Light and Shadow Part 2: Creating Depth through Contrast

In the second installment of the Light and Shadow mini-series, we’re going to develop on the idea of writing separate light and shadow parts. This time we’re going to add depth to these parts through contrast.

BACKGROUND
In this mini-series, we’re trying to think of songwriting on analogy to painting. Just as a painter works with light and dark shades, so are we working with major and minor chords.

Sometimes painters will focus on one or the other in a composition. Imagine a dark and mysterious image bathed in shadow, for example. But a painter can add depth to the images depicted by contrasting that shadow with light. Musicians can learn from these techniques as well.

In our last exercise, we focused on using only one of these elements at a time. This time we’re going to try to add some depth through contrast.

The exercise will be divided into two parts. In the first, we will begin with light chords; in the second, we will begin with shadow. Again, the results can serve as a verse and chorus for a complete song.

THE EXERCISE: LIGHT
Begin by writing a progression using only the light chords we’ve covered so far: I, IV, and V. We’ve already covered a variety of ways to do this.

Now it’s time to add some depth.

First Approach: The Contrast Chord
We are going to approach this in two ways. First, choose one chord from among our shadow chords (ii, iii, and vi). Now simply insert that chord in between each change from your original progression.

So, for example, say your original progression was I-V-I-IV-V-I. If you chose ii as your contrast chord, your new progression will be I-ii-V-ii-I-ii-IV-ii-V-I. I left out the ii on the last change to keep the magnetic tunnel effect in place for a satisfying conclusion.

Be sure to place the emphasis on the major chords and treat the contrast chord only as transitional. What you’re trying to do is deepen and add interest to the feel of the major chords. You’ll have to experiment to really understand what I’m talking about here.

Second Approach: Various Contrast Chords
The second approach is similar to the first, except that now we will be using all three of the shadow chords instead of just one.

Again, insert a minor chord in between each of your changes, but mix it up and use a different one each time.

So, to return to our I-V-I-IV-V-I, you might try I-ii-V-vi-I-iii-IV-ii-V-I. But don’t just imitate this idea. Experiment with a variety of combinations!

Again, make sure you’re treating the shadow chords as transition chords and maintaining the sense of emphasis on the light chords. One way to do this is to spend more time on the major chords. Another is to play the major chords on the first beat of the measure and the minor on the third beat. Again, there are many ways to approach this exercise.

And of course, this is meant as a starting point. Feel free to tweak the progression, dropping some of the contrast chords if you feel it’s necessary.

THE EXERCISE: SHADOW
Your finished result so far can serve as either a verse or chorus. Now we’re going to write a second part, focusing on the shadow chords this time.

There’s no need to spell this out in detail again. You’re just going to do the opposite of what you did last time. Start from a chord progression using only ii, iii, and vi. Then use I, IV, and V as transitional contrast chords.

Again, first choose only one contrast chord. Then try using all of them.

There you have it: a light part and a shadow part, both possessing a new level of depth (and complexity).

YET ANOTHER CONTRAST
This exercise is meant to get you experimenting with new ways of approaching part writing. But keep in mind that there are also many ways to contrast verse and chorus. There is no need to have both possess the kind of depth we’ve been exploring here.

Try following this exercise for one part and then writing the other with only three chords. This is a fairly common technique, and one you should master as well.

Once you’ve added depth to your song, go ahead and submit it as inspiration for the rest of us.

SUMMARY
Light Progression
1. Start with a chord progression based on I, IV, and V.
2a. Choose one chord from ii, iii, and vi. Place that chord in between each change from your original chord progression.
2b. Now use all of ii, iii, and vi. Alternate them as transitional chord between your original changes.
3. Tweak the progression to get a sound you like.

Shadow Progression
1. Start with a chord progression based on ii, iii, and vi.
2a. Choose one chord from I, IV, and V. Place that chord in between each change from your original chord progression.
2b. Now use all of I, IV, and V. Alternate them as transitional chord between your original changes.
3. Tweak the progression to get a sound you like.

Next: Light and Shadow Part 3: Reversing the Polarity of Chord Progressions

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John

John Thomas Mumm has been writing and studying music since 1997. He has recorded hundreds of songs and five self-produced albums. His day job is as an academic philosopher, and in his spare time he writes fiction and brews beer. Most recently, he's started studying the fine art of the cocktail. So far he's finding that the principles of balance in drink mixing aren't completely unrelated to the principles of balance in songwriting.

2 thoughts on “Light and Shadow Part 2: Creating Depth through Contrast”

    1. I’ve been preoccupied with other projects for the last couple of months, but now I intend to start posting again. I’m glad you’re enjoying the site!

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