An essential element of nearly all good music is a balance between unity and contrast. This is one of the most important principles for novice composers to understand. While I’ve discussed this topic previously as it relates to improvisation, in this post we’ll explore how composers can abide by this principle by using standard tools for developing a composition using motives. (A motive, defined here, is the building block of most effective music.)
Unity – a sense of cohesion and structure – is accomplished with repetition. Without it, we poor humans wouldn’t be able to follow and appreciate what may seem to be a jumble of unconnected sounds.
Contrast – differentiation – is accomplished with change. A piece of music that stayed the same and never changed would become boring quickly!
While it might seem that composers would need to first focus on establishing unity, and then break it up with a little contrast – and when that gets old come back to creating unity – in truth the best compositions develop unity and contrast simultaneously. Fortunately, it’s not as hard as it sounds. Some of the most useful tools for developing a composition lend themselves to doing this.
In Chopin’s pithy Prelude #7 in A major, the composer employs rhythmic repetition in the development of the piece (that is, if a 16-bar piece can be said to “develop”!):
The rhythm of the motive is repeated eight times verbatim (the first four are shown above), which creates unity. But the motive’s pitches are subject to considerable alteration to fit the changing harmonies, which creates contrast. Presto! Unity and contrast come into being together.
J.S. Bach commenced the development of his Two-Part Invention No. 14 by using inversion (turning the contour of a sequence of notes upside down, so that an ascending 6th becomes a descending 6th, etc.):
The same pattern of intervals in the inverted motive establishes unity (along with an identical rhythm) but the fact that the intervals are now upside down establishes contrast.
Mozart’s very first composition, a Minuet and Trio (K. 1), employs a sequence, demonstrating that the toddler had a firm grasp on this principle, though his father Leopold’s guidance was surely helpful:
The identical rhythm and nearly-identical pitch relationships of the sequence establish unity, while the sequence’s different pitch level (a step lower for all notes) creates contrast.
With these examples from three of the greatest keyboard composers, we can rest assured that unity and contrast in music composition are both important and perhaps not as difficult to achieve as we might imagine.