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  Contrast and Growth

Contrast and Growth

When transitioning to a new theme, there are a few considerations to make. This goes for AAA forms, ABA or ABCBA, or anything in between. Just as you want to guide your listener on a little ride through your melody, you want to bring your listener on a journey throughout your track. You want it to be a ride with ups and downs while maintaining the attention of the listener. This can be achieved through a balance between contrast and growth.


By growth, I mean that you want your track to build, to evolve and become more and more interesting. You don’t want to start at high intensity and then let your track diminish in power until the end. You also wouldn’t want to start at full force, and keep it at full power from beginning to end. This would be counterproductive, as a loud section only sounds loud when played next to a quieter one. Now this is mostly an orchestration matter, but we should still keep it mind at this stage, especially since a lot of the time, you're both orchestrating and composing in real-time.

You want your track to begin at a certain level, then grow in intensity, grow in complexity, evolve and rise stronger and stronger. This can be done in several ways, which we will look at soon.


However, you will usually also want some kind of contrasting elements to avoid too much repetition. If you track keeps rising and evolving at the same pace at all times, it might end up too predictable and boring. However, introducing only the slightest contrasting elements can do wonders.

Contrasting elements can be abrupt dynamic changes, or even silence, big changes in rhythm/instrumentation/complexity, or other elements that create a contrast to the elements in the previous themes. This does not only apply to contrasting B themes but all sections of a track. An example of a balance between contrast and growth in an AAAA track can be like this:

A: Piano and strings - main theme (starting point)
A: Bigger instrumentation, brass, and percussion, rhythms (growth)
A: Only long piano notes playing the same theme (contrast)
A: Climax with choirs, brass, percussion and strings (growth)

Changes in growth and contrast can, for example, be achieved through the following tools:


When introducing the second section of your piece, it’s very likely that you would like to have a change in the dynamics. Maybe you want the next section to be even stronger than the previous one (growth), or maybe even take the power and intensity down a few notches, and create contrast by lowering the volume. Often, I like to make the first 2-3 sections build in dynamics, before introducing a quieter, calmer section, before transitioning to the climax of the track. Dynamics can be very effective to both growth and contrasting effects.


If some tracks are very rhythmically active, there might a good idea to at some point introduce a more calm section to break it up. If there is non-stop rhythmical activity from beginning to end, the track might sound monotonous and be a bit tiresome for the listener. However, if you have rhythmically active sections that are separated by calmer, slower parts - the rhythm sections can be very effective. Going from high rhythmic activity to low can be an effective way to introduce some contrast.

On the other hand, building up the intensity of your rhythmic activity - both through regular instruments and percussive elements - is an effective way to create a sense of growth. If you start with no rhythmic elements, then introduce them more and more, you will create a sense that your piece is evolving and growing.


Adding or subtracting instruments can help achieve growth or contrast. This again is linked to dynamics, but it doesn’t always have to be. For example, a piano and string ensemble can play louder or softer through dynamic playing only, without any changes in the instrumentation. At the same time, changes in instrumentation don't have to always create dynamic changes.

Changes in instrumentation can both create a sense of growth and contrast, depending on how it is used. It can also produce a contrasting element through a change in tone color, even though the dynamic level remains the same. Usually, adding more instruments, or more powerful instruments (like brass and percussion) will create a sense of growth. Subtracting instruments or replacing instruments with less powerful ones can create a contrasting effect.


Just as we talked about creating a contrast between themes through different complexity, this can also be used on the same themes. Higher complexity can often create a sense of growth. However, in some cases, the opposite can also be true. For example having a complex build up to a climax with a simple, yet powerful theme. Anyways, let’s look at some examples of how you can create growth through complexity changes, even within the same theme.

Earlier in the course, we looked at pedal notes. Pedal notes are one of the simplest textures you can find apart from having the melody isolated. One way to create growth through complexity would be to introduce more and more layers to a theme for each section - like in Hans Zimmer’s “Time”.

One example:
1. Pedal note with the main melody on top (simple)
2. Main melody with chords under (a bit more complex)
3. Main melody + chords + counter melody (even more complex)

Above we can see an example of how you can create growth through an increased complexity. However, you can also use complexity to introduce contrasting elements. For example, if you introduced an even more complex part after the third repetition of the theme above, it would maybe not be so effective. However, if you introduced a less complex element before the climax, the results could be very pleasing.

1. Pedal note with the main melody on top (simple)
2. Main melody with chords under (a bit more complex)
3. Main melody + chords + counter melody (even more complex)
4. Main theme chords only, sustained (less complex - contrast)
5. Main theme with all elements (melody/chords/counter melody - growth)

Bonus Tip:

Something that I did in my track, that I recommend that you play with - is doing a modulation. If you transpose a theme one or more steps up, it will usually make it feel more powerful, and it will give it a "lift". I won't go into advanced modulation and harmony theory (which is something I might add a bit more of soon), but I want to give you something to try out.

This is something I did in my final A climax, transposing it from C to D, which is a whole step up. There are a lot of ways to modulate, but for this kind of use, a whole step up is usually a safe bet, and will give the desired effect. Feel free to experiment with other jumps, but if you want to give your final climax a boost - try transposing it from your key, to the key one whole step above!