The Basic Forms, Part 1

by John Braheny

part one | part two

No matter how creative and powerful lyrics or melodies may be by themselves, they take on a whole new life and a whole new power and magic when they're together. The song is greater than the sum of its parts. Whether you're a specialist at one or the other or a genius at both, an essential aspect of your craft is the understanding of how to make the parts fit together to create that magic. In the next few articles I'll cover the elements of songwriting that relate most to words and music as a whole.

The form, also called the "format" or "structure," is a song's basic shape or organization. In this and subsequent columns, I'll examine and explain:

A: how a song's basic components—verses, choruses, bridges and pre-choruses—work together to keep a listener's interest;
B: a song's basic forms and variations and their best uses;
C: how to analyze form so you can keep up with contemporary trends.

In the '50s and early '60s, there were hardly more than three different chord progressions (formulas) for any kind of popular music. If a song didn't conform to one of them, the odds were heavily against its becoming a hit, so the chord progression formulas perpetuated themselves. The 1-6m-4-5 (eg. C Am F G) progression spawned hundreds of hits like "26 Miles," "Silhouettes," and "Earth Angel." The twelve-bar blues format was also popular as it laid the foundations for rock and roll (e.g. E- 4 bars/A-2 bars/E-2 bars/B7-1 bar/A-1 bar/E-2 bars).

Those old progressions are familiar enough to make us feel at home with new songs and new artists. They're predictable—the chords, the words and the tunes are different, but the basic shape of the songs is the same, so we can learn them quickly. Some basic forms and variations will continue as they have for many, many years for a simple reason—they work.

People have an unconscious desire for symmetry, and the repetition of rhyme, melody and form satisfies that need. The repetition of form also sets up a degree of predictability that's reassuring and comfortable to a listener. It sets up a solid base on which we can create surprises without losing their attention.

The manipulation of form is a very important game to know. Classical musicians learn form as a basic part of their training, and for you, as a popular songwriter, to be able to make conscious choices about form is to be in control of your art. Once you understand the elements of form, what they do and why, you'll be able to challenge yourself to go beyond the familiar as you write your own songs.

The verse is the major vehicle for conveying the information of the song. Its other major function, both lyrically and musically, is to "set up" (or lead into) the chorus, the bridge, another verse, or a title/hook line. If it doesn't do one of those things well, it's not working. Verses have certain basic characteristics:

1. The lyric, from verse to verse, is different or contains substantial new information each time. It may contain elements of previous verses (such as the title line if the song has no chorus).
2. The melody is essentially the same each time we hear it, although there is room for variation and some flexibility to accommodate the lyric. The reason for keeping the melody the same is because that familiarity makes it easier for the listener to focus on the changing lyric.

Next: Pre-Chorus and Chorus.

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