The Theory Of Appreciative Comparison

This article is based on a theory borrowed from Psychology, but adapted to the musical world. In Psychology, there is a theory that people can't fully appreciate something (or appreciate it more) until they have the complete opposite to compare it to. For example, if someone lives in the Midwest it is more probable that they will fully recognize and appreciate a warm sunny day. This is because they have been able to compare the great weather they are having now, with blizzards and ice storms a few months earlier. Where as a person living in California is less likely to fully recognize and appreciate beautiful weather because they are exposed to it constantly.

A common lyric used in many popular songs today wraps up the theory of Appreciative Comparison very well, "You don't know what you've got, until it's gone." This serves as a good example because the two extreme opposites are exposed to this person (having something great and having nothing at all); and because of that, they are able to compare the two and in turn are more appreciative of the thing they once had.

So what I will be doing in this article is adapting this theory to the Musical realm in a practical way so that we (the artists) can more effectively write music and in turn have the audience recognize, understand, and appreciate our music much more.

However, before we begin using this theory in a practical way and applying it to our own music, we must understand the basic elements of music and compare their extremes to discover the most efficient way of expressing a change in a musical idea/emotion/etc. Now on to the basics, there are 7 basic musical elements contained in most every song and I will list them below.

1. Melody
2. Harmony
3. Rhythm
4. Dynamics
5. Timbre
6. Form/Structure
7. Emotion

Melody refers to the arrangement of single tones that form a musical phrase or idea. This is usually the most "catchy" part of the song and is easily identifiable in most pieces. There are many extremes that we can use and compare with melody, but here is one example: A very consonant beautiful stepwise melody that moves slowly and gracefully. A very dissonant awkward leaping melody that moves fast and spontaneously. Each one of these melodies implies different things and is more effective musically in certain situations than the other.

Harmony is the chords played "underneath" a melody as an accompaniment or the sonorities created with the melody (if you are thinking and composing horizontally). Here is an example of two different ways you can use harmony. Strictly Diatonic and a simple progression that follows the rules. Pandiatonic progression which doesn't follow any rules at all, but still stays within the same key. Obviously this isn't the only difference or opposite that can be matched together, but it is a good example of how you can expand on the extremes of each element of musicality just by going into more detail. As with Melody, the different Harmonies chosen imply unique and separate ideas and emotions too.

Rhythm refers to the note durations (of any musical idea/phrase) and/or sequencing of these durations to form patterns. Rhythm is important and can be assigned to melodies, harmonies, themes etc. Here are two opposites: Predictable rhythmic pattern that repeats. Unpredictable and violent rhythmic pattern that is through composed and never repeats. Again, each of these has different meanings and is more effective at expressing certain emotions than others.

Dynamics refers to how loud or soft the music is at any one point or during a whole section/passage/entire piece. Dynamics can be assigned to a particular instrument, group of instruments, section, theme, melody, etc. These two opposites of Dynamics are very commonly used with great results musically: Very soft. Very loud. This could mean that one section of music is played very softly and immediately after the next section is very loud. Like the rest of the elements of music, each dynamic level and pattern has a different meaning.

Timbre refers to the sound quality produced by an instrument or group of them playing together. Here is an example on guitar: A Guitar playing Sul Ponticello (by the bridge) which creates a very metallic and thin tone. A Guitar playing Sul Tasto (on the neck) which creates a warm and thick sound quality. Other things that affect the Timbre of the music are: Articulations, Materials used to play the instrument with, etc. Each Timbre and Sound quality has a different meaning and can effectively be used to express that meaning musically.

Form/Structure refers to the way the musical piece (or sections of the whole) is organized. There are many ways you can form a piece of music and here is an example of two completely different ways of structuring a song: A very strict and balanced form which was intended and used throughout the whole composition process. A natural and intuitive form which was not pre-planned and is uneven in some sections. Each of these ways of forming your music is completely valid; however their use is more appropriate in some styles and situations than others.

Emotion refers to the feeling you want to express and the listener to understand throughout the entire piece, a passage, melody etc. Two different types of emotion that can be used in a piece of music (but are not complete opposites) are: Slightly irritated at something (like a bug flying in your face). Unbridled fury and about to erupt with passionate Anger. This example uses only one emotion, Anger, but the details are what separate them from each other. Using different elements of Music that I've explained above, will be able to express these different levels of "Anger Intensity."

That covers all of the 7 basic elements of music and hopefully you have gained insight into a new way of thinking and the amount of detail that can be placed into your song. However, before I leave you I will give an example of the way that this theory can be used musically.

1. Let's say you are writing a song and you have the first section of music composed. It is a dark but melodramatic song.

2. However, after this section you want to express Triumph over this darkness. You're not exactly sure where to start, but you want this to be a very expressive point in the music that everyone picks up on (try to make it as effective as possible).

3. This is where the "Theory of Appreciative Comparison" comes into play. By understanding this theory and using the technique (that I will describe in the Second Article), you will be able to more effectively express your musical ideas (especially the changes) and plan out a course of action on paper.

Now this might sound very structured and condemning to the intuitive nature of music; however the technique I will be explaining in the second article, allows a gradation of participation. It will be this way so that those of you who like to improvise for the majority of your musical compositions, will still find some use with the "Theory of Appreciative Comparison," and the following technique.

This concludes the first part of the "Theory of Appreciative Comparison," I hope this article has opened your musical mind and intrigued you to look forward to the next article in this 2 part series; which will actually deal with using the "Theory of Appreciative Comparison," to more effectively express what you have to say to the listener and in turn the listener will be able to more fully recognize and appreciate your music. Until next time, take care and keep composing fellow artists!

Kole is currently studying music composition and classical guitar at Indiana University; and will be transferring to GIT, in the fall of 2007. He also is completing his debut album "Exile" through Empire Records and teaches many students for guitar and songwriting.

He has also just finished co-authoring a great new instructional e-book for guitar titled "The Next Step: Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist," which can be found and purchased at