Balance refers to the ratio between contrast and unity. Contrast consists
of all of the different parts and pieces you assemble, while unity refers to
the similarities (or exact copies) of the parts you assemble. Balance is
vital within music; if a song has too much unity or too much contrast, it
quickly becomes boring. I will give you a first example that (hopefully)
everyone can relate to.
I. WITHIN A SONG
Happy Birthday is one of the most famous songs ever written. It will
serve as our first example of how a song can simultaneously posses both
unity and contrast. Here are the words:
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday dear (whoever)
Happy birthday to you.
Note first the lyrics. The first, second, and last lines are identical
lyrically. The words are exactly the same. Note the contrast the third
line provides-it breaks the monotony of repeating the same line over and
over again. Check out the melody: as you sing the song, the unified lyrics of
the first, second, and third lines are counteracted by the fact that melody
is different each time.
Contrast and unity are also affected within the greater structure of a song.
Many songs consist of some variation upon this structure:
The repetition evident in the chorus (and even the verse sections) provides
ample sense of unity and continuity. The alternation of verse and chorus
provides contrast. The pattern of verse/chorus alternation provides unity.
The insertion of a bridge section provides contrast in that particular
II. WITHIN AN IMPROVISATION
The presence of an improvisation in a song (or an instrumental section)
contributes to the balance of unity and contrast also. If the instrument(s)
merely restate the melody, then contrast exists in the condition in which
the melody is stated, while unity is preserved through the familiarity of
If a solo is improvised, the new melody (which is spontaneously created)
provides contrast, while the familiar chord changes and rhythms of the
accompaniment instruments provide unity. Within an improvised solo, a good
soloist will present new ideas and reiterate old ones-in this way even the
solo has a balance. Check out Jimi's solo on "Come On, pt. III" (from
Electric Ladyland). His solo repeats themes and introduces new ones at
appropriate times so that his solo seems to evolve organically and
logically. Also check out any Grant Green recording for the use of
repeated motives providing unity, or Wes Montgomerys recording of
"California Dreaming" for another example of evolving and balanced solo
Jeremy Cotton is an educator and performer, soon to be returning to the Cincinnati area.