How To Write Songs Like The Pros Using Unity And Variety

Unity and variety are very important and foundational concepts which will apply to every area of your songwriting.

Ultimate Guitar
Whenever you sit down to write music, do you have a hard time creating something that sounds exactly how you want it to? Do you want to have the ability to accurately express yourself in your songs? Would you like to know how the pros write music that sounds so good and why your songs don't seem to reach the same level in quality? No matter who you are, you will have a difficult time at some point writing songs that accurately express your ideas. This is common for all songwriters. However, you can drastically improve the quality of your songs by learning how to effectively use unity and variety in your music. Unity and variety are very important and foundational concepts which will apply to every area of your songwriting. As soon as you have mastered the ability to use them, your songwriting will improve by leaps and bounds and you will gain the power to write music in a much more expressive manner.

What Is "Unity And Variety" In Music?

Whenever someone listens to a song, they are judging how good the music is based on the creative use of unity and variety by the songwriter. This happens either consciously if the person has prior musical understanding or subconsciously in the case of most casual music listeners. 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 melodic idea is repeated over and over with little or no variation. [overused unity] 2. The different sections of a song are repeated many times and start to become monotonous. [overused unity] 3. The songwriter writes song lyrics that utilize very predictable ideas that follow clichs with little or no innovation [overused unity] 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. [overused variety] 5. The music contains many notes that are not "in key" and don't seem to have any clear function in the song; taking away the music's sense of direction. [overused variety]

How You Can Use Unity And Variety In A Balanced, Effective Manner

If you want to start writing songs that are more creative and expressive, you must (of course) understand not only how unity and variety are misused but how to use them effectively to engage the interest of those who will listen to your music. In order to do this, you will need to learn how to both create and change the expectations in the mind of your listener. The basic idea of this is that you use "unity" to build up one set of expectations and then add in a sudden change by using "variety" to present the listener with something they had not anticipated. This idea is simple on the surface, but its complexity comes in the fact that you can apply it to literally any musical element or situation. 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. Since unity and variety are not exclusive only to music, you can learn a lot about it by looking into other non-musical outlets. To help you gain a better understanding of this important concept, I have provided a list of examples outside of the musical realm that use unity and variety in an effective manner. Additionally, I have made an effort to tie them together with music to help give you ideas that you can use right now to enhance your songwriting:

Unity And Variety In... Playing 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 To Use This Idea To Write Better Songs:

By "changing speed" in your music, you can effectively throw your listener a curve ball and engage their interest through the element of surprise. One way you can do this is by writing a song in a slow tempo and creating a section within that song that either speeds up the tempo or uses "faster" note rhythms. For example, consider the song "One" by Metallica that uses a slow/moderate tempo throughout until the end of the song where a drastic contrast is created.

Unity And Variety In... Writing A Script For A Movie:

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 To Use This Idea To Write Better Songs:

One highly effective way of changing emotions within a music listener is to use the "Picardy Third". This refers to the basic idea of altering the "quality" of a chord at the end of a section in a piece of music to provide contrast and convey an different mood. In other words, if your song was mostly in a minor key, rather than ending it on the main minor chord in the key (as the listener would expect), you can end it on the major version of that chord instead. For example, ending on A major instead of A minor. This will create a totally different mood in the listener and provide a heavy contrast to the rest of the song.

Unity And Variety In... Working Out To Gain Muscle:

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 To Use This Idea To Write Better Songs:

To make a correlation here between music and the weight lifting example I mentioned above, I am going to describe a common, yet highly effective formula used in songwriting. If you have ever listened to a ballad, you may have noticed the following pattern: The beginning 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. Similar to suddenly increasing the weight resistance during your work out, this common ballad formula first creates a pleasing soft feeling for the listener and then provides a sudden contrast with the percussion instruments (which often make the music louder overall) in order to continue to engage the listener and provide a sense of growth in the song direction. This transition helps the song proceed before the novelty of the repeated sections wears off.

Unity And Variety In... Painting A Picture:

While painting a picture, you can effectively direct the person who is viewing your art to notice a specific idea using unity and variety. One way to do this is utilize a contrast between light colors and dark colors. For instance, imagine a painting that contains some kind of stereotypical depiction of "Heaven and Hell". This painting takes place from inside a bunch of dark caves with various pits of fire, demons and other monstrosities. As you look "up" from the bottom of the cave toward the very top, you can see a clear blue sky in the distance with the sun, clouds, angels and so forth. If you are viewing this picture, you will have no choice but to notice the contrast between the mostly dark elements in the painting (unity) and the small patch of light with bright colors that represents being outside of the cave (variety). This effective use of unity and variety causes you to think about why the contrast was created (even before you start thinking about the actual idea being presented itself).

How To Use This Idea 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.

Unity And Variety In... Making A Joke:

Well, it may not be very funny to get into the technical aspects of 'why' making jokes works to get people to laugh... but for the sake of songwriting, I am willing to make the sacrifice :) 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 To Use This Idea To Write Better Songs:

Similar to a punch line in comedy, the chorus in your song is generally considered to be the most crucial part of the entire piece of music itself. One highly effective technique that songwriters use to add value to the chorus is to change it in some way during the final time when it is repeated. One way that you can use this idea is to repeat the chorus as usual; then during its final repeat, move all the notes up by a half step. This will give your chorus a new, refreshing feeling and help you to finish the music strong. 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 about how you can consistently make your music sound the way you want it to by downloading this free eBook on how to write better music and solve common songwriting challenges. About The Author: Ryan Buckner is a songwriter, shred guitarist and guitar teacher in the Oklahoma City area. He currently runs an instructional songwriting website that helps musicians learn how to use creative songwriting techniques, write song lyrics and writing and express themselves through music.

60 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Hence My Name
    his is a great lesson, but this thing is actually easier said than done
    Thanks for reading. If you have any questions feel free to ask Also, as always thanks to everyone for taking the time to read. If you have any feedback and/or a question, I'll be glad to see it. -Ryan Buckner
    Fantastic article! Pretty much everything you need to consider when you're writing music is right here.
    I agree with what you're saying, but what song writers are you referring to? Just about everything out there (even non-pop songs) seem to be very much a formula and predicable... or so friggin' repetitious. If you don't believe me, then here's my number, so call me maybe. And people wonder why I like instrumental music. Put in a singer and rarely will you get variety. I'm sure many will give examples to the contrary... my point is dealing with 'most' music out there.
    That's cause most music is pop (which is by definition accessible), or pop-based. Simple beats and standard verse-chorus-verse structure with something that will be catchy. It's not really meant to be analyzed and picked at but just enjoyed and that's fine. But then there is plenty of music out there that's following less formulaic structures and styles. They have their own purposes and their own audiences and even their own cliches to follow or steer away from.
    The problem rarely lies in the structure of a song. The verse-chorus-verse etc formula has been used for hundreds of years successfuly. Any other formula, even in more complex/progressive songs you might come across, is usually a variation of that initial formula. If your song sounds unoriginal or not enjoyable enough that probably has to do with melody and rhythm.
    Not true. Verse Refrain Verse might be more accurately put, but even that is far from Verse Chorus Verse, imo. 32-Bar Pop is more the overused formula until the 50s. I do agree that it's not usually the structure, though.
    I deliberately use notes that are not "in key", and you know what, they actually work.
    The author only mentioned using several notes that are out of key 1-3 in a riff usually isn't that bad. If it sounds good to you, use it. I use out of key notes all the time, and people love my songs. Just go for it.
    great article. never even thought of songwriting that way, but I guess it is obvious, it being an art.
    Great lesson, I've never actively thought of these concepts when writing my own songs, but the best ones I've written seem to have unity and variety in balance with each other.
    Today I learned a lot about songwriting, baseball, weightlifting, jokes and painting... I should say: Thank you...
    Any examples of a good balance you might care to add? Obviously "pop" music is a tried and tested formula across the whole of a song, but this article doesn't seem to be about song structure ABCs. I'd put "Black Hole Sun" up there to start with.
    good article- i was first introduced to this concept by my theory professor in college and found it to be a very profound lesson. i have since used the exact same lesson in my own teaching. it is simply HOW SONGS WORK. to take this a step further i just wanted to add one thing. : unity creates an expectation in the listener through repetition. the listener hears the parts repeating and at a certain point expects the pattern to start over again. our job as song writers is to decide when to meet the expectation (unity) or defeat the expectation (variety) in order to write something engaging. this can be done on a small scale level ( developing a vocal melody) or on a large scale level (order of the parts- i.e. verse, chorus, etc.)
    I have a question... I wrote a really cool verse the other day. But, when I play it together with other riffs I wrote, it sounds like the same thing over and over and over. All of the notes are 8th notes, but I found a cool way to use a gallop and add 16 and 32nd notes in there with the 8th notes. I kept the same note pattern though, just made it quicker. Would you say that this following advice from this article?
    Thanks for asking. From what you say, it sounds as if you are creating variation in the rhythm by using a "gallop" and other note durations mixed in with the 8th notes. That indeed would be utilizing the concepts in this article. In this case, the 8th notes = unity and the other rhythms = variety. Consider your intentions for adding in the non-8th notes... it was to "add variety" correct?
    Thank you so much for posting this lesson. it really made me think about writing and creating music in a different perspective.
    wow...words cant describe how much i learned from this...ive learned more from this article than i have learned all year in school. thank you. so much.
    Good article, some of the examples are a bit off and the idea of the picardy third just being a tonal change is a bit wrong. It's a specific kind of third that was added to the end of songs in a minor key so that they could resolve to a chord which doesn't sound ugly in organ music. Splitting hairs, I know, but the history of its function at least as important as the function itself.
    Thanks for reading and the reply! As far as the picardy third goes, the main idea of the function of the technique is covered adequately in this article. You are right that historically the Picardy Third refers to raising the minor 3rd in a chord to make it major; however, the same idea is also used in modern music in reverse (making a minor into major) with similar affect. That said, you are incorrect about its function. The Picardy Third was used historically for 'expressive' purposes NOT because of its voice leading utility. For example, the difference between resolving a V to i vs. a V - I is not considered substantial in terms of part writing. I know this well, because I have taught music theory and spent a great deal of time discussing part writing/counterpoint and functionality.
    Carl LOG
    I have used that idea before after hearing it in some music. A good example is the soundtracks for Total War strategy games.
    Also a song by The Devil Wears Prada on their With Roots Above and Branches Below.. however I forgot the name.. these are the ones I remember.. It's not something you should try using in every song it's just when you are aiming for that dark, mysterious maybe mood.. I think my favourite chord progression with the picardy 3rd is the 3rd chord (major) then 4th chord (minor) and going to chord 1 but instead going minor which would mean the third is same as root note for chord 3, you use a major chord which makes the third go inbetween the root notes of chord 3 and 4. Try it and you'll like it!
    everytime you spam about bing30, your really just jerking off jesus with a razor blade glove. you hate jesus.
    My GOSH im spechless which normally i hardly am, i would rate that 1000/10 its so damn good thankyou for posting that.... That was so great i shall give you an online hug haha 'SQUUEEEEZZZZZEEEEE'
    Great article, it finally helped me put words to structural ideas that I've given thought to. I've also noticed some of your examples in songs that I've listened to.
    I think a prime example of unity and variety in lyrics is the song Be calm by Fun. Awesome lesson by the way! Keep 'em coming!
    Huh, sounds like my teacher. Except she uses DASISUCCRIFPHSSS and DIRT.
    Infact can you please rate my song i made up called Hey? I would appreciate it if you did thankyou!!! but you dont have to if you dont want to... its in my blogs!!!
    1. A melodic idea is repeated over and over with little or no variation. [overused unity]...or another word for that, Strophic Song e.g. Paint It Black...just really look into song forms/styles etc if you want to write with different styles/forms, there isn't a quick fix for this stuff, just look at a song style you like, literally copy it with different words as perfect practise. You learn to use power chords, by playing songs with power chords.
    you started an interesting discussion, and i like your use of the phrase unity and varitey, but your points about overusing are wrong, nearly all of them, and your examples of songs are poor and boring. It is soo cliche , for example, to have a slowish song, and then go fast at the end. in fact i dislike any song that 'surprisingly' goes from one extreme tempo to another, as its boring, predictable and overused. One by Metallica being no exception. subtltly is the name of the game. I didn't even bother to read the parts where you relate it to sports of whatever, as it seemed pointless, and you were overstretching to prove your point. i will say that it is an interesting article, and did make me think though, so i suppose it was kind of a cool article
    Thanks for reading. However, I'm not sure what to make of your comment here. It seems to be mostly contradictory to me. You say that the article was interesting and made you think. But then you say that you didn't read a great deal of it (the analogies). You also seem to think that information in the article is "wrong", but have not supplied any reasoning for your claim (only your opinion about what is boring/cliche).
    I thought your basic concept of Unity and Variety was interesting, however I don't think your examples substantiated the theory well well. Even though I didn't agree with it it was still an interesting read, compared to other UG articles, and it was a well thought out and written article. your points - A melodic idea is repeated over and over with little or no variation. [overused unity] - this isn't very specific. are you talking about riffs in rock and roll. are you talking about same melodys being used for vocals and a solo with an instrument. Are you talking about club music that repeats the same lines.... i dunno, but all the examples I just gave i don't think are overused given there context. Note rhythms are changed frequently in a way that has no obvious relation to the music. - so when you say it has no obvious relation to the music, you mean it sucks??? again seems very non specific. so sometimes its alright to change rhythm and sometimes it not depending on what sounds good. yeh...great tip that... The music contains many notes that are not "in key" and don't seem to have any clear function in the song; taking away the music's sense of direction. - as they say in pirates of the carribean - they not rules more like guidlines. a key is just a guideline, so you can use what ever notes you like as long as they sound good. If they don't sound good then the issue is the song is bad, not because they are using notes outside of akey, but because the song is bad itself. you can pretty much string any notes together and there will be some key which they all fall into anyone. So simply by using notes outside of a key that is not overused variety. the article seems to be saying... if you do this, and it sounds bad then it is ...(whatever overused or underused something) but if it sounds good that its okay to use. and who are you to say what is overused and underused. this article at the end of the day is one big opinion fest, which is fine, but don't think people will not agree with you, because there is a lot to disagree with in this article. also, are you serious about that key change crap. that has got to be one of the worst, least imaginative tips ever. people on bloomin eurovision use that!!! a tip to everyone, never never to usw a half step, or whole step key change at the end!!!! never!!! never!!! unless you think you can make it sound good
    Carl Hungus
    Virtually everything you just stated is pure opinion. I would like to see an example of how your songwriting skills are superior to people who make music for a living. The idea of a song starting off slow and then building up to a climax has been around as long as music. Its all about the talent behind the concept not the other way around.
    Rubbish article. You're taking away the essence of songwriting, and in fact, music, which is...feeling. Can't write what you're feeling if you make a damn science project out of it!
    Do you know what creates that "feeling" that music has? Theory can explain that. Just because someone uses theory does not mean they have no "feeling" (whatever that even means). Someone who has a firm grasp of theory doesn't have to guess when choosing notes. They know what each note sounds like and what "feeling" will come from them. There's nothing wrong with playing by ear, and pretty much all the best technical players can do that to some level, but to say that being able to analyze music removes feeling is moronic.
    this writer doesn't seem to like to respond to fair criticisim so your wasting your time. if he were smart he would listen to what people are saying, and incorporate it into his next article, and talk about the creative element more, then a set of limited rules, that are so lose with so many exceptions, with very few good examples, that are so open to interpretation that he needn't have bothered
    These columns should be banned. they only serve to put walls around young would be creative musicians
    Most aspiring songwriters have a very hard time getting started. Sometimes trying to emulate and trying to follow some sort of guideline can help someone get going until they're comfortable breaking off on their own sound.
    How does this put walls around creativity? There are no rules in this column, only philosophical ideas about writing music. All the article gives advice on is to find the right balance of unity and variety, and that is not a "creative wall." No where did it state that there was only one way to balance, it only says that you should find a balance.
    I think that a GREAT example is The Ministry of Lost Souls by Dream Theater. Changing speed: Song changes a lot, passes from normal speed, to slow, to fast in the instrumental section. The "surprise" is there Changing instruments: Happens A LOT through the song. Moving steps up: The first solo repeats at the end, then one step up and the another step up. I gotta say, man this article is probably one of the best music article I have ever read. Added it to favorite pages!!
    Training your ears over different chord progression and trying different melodies and harmonies over them is the way to start getting into songwriting. Then it comes the also important part of arrangement and general song structure which is analyzed pretty good here i'd say.
    Really useful article, but make sure to put more examples in: Drums in 2nd verse: Skin and bones (Foo Fighters)
    5. The music contains many notes that are not "in key" and don't seem to have any clear function in the song; taking away the music's sense of direction. that one there i do not agree with, that is horrible wrong i feel like raging but i rather not waste my time, i think these random notes help show the musicians sense of direction not the opposite, this is why i never look up lessons on how to write these articles are always so opinionated
    Um it doesn't say you CAN'T use out of key notes. It just says if you use too many that don't make musical sense then you might want to simplify. If the notes make musical sense then go for it. If they are just there for no apparent reason they can just sound off. NOTE where he says DON'T SEEM TO HAVE ANY CLEAR FUNCTION. Even the most technical players who use tons of out of key notes (Marty Friedman for example) still use this concept. They choose the right balance. Some will use more notes than others, but they still won't just play notes at random. They have to have a purpose.