How To Make Your Songs Sound Better Using Unity And Variety

Author: Ed Cupler


Have you ever wondered how to write songs that have the same level of quality as the ones written by your favorite musicians? Many songwriters have a hard time writing music that songs good compared to the music they listen to on a daily basis and become frustrated. The truth is, in order for you to start writing music that you feel really good about you will first need to develop a good understanding of various foundational songwriting ideas. One of the most important of these ideas is the concept of “unity and variety”. Unity and variety are both crucial for keeping your songs balanced and interesting throughout. Learn more about unity and variety by reading through the rest of this article and using the songwriting tips and advice given below.

Defining “Unity And Variety” And Using It In Your Music

Any time someone listens to a piece of music they are either consciously or subconsciously listening for a balance between unity and variety in the music. In fact, your ability to creatively use these elements will play a major role in the response you get from your listeners (as well as the overall quality of the music in general).

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So what is unity and variety in music? “Unity” refers to the idea of repetition, staying the same or using similar ideas during a piece of music while “variety” refers to creating a sense of novelty in a song by adding new ideas, patterns or musical elements. By maintaining a solid balance between both unity and variety, you can effectively engage the listener and keep them interested in your music for a long time. A good balance will essentially utilize the “safe” comfortable feeling of repeated ideas while also mixing in the surprise of new ideas to add tension and interest. If you have ever had the experience of writing a song that seems to lack interest or doesn’t transition well from section to section; you most likely have a poor balance of unity and variety in one or more elements of your music. In fact, many people struggle with this problem. For example, here are various ways that songwriters write music that is “unbalanced” by using too much or too little unity or variety:

  1. A melody is repeated many times note for note with little variance = lots of unity/no variety
  2. The different sections of a song are repeated many times and start to become monotonous = lots of unity/no variety
  3. The words used in the lyrics of the song are highly conventional, based mostly off of clichés = lots of unity/no variety
  4. Note rhythms are changed frequently in a way that has no obvious relation to the music. For example, if a musician uses songwriting software and simply programs in a bunch of random note rhythms without thinking things out = lots of variety/no unity
  5. The music sounds really “strange” due to an over abundance of “out of key” notes that have no specific reason for being in the music = lots of variety/no unity

Find out why your music sometimes doesn’t quite sound like you want it to sound by solving common songwriting mistake with this eBook about creating good songs.

Creating An Effective Balance Between Unity And Variety In Music

To learn how to write songs that are highly expressive, it is useful to understand how unity and variety are commonly misused (see above) and how they are effectively used to make a song more interesting. The most crucial reason that unity and variety are useful is that knowing how to use them gives you the ability to set up and change the expectations of those who are listening to your music… unity is what you will use to set up your listener’s expectations and variety is what you will use to add tension and interest into the music by surprising them with something new. The formula here is really quite simple; however, should not be taken lightly as it applies to literally all aspects of songwriting.

The truth is, unity and variety is not exclusively used only in the realm of songwriting. This idea of balance in musical ideas or patterns exists because of our universal ability to perceive symmetry in nature. In basic evolutionary thinking, our mind has adopted the idea of seeing symmetrical patterns as something noteworthy because we have been in continual interaction with other animals over the course of our existence. This symmetry for one reason or another has provided us with distinct benefits to help us locate food, avoid our enemies and take advantage of other useful opportunities for survival.

Considering that unity and variety are not entirely “music exclusive”, I have listed several instances below of how unity and variety are used in areas outside of music in order to help you gain a better perspective on the subject. Additionally, I have included some ways that you can use the information in the topics below to improve your songwriting:

How Unity And Variety Is Used In: Sports

Sports and other games that involve competition are ripe with examples of unity and variety. Take for instance: baseball. In this sport, the essential most important part of the competition comes down to the pitcher versus the batter. Both sides have various opportunities to utilize information in their head in order to ‘best’ the other side. From the side of the pitcher, there is one crucial concept that must be understood and mastered in order to achieve success: The pitcher must know “how to change the batter’s expectations”. To do this, the pitcher needs to change the location of where he throws the ball and/or change how fast he throws the ball. By combining these two together, he can successfully increase his chances of getting the batter out. One way to do this is to consistently throw “fastballs” to make it so the batter must be on his toes and ready to react as soon as possible. Once the batter is in this state of mind, the pitcher suddenly changes the batters expectations (“adds variety”) by throwing a pitch that is about 11 miles per hour slower than the previous pitches. This change causes the batter to miss the ball with his swing because he ‘expected’ the pitcher to continue using the same pitches as before.

How Can You Use This Information To Write Better Songs?

By creating a certain expectation of “speed” for your listener, you can add a lot of interest into your songs by essentially “throwing them a curveball” and slowing things down. So, if you are writing an upbeat song with a faster tempo, try writing a section into your music where the tempo slows down. This will really stand out and cause the listener to pay attention to the musical ideas in this section.

How Unity And Variety Is Used In: Movies

Have you ever seen a movie that has a surprise “twist” ending? This technique is a very effective way that movie writers can turn your favorite hero or bad guy into a totally new character; in the process changing your entire perception around him/her. There is certainly an art to doing this and the more unexpected the twist is, the more you will be surprised (and in effect tell your friends to go check out the movie for themselves).

How Can You Use This Information To Write Better Songs?

The Picardy Third, a technique made popular during the classical period, is great way to express “plot twist” in a song. This technique essentially comes down to changing a single note in a chord during your song (usually a chord at the end of a section) to change it from what was expected to something entirely unexpected. Most commonly this means changing the final chord in a song that was mostly in a minor key from minor to major. For instance, if you are in the key of A minor, rather than using an A minor chord to finish the song, you would use an A “major” chord. This creates a very interesting change in mood that feels very surprising to the listener.

How Unity And Variety Is Used In: Building Muscles

If you have any experience with weight lifting and muscle gain, you understand that your body becomes used to the same exercises if you repeat them enough. As a result, your muscle gains will diminish until you can find a way to surprise your body by forcing it to do something it is not “prepared” for. This surprise can come in the form of suddenly adding in new exercises that you aren’t used to and/or using a strategy to gradually increase weight resistance over time.

How Can You Use This Information To Write Better Songs?

To tie in this concept to songwriting I am going to describe a commonly used approach by musicians who write ballads in pop/rock music. Chances are, most of the ballads you have listened to in your lifetime have followed a similar process to the following:

The first part of the song uses only vocals combined with other instruments like guitar, piano, synthesizer etc… but NO percussion. The song then proceeds through the verse and chorus without percussion. Then, after the chorus has finished for the first time and the verse repeats, the percussion comes in. This provides a sense of surprise, contrast and direction the music.

The reason that this formula is used so often is that it sets up the expectations for a soft, easy listening ballad and then suddenly contrasts this with loud drums that come in during the second verse. Like with adding weight resistance to spark growth in your muscles, this formula adds in a sudden shock to the listener to gain their attention and set the foundation for new growth in the direction of the music.

Learn about writing the verse, chorus and other sections in a song with this free mini course on how to write the parts of a song.

How Unity And Variety Is Used In: Comedy

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 Can You Use This Information 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”.

How Unity And Variety Is Used In: Visual Art

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 Can You Use This Information 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.

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.

Learn more ways to overcome obstacles in your songwriting and start creating good songs.

About the author:

Ryan Buckner is an accomplished guitarist and songwriter who has been writing instructional material about guitar playing, musical composition and music theory since 2006. He helps musicians worldwide learn how to write a song step by step on his songwriting website.

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