Song Structure

Choosing A Form

by John Braheny

Even when your songs come spontaneously, there is a point at which you need to decide which form to use. Usually writers will come up with a single verse or chorus idea first. After that first flash of inspiration and an exploration of what you want the song to say, you'll need to have an idea of the type of form you'll want to use to help you say it more effectively. You may do that unconsciously, as a natural result of having listened to the radio all your life — you just feel where there ought to be a change without really making a conscious evaluation of the reasons. That approach often works just fine, but sometimes it doesn't, like a beginning guitar player who writes monotonous two chord songs because he only knows two chords instead of learning a few more chords. You have to remember that what you already know or feel about form could be limiting.

Another problem in choosing form by "feel" is the songwriting equivalent of "painting yourself into a corner." You might lock into a form that, by the time you've said what you wanted to say, has resulted in a five minute song that you really wanted to be three minutes. You're now faced with a rewrite that might include a restructuring of the whole song. It's much harder to get out of a corner like that than it is to set it up better in the beginning. Even if you do have to restructure the song because the form you chose didn't quite work — or you had another idea halfway through the song — the important thing is that you make those decisions on the basis of knowing your options.

So what do you consider in your choice of form? If you're starting with the music, tempo is a major factor in dictating the form. If it's an up-tempo song, you may need a form with many sections (like an ABCABCDC or AABABCB) to help you sustain musical interest. If it's a slow or mid-tempo ballad, you can use either the longer or shorter forms.

If you're starting from a lyric, the mood and subject matter will dictate the tempo of the music. In other words, "Genie In A Bottle" wouldn't work very well as a slow ballad, and the lyric to the Titanic theme "My Heart Will Go On" wouldn't be as effective in a fast dance song.

Tempo is also determined by the ease with which the lyrics can be sung. The problem usually arises when there are lots of words. If the tempo's too fast, you may tie knots in your tongue trying to get them all in. If you want a rapid-fire one-syllable-per-8th or 16th note lyric, you have to be extra careful that the words are easy to pronounce and sing together. It's a good idea to experiment with a metronome by singing the lyric against various tempo settings. Fewer words generally pose fewer problems, but the challenge is to phrase them in an interesting way against the rhythm. There are other tempo variables available, due to the fact that you can have a slow moving lyric and melody over a double-time groove.

Whichever way you choose, once you've set the tempo and determined how many lyric lines will be in each segment, you've begun to lock yourself into the form. If it takes one minute to get through a verse and chorus, and you're looking for a three-minute song, your options have already shrunk. You should also consider the amount of lyric needed to tell the story. Though it's always a good idea to condense, the AAA form gives you the most room to stretch lyrically, even though, as I mentioned earlier, it's not a good form from a commercial standpoint. Any up-tempo three or four-section form can give you plenty of lyric space with strong musical interest, particularly if you use pre-choruses for new lyric information each time. One-section (AAA) and two-section (ABABAB) forms at fast tempos, though they allow for a maximum of lyric information, can be melodically boring because the melodies repeat so often.

With a spare, condensed lyric, you have many options. You can lay them over either an up-tempo track or a slow ballad and, in either case, have plenty of room to accommodate the individual phrasing styles of different singers. You can use any form and insure a maximum amount of both repetition and musical interest. However, a spare lyric at a slower tempo has more of an obligation to be interesting. You're making the listener wait for that lyric to unfold, and it had better be worth the wait. The same is true of the music.

Eventually, like anything else, once you've worked with these forms, they'll become second nature to you. You'll also find that you will get yourself into problematic situations for which you will find creative solutions. A substantial amount of innovation in music is initiated by a need to find a graceful way out of a jam. If you already have a repertoire of solutions, you're ahead of the game.

Note that the above are generalizations to give you an idea of the possible variables and options. Ultimately, each song creates its own individual universe of possibilities.

About the Author:
This excerpt from John Braheny's book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting (2nd edition, 2002, Writers Digest Books) has been edited for length. It's available at bookstores everywhere. For info about John's critiquing and consulting services, go to


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