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Balance

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:

Verse
Chorus
Verse
Chorus
Bridge
Chorus

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 sequence.

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 the theme.

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 work.

Jeremy Cotton is an educator and performer, soon to be returning to the Cincinnati area.