composer is part of this integrity: The composer is the source of the music, but the composition can also change the composer, teaching him/her something about life. When a composer tries to write something not fitting to his/her personality, the composition doesn’t sound integer, there will be no honest music, no honest struggle will be heard. A harsh contrast in the composers life, will result in a harsh contrast in oeuvre.

Contrasts and integrity

Contrast breaks melody-lines: a nice long melody can be broken by extreme contrasts. When you compose black-white, the melody finishes where the black starts. It might re-appear in the white, but it’s broken still. Contrast in orchestration influences the FORM of the melody.

Photo by Pixabay on

Contrast in orchestration also influences the SPACE

A variation on this idea is writing for a soloist, playing by himself, creating a small SPACE and the orchestra throwing in chords once in a while to remind us of the key. The orchestra creates a large SPACE. There is a contrast in orchestration and thus in SPACE quantity: Integrity. Everything is related.

When a white – black – white block is played, SPACE has no TIME to get the right volume, nor time to shrink. SOUND doesn’t have a good SPACE. The FORM is harsh, SOUND hollow. There will be no SPACE for negative music in the SILENCES. The 4D effect is lost.

Ways to soften contrast

You can soften contrasts by making them shorter: The shorter the periods, the more the music will sound continuous. Like a dotted line. A staccato articulation of sixteenth notes is a variation that sounds continuous. This type of line often give a piece a drive, a feeling of a more aggressive, purposeful going. This drive is more aggressive in sound, than a legato, a connected line of the same notes. This is due to the lack of contrast within the articulation of the separate notes.

When you consider that MUSIC can take you from “anywhere to here to there to anywhere”, designing a contrast in SPACIAL experience will lead to people wondering why they are here and not there, knowing what there is in anywhere. A conscious design of SPACE might also lead to meaningful contrasts.

Taking people by the hand on their journey, making them feel safe but taking them to worrisome places in SPACE. I think that is the whole idea of designing beautiful music. Softening contrasts can help establish the trust you need for that to happen.

Ways to built a climax using a contrast.

Learning how to build an inevitable climax, you can experiment with pushing. Coming from a comfortable zone, pushing the boundaries of the acceptable for the western ear. A climax builds up towards an inevitable contrast: Black – white. After the climax there is often a SILENCE or an orchestration with a small SPACE. A climax can be seen as a build up and contrast of SPACE by orchestration. The yearning for the end is established by repetition of a harmonic pattern, usually towards the I of the original key.

A more aggressive drive towards the climax can be established by designing a repetitive ‘dotted line’, making a small contrasting but continuous line towards the climax. Now we know why this sounds aggressive: it’s the contrast established by rhythm and articulation. The SPACE is developed by orchestration and dynamics.

Remember that only heavy basses make SPACE bigger, aggressive articulation makes dense small SPACES. A melody on top accentuates the emotion of the phrase and defines when the phrase will end. The dotted line of percussion and trumpets will give the phrase a drive towards the end. Only a combination of all these things together will add up to a beautiful meaningful climax: Integrity of the parts within a composition.

The only really beautiful black – white emotional meaningful contrast is that one after an inevitable climax.

By Anneloes Wolters