The Case for Contrast

“There is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”

What is it that gives a song its sense of movement? How does a song move from beginning to end without becoming boring? The quote above, taken from – of all places – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, points to an answer that I’ve touched on at least once before: contrast. It is a powerful thing, coming in all manner of degrees and scales. A chorus and verse fit together in the same song because of their similarities, but it is the contrast of their differences that allow them to function side by side without appearing mundane. Songs on an album function in the same way; they are similar enough to fit together but their contrasting differences keep the album from being bogged down by monotony. On the small scale, you can see a concentrated injection of contrast in just about every pop-punk song ever written in the form of what I’ve come to call ‘the pop-punk pause’ – that little syncopated break that pop-punk bands sneak into their songs all over the place (as heard at the 1:03 mark of this hilariously dated video). And on a larger scale, our fascination with contrast is why we compare a band’s new release to their prior work, it’s why we compare one artist to another, or one genre to the next. Heck, just a few days ago we posted a great article about traditional emo, a genre whose central tenet is the dynamic contrast of quiet and loud.

These types of structural relationships pervade our ideas of music but we don’t think about them explicitly. Most of the contrast that we, as consumers of music, are exposed to is slight, or subtle, or under our control. We might think that the bonus mosh at the end of ‘Writing On the Walls‘ is awesome, but we’re not necessarily considering that part of its awesomeness is its contrast with the very quiet part that precedes it. Or at least we don’t think of it in those terms; we normalize the types of contrast that we have the most exposure to. This is why your mind isn’t blown every time a chorus moves into an outro, or every time that quiet-loud contrast occurs in an emo song. But this takes repetition. For the most part, the first time you hear an example of strong or unexpected contrast, it’s more jarring than it will be once you’ve heard the same instance ten, twenty, or one hundred times. Contrast makes music interesting, in part, because it requires effort for the listener to resolve it.

It would appear that listeners are not much interested in giving that effort any longer. Or at least the findings of a recent study point to that. A lot of online sources seem content to point out that with this study, science has shown that crotchety old people were right all along with their complaints that new music is all flavors of crap, and they stop there. But there’s more than that to consider. Admittedly, these findings (which essentially state that over the course of the last 50 some years, music has become increasingly louder and significantly more compositionally homogenous) are not perfect or all knowing, and they ought to be taken with at least a grain of salt. But still, the researcher makes a strong case and is certainly at least partially accurate. In following that train of thought, it would seem that – assuming you view variety as a beneficial asset – popular music has been locked into some bland Peter Gibbons-esque spiral where each new day is the worst day in popular music history. As much as everyone loves to feel validated in saying that popular music is awful, the realization that popular music has consistently and progressively gotten demonstrably worse over the last fifty years is not pleasant. Because, while the Internet has done wonderful things by creating space for a wide variety of musical acts, it would be foolish to ignore the hard truth that the commercial gigantism of popular music is still what drives the medium. It may be that no one outside of fifteen year-old girls will admit to liking pop music, but in reality it is their culture – the culture of pop music – that is central to keeping the entire framework of the business (venues, radio stations, record labels, etc.) afloat. There’s a reason Muse’s new record sounds like this and it has nothing to do with recent releases from Grizzly Bear or The Dear Hunter.

And a lot to do with…whatever exactly this is.

Though maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by Muse’s change. Rock music, much the chagrin of aging rockers, is one of the agents of this sonic change: rock was born, and able to grow, because of its ability to ably combine elements from a wide swath of genres; because of its ability to create an accessible, homogenous sound from a variety of differing styles. Rock music, it turns out, was at the heart of this change (until recently, when the genre disappeared off the face of the earth). I mean, Hell, Skrillex – of all people – used to front a hardcore rock outfit.


I’ve read a lot of science fiction in my lifetime, and one of the primary themes in the genre is the slow amalgamation of all things. As civilization marches forward, we’re told, we all end up speaking the same language, having the same blended multi-racial skin tone, and wearing the same silver jumpsuits. In the world of science fiction, this is progress. But in those stories, the protagonists – who often enough are unable to save the day – are relatable to us; they are heroes because they cling to the idea of difference, the idea of individuality – the idea of contrast. And when they fight for that contrast, well, they tend to fail. And I worry that in our ever homogenizing world, I’m equally doomed. That, unable to adapt to a world that’s speeding by and growing into something that I’m not a part of, I’ll simply be passed by or swallowed up – because I don’t want every pop band to sound like Justin Bieber and every indie band to sound like Radiohead…and then eventually Justin Bieber. Now, obviously the slow and steady march towards homogeniety hasn’t ruined music (yet), but it has sapped some of the joy from it, because to feel the power and beauty in something, you need a frame of reference, you need contrast. If all artists sound the same, then you can’t really enjoy one of them any more than any other.

I’m not sure what’s to be done about this, assuming that anything can be done. Support the artists you love, do your part to keep them alive and well…but beyond that, I’m not so sure. A lot of movements are cyclical and come back to where they began but there is a real sense of entropy here – as if things are moving forward on a linear, finite path towards some inescapable goal. Part of that feeling is surely just my generation’s inherent addiction to nostalgia; we endlessly desire things to be as they once were.  But while this desire is natural, it is also destructive, because by denying change we are embracing homogeneity. Hopefully the system rights itself and we don’t end up in some Orwellian musical dystopia, because this homogeniety is defeaning. And spreading. And where will we be if it continues to grow and everything ends up sounding the same? That opening Melville quote continues:

“Truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold…If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable…then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if…the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm.”

I need to hear different sounds in order to feel the warmth of the ones I love. I need the contrast. And I’m afraid it’s leaving us.

Banner image taken from

Graph image taken from Scientific Reports at

This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.

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