Music also, of course, includes dramatic contrasts. When these are significant, they really grab our attention! Less significant contrasts may slip by us. And the least significant contrasts—like, for example, “the second phrase is a different melody from the first”—are often not worth noting.

We’re not going to draw a line between important and unimportant contrasts, because they’re all important. But we need to give ourselves a manageable and meaningful task, since we have a limited capacity for attention, so we will focus on the more dramatic contrasts. After all, anywhere we don’t indicate a repetition, we’re presumably indicating that there’s some level of contrast.

There are certain factors that, on their own, can create a clear sense of contrast. For example, changes in key, timbre/instrumentation, and meter often create the sense that something new is happening. Often, though, strong contrasts come from a combination of factors that result in what we might call a new “character.” Often it’s easiest to describe these changes in metaphorical language (say, “it goes from excited and bouncy to subdued and depressed”). We should absolutely use that language because it helps us think about the overall effect, but we also want to think about the combinations of technical factors that contribute to this change.

As a result, as you articulate your perception of contrast in a given piece of music, do your best to include both explicitly metaphorical and more technical language. For example, you might label one section “excited and bouncy: lots of syncopation in simple meter, high register, fast tempo” and the next “subdued and depressed: slower tempo, drone, melody now in lower register, compound meter.”

Activity: Identify contrast

Goal: Develop a sensitivity to contrast when listening, and strengthen the general habit of paying attention to form.

Before you start: You’ll need some way to convey what you hear. This might be writing it down, drawing a form diagram, or simply discussing it with someone else.

Instructions: Play a song from the playlist below. Note the timing of any significant contrasts, and list factors in the music that contribute to that sense of change.


Suggest a song for this playlist!


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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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