The Basic Forms, Part 2

by John Braheny

part two | part one

The varieties of this most popular form provide a maximum of chorus repetition and two or more verses to tell your story.

#1 #2 #3 #4 #5
A Verse A Verse B Chorus A Verse A Verse
B Chorus B Chorus A Verse A Verse B Pre-chorus
A Verse A Verse B Chorus B Chorus C Chorus
B Chorus B Chorus A Verse A Verse A Verse
A Verse C Bridge B Chorus B Chorus B Pre-chorus
B Chorus B Chorus B Chorus C Chorus

Version #1 gives you a maximum verse and chorus repetition. A potential problem is that, if you have a lot of melodic repetition within each verse or chorus, such as an 8-bar section made up of three 2-bar melodies with a slight variation in the fourth 2-bar melody line, you may have too much repetition. In that case, #2 with the substitution of a bridge for the third verse helps to break it up. Version #3 with the chorus first can give you more repetition of the chorus in a shorter time. The choice of whether to start with a chorus depends on the lyric development of the song. If it's important to generate a dynamic opening to the song, try the chorus first unless you want the verses to build interest and suspense and "set up" the chorus as a "payoff." Many '60s Motown hits used variations of this form. It's always a good idea to give it a test by switching the verse and chorus positions to see which works best.

Version #4 with two verses in front is also a much used form. Its workability depends on a very strong lyric continuity between the first and second verses to offset the delay in getting to the chorus. This is a much greater problem in a slow ballad than an up-tempo song because of the additional time it takes to get to the chorus. Every word has to propel the story forward. Repetition of information is deadly. If each of the two verses cover the same information in a different way and don't depend on each other, this may not be the best form to use since you should have a very important reason to delay the chorus. If you do need to use two verses, you may want to look for some arrangement devices or write a variation of the first verse melody to help sustain musical interest in the second verse. You could also consider using your title in the first line of the chorus to avoid even further delay in reaching the hook line.

Variations of this form opening with three verses (AAABAB or AAABAAB) are rare and the two examples that come to mind; The Eagles' "Lyin' Eyes" (Don Henley/Glen Frey) and Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler" (Don Schlitz) both have such exceptional lyric continuity that a chorus any earlier would be an unwelcome intrusion. Otherwise, you court boredom as much as you might with an AAA structure.

You'll also occasionally hear an AABAABB variation, particularly on up-tempo songs. Again, those choices will be different for each song but the guiding principle is that you don't delay the chorus unless you have another good way to sustain the listener's interest. An interesting variation is the beautiful message story song "Chain of Love" (Rory Lee/Johnny Barnett) recorded by Clay Walker that has such strong lyric continuity that it was a hit as an AABAABA with only two chorus repeats.

#5 offers the excitement of three different melodic segments. The pre-chorus is the segment that makes the difference here. This form works best in up-tempo songs where the three segments go by quickly. Many variations are possible with this form including repeated instrumental versions of any of the segments and instrumental breaks between segments. Here are some examples:

ABC ABCD ABCD, the "D" being a bridge with a new melody, with or without lyrics.

Remember that these are basic formats and each song is its own universe with different requirements based on the strengths of your lyric, groove, production and melodies. This information is meant to show that there are many ways to use song structures to hold your listeners attention by balancing predictability with surprise.

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