Song Structure

Songwriting Structure

By Michael Anderson

struc•ture
noun: an organization of interrelated parts functioning as an orderly whole
verb: to organize or arrange something so that it works as a cohesive whole


The structure of a song is the framework the song is built on, the bones, the skeleton. I normally look at two basic forms with students, the classic American Pop or Country form of verse / chorus / bridge, and what I unscientifically refer to as the classic "early Beatle British Pop" form of a/a/b/a — both of which can incorporate infinite variations within the basic forms.

This article breaks down the elements of the classic American Pop / Country form in a very basic way. I will deal with the other in another foundational article.

The following is a very basic overview of the most vital points you'll need to know in order to structure your song in a more or less classic American Pop song form.

Length

These days, Pop songs are generally around three and half to four minutes in length. With the consolidation of radio stations and centralized programming, airtime is more valuable that ever. So the compact Pop song form is alive and well as a standard in the radio and record industry.


The chorus is your focus; it's the part of the song the listener should remember. The chorus is the point of the song, the emotional and musical climax, and it is where the whole song is delivered.

Intro

The intro is where your song is set up; it tells the story of your song before the first lyric starts. There is a feel to a good intro.

The elements of a song, the groove, the feel, the musical texture, and the atmosphere are all introduced in the intro. There is an attention-grabbing confidence to a good intro that makes you want to hear what is coming next.

However, one way to lose listeners' attention is to bore them with an overly long intro. Set your song up and get to it.

Verse

The verse is the body of your song. The purpose of the verse is to tell the story. Even if the actual language is impressionistic, the main point is the communication. A contemporary song might be loaded with imagery, or it can be conversational. But the story line—what you are trying to say—should be communicated in a clear way.

Ideally, the story line and structure should also build so there is some kind of dramatic arc that keeps listeners engaged. Mere observation can be interesting, but if it doesn't tell a story that develops it will get boring. Boring is a big mistake to make in a three-and-a-half-minute song.

The verse generally goes about 45 seconds when there is no pre-chorus. In songs with a pre-chorus, the verse is generally closer to 30 seconds long.

Pre-Chorus

A pre-chorus is a building section that comes after the verse and before a chorus. It usually has a dynamic ramping-up quality that leads into the chorus and provides a transition.

If a pre-chorus is used in a song, the song's structure will usually not need a bridge to provide another section of contrast and relief.


Lyrically and musically, the bridge can come from a different point of view and tell another aspect of the story in a way the verse and chorus maybe can't without losing continuity and focus.

Chorus

The chorus is your focus; it's the part of the song the listener should remember. The chorus is the point of the song, the emotional and musical climax, and it is where the whole song is delivered.

I have found the one-minute mark of the song to be about ideal for getting to the chorus. In a three-minute song that gives you three choruses.

The chorus ideally should have the hook/title prominently showcased. It may repeat the hook/title as a first and last line, or repeat it throughout the chorus (but that's a less contemporary device).

Dynamically the chorus should have a lift effect; a melodic, sonic, and emotional feel that brings the section to another level and separates it, gives it contrast in comparison to the verse, pre-chorus or bridge.

Bridge

The bridge is a change up section, usually following after the second chorus. It's designed to provide some contrast and an opportunity to try something different within the context of the songs vibe.

Lyrically and musically, the bridge can come from a different point of view and tell another aspect of the story in a way the verse and chorus maybe can't without losing continuity and focus.

Instrumental Break (or Solo)

Most contemporary song forms will include an instrumental break or instrumental solo of some kind. This usually comes after the second chorus or bridge.

The instrumental break can use the basic form of the verse, which then leads nicely into a chorus. Alternately, the break could be over the chorus structure, which I have found solo instrumentalists seem to prefer because it gives them a chance to vamp on the emotional high point of the song. It can also be very effective for the instrumental break structure be a slight variation of a verse or chorus, or combination of the two.

Outro

The outro of a song, the section after the last chorus, or the repeat of the last chorus, is a let it rip section that can take a song to its conclusion with a flourish. Usually the outro is a chorus or a variation of it that keeps repeating and fading to the end, or more popular in a contemporary sense, the outro can be a slight variation or new section with a cold ending.



This article was excerpted from Michael Anderson's "Little Black Book of Songwriting" available at michaelanderson.com or Amazon.com.










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