Start Writing Better Songs By Learning To Use Unity And Variety

Are you tired of sitting down to write a song and becoming frustrated when the music you create doesn't quite sound how you want it to? If so, don't worry. This struggle is a common one amongst both new songwriters and songwriting veterans alike. There are certainly many things to learn in order to become a more expressive songwriter; however, one of the key concepts you will need to master is "unity and variety". These two elements in songwriting are essential to keeping a song balanced and maintaining interest throughout the entire piece of music. For the remainder of this article I will explain both what "unity and variety" refers to, and how you can use this idea to enhance your songwriting skills.

What Is "Unity And Variety" In Music?

Whenever someone listens to a song, they are judging how good the music is based on the creative use of unity and variety by the songwriter. This happens either consciously if the person has prior musical understanding or subconsciously in the case of most casual music listeners.

With that said, what exactly am I talking about when I refer to unity and variety in music? Essentially, "Unity" means maintaining consistency, repeating similar ideas and creating a sense of ‘home' for the listener. On the other hand, "Variety" refers to creating change, adding in depth to repeated ideas and surprising the listener with novel ideas. In order to keep the ideas you write interesting throughout an entire song, you will need to create a balance between unity and variety in all aspects of your music. By successfully doing this, you gain control over the levels of relaxation and tension in your music. This is important for keeping your listeners engaged and interested to hear what will come next. Most likely, you have already written music that did not quite sound how you wanted it to either because it just wasn't too interesting overall or seemed to lack a sense of structure or direction. When this happens, you can almost always be sure that you are not utilizing unity and variety effectively. In fact, this is very a common challenge for a lot of musicians and songwriters. Here are some instances of when unity and variety are either overlooked or overused resulting in undesired results for the songwriter:

1. A melodic idea is repeated over and over with little or no variation. [overused unity]

2. The different sections in a song are repeated several times over without any major variation (same lyrics, same melodies, same chords, etc.) [overused unity]

3. The songwriter writes song lyrics that utilize very predictable ideas that follow clichés with little or no innovation [overused unity]

4. The rhythm in the notes for a particular part of a song are unpredictable and seem to have no tie-in to the feel of the song as a whole (this happens commonly when people program notes into a sequencer without really think about what they are doing) [overused variety]

5. The music contains many notes that are not "in key" and don't seem to have any clear function in the song; taking away the music's sense of direction. [overused variety]

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How You Can Use Unity And Variety In A Balanced, Effective Manner

If you want to start writing songs that are more creative and expressive, you must (of course) understand not only how unity and variety are misused but how to use them effectively to engage the interest of those who will listen to your music. In order to do this, you will need to learn how to both create and change the expectations in the mind of your listener. The basic idea of this is that you use "unity" to build up one set of expectations and then add in a sudden change by using "variety" to present the listener with something they had not anticipated. This idea is simple on the surface, but its complexity comes in the fact that you can apply it to literally any musical element or situation.

That said, unity and variety as a concept is not limited to music only. At a very foundational level, this concept is all about creating a sense of symmetry. As humans, our brains have evolved to notice symmetry over time because it has proven to be highly advantageous to do so. For example, our ability to notice symmetry in patterns has helped us locate things to eat, stay away from danger and gain other useful habits that have helped us survive.

Since unity and variety are not exclusive only to music, you can learn a lot about it by looking into other non-musical outlets. To help you gain a better understanding of this important concept, I have provided a list of examples outside of the musical realm that use unity and variety in an effective manner. Additionally, I have made an effort to tie them together with music to help give you ideas that you can use right now to enhance your songwriting:

Unity And Variety In... Writing A Script For A Movie

Do you know that feeling you get when you are watching a movie and suddenly there is a "twist" in the plot? This commonly happens when a main character in the film makes a fundamental change in his outlook or decides to take an unexpected path. This is a prime example of the effectiveness of using unity and variety to set up and change one's expectations. The more comfortable you become with the personality of a certain character, the bigger the surprise when he or she makes a drastic change in behavior (... and the greater the chances are that you will tell your friends to check out the movie afterwards).

How To Use This Idea To Write Better Songs

One highly effective way of changing emotions within a music listener is to use the "Picardy Third". This refers to the basic idea of altering the "quality" of a chord at the end of a section in a piece of music to provide contrast and convey an different mood. In other words, if your song was mostly in a minor key, rather than ending it on the main minor chord in the key (as the listener would expect), you can end it on the major version of that chord instead. For example, ending on A major instead of A minor. This will create a totally different mood in the listener and provide a heavy contrast to the rest of the song.

Unity And Variety In... Playing Sports

There are plenty of examples of unity and variety used throughout sports and other games or athletic competitions. For this example, I will use one of my favorite sports to play: baseball. In baseball, it all comes down to the competition between the pitcher throwing the ball and the batter trying to hit the ball. As for the pitcher, he has many options available to him when it comes to trying to get the batter out. In order to do this effectively, the pitcher must concentrate on creating an expectation for the batter and surprising him by varying the speed of his pitches and the location where he throws his pitches. As for changing speeds, this is commonly done by putting together a sequence of consecutive fast pitches followed by a pitch that is much slower. Since a fastball only gives the batter little time to locate and hit the ball (about .2 seconds), he must react very quickly if he wants to put the ball into play. By throwing a pitch that is significantly slower, the batter's timing gets messed up. This greatly increases the pitcher's chances of striking the batter out or getting him to make poor contact on the ball (and get out).

How To Use This Idea To Write Better Songs

By "changing speed" in your music, you can effectively throw your listener a curve ball and engage their interest through the element of surprise. One way you can do this is by writing a song in a slow tempo and creating a section within that song that either speeds up the tempo or uses "faster" note rhythms. For example, consider the song "One" by Metallica that uses a slow/moderate tempo throughout until the end of the song where a drastic contrast is created.

Unity And Variety In... Painting A Picture

When an artist is painting a picture, she knows that she can utilize the contrast between light and dark to capture the attention of whoever is looking at her work. Let's say you were painting a picture of a calm day on the beach. On the beach there is plenty of white sand and brightly colored beach towels by umbrellas... but off on the horizon you decide to paint in dark, ominous clouds. If someone were to look at your painting, chances are they would look at all the bright colors on the beach (unity) and their eyes would quickly notice the dark clouds in the background (variety). Immediately afterwards, chances are they would come to the conclusion that storm was coming.

How To Use This Idea To Write Better Songs

To use a similar method of contrast in a musical context, identify a part in a song you are writing that has been used several times (could be a certain lyric, song section or melody...). Then, when the time comes to repeat it again, change it in a subtle, yet very distinct way. For instance, if you have repeated a series of chords many times throughout your song, try changing the instrument that plays these chords. So, if the part was being played by guitar throughout the song, you could have it be played by piano instead during its final repetition.

Unity And Variety In... Working Out To Gain Muscle

If you have ever taken an interest in working out to build muscles, you having likely experienced the "plateau" where your exercises no longer seem to be effective in helping you gain mass. This is because over time your body adapts to the work you do (unity). In order to start seeing gains once again you must "surprise" your muscles by trying new exercises or strategies that will work your body in new, unexpected ways (variety).

How To Use This Idea To Write Better Songs

To make a correlation here between music and the weight lifting example I mentioned above, I am going to describe a common, yet highly effective formula used in songwriting. If you have ever listened to a ballad, you may have noticed the following pattern:

If you have ever taken an interest in working out to build muscles, you having likely experienced the "plateau" where your exercises no longer seem to be effective in helping you gain mass. This is because over time your body adapts to the work you do (unity). In order to start seeing gains once again you must "surprise" your muscles by trying new exercises or strategies that will work your body in new, unexpected ways (variety).

Similar to suddenly increasing the weight resistance during your work out, this common ballad formula first creates a pleasing soft feeling for the listener and then provides a sudden contrast with the percussion instruments (which often make the music louder overall) in order to continue to engage the listener and provide a sense of growth in the song direction. This transition helps the song proceed before the novelty of the repeated sections wears off.

Find out more on how to put songs together and write sounds with a better sense of direction.

Unity And Variety In... Making A Joke

Unfortunately, analyzing comedy to understand why it is funny is highly unlikely to get any laughs... but for the sake of discussing songwriting, I will do it anyway :)

In comedy, there exists a very basic formula for making funny jokes. That formula comes down to 3 steps: 1. Set up the joke 2. Give the punch line 3. Enjoy your hard earned laughs, international fame and the respect of your peers (...more or less). That said, not all comedians go by the same exact comedy writing formula. Some comedians might use a specific style that amplifies the effect of the joke on the crowd. To do this, they add on an additional punch line to the joke that either makes fun of the other punch line in some way or adds a whole new perspective to the joke itself. This catches the audience off guard and makes the joke much funnier than it was with the original punch line. (For great examples of this, I recommend the standup comedy of Dave Chappelle. He frequently uses this delivery style as part of his main approach to comedy.)

How To Use This Idea To Write Better Songs

Just like delivering a punch line for a joke, the chorus in your music is often a very important part of the song that requires great attention to detail in order to truly engage the listener. One great technique for changing your chorus in a way that adds a whole new dimension to the music is to change it up in when it is repeated for the final time. So for example, if your chorus has already repeated 2 or 3 times and you are about to end your song with the final chorus; you could try altering it by moving all the notes up by a half step in pitch. By moving everything ‘up' you create a sudden change that greatly alters the listener's expectations and the mood of the music as a whole. This is a good way to end the song "on a high note".

Now that you have read through the ideas in this article, you should have a better understanding of the importance of using unity and variety to create contrast, surprise and added value into your songs. By having a strong working knowledge of this, your songwriting skills will drastically increase and you will be able to create great songs with better consistency. Any time you create songs, song sections or smaller parts within these sections; continually think about how you can use unity and variety in a creative and balanced manner to make your music engaging for the listener.

Start writing music that sounds good to you by overcoming common songwriting problems with the solutions in this free eBook about writing better songs.

Ryan Buckner is a professional musician, guitarist and songwriter.

He has written many instructional articles on guitar, songwriting and music theory.

Ryan Buckner

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