In continuing our series on songwriting, this article will deal with song structure. Specifically, I’ll show examples of common song structures, their various components, and tips on arranging the structure of your song. (To read the previous article in this series, see: How to Write a Song)
Song Structure | Song Components
In order to understand the arrangement of a song structure, you must first examine the components that define the given structure. The most common components in modern music are:
An intro, or introduction, is exactly that; an introduction to your song. It serves to prep the listener for things to come, build anticipation for the components that follow, and foreshadow themes used later in the song. It can range in length from non-existent to quite lengthy, depending on the style of music, the taste of the composer, and the desired pace/flow of the song. In terms of song structure, an intro is used when you want to build up to the “meat” of your song, as opposed to jumping right into the action.
Songwriting Pro Tip #1:
If you’re composing for a more commercial market, or just want to target a broader audience, be wary of long intros. The average listener is going to give you 10-20 seconds max to grab their attention. If you’re song hasn’t started to hint at a point, or doesn’t seem to be going anywhere yet, they’ll move on to something else. You can always combat this by having a “radio friendly” single with a shortened intro, and an “album cut” with the full intro, if you feel it’s too good to give up.
The verse is the workhorse of your song. It’s where you tell a story, set up a theme, or frame a picture. This is often the part where the listener begins to learn what the song is about. Here you use your lyrics to communicate your ideas; set the listener’s mind in motion so that you can drive your point home later in the song. As for the song structure, the verse can also serve as a divider, breaking up high-energy moments or repetitive refrains and giving the listener a short break.
The chorus is, generally, the vessel for the “hook” of your song. This component is usually repeated in several different parts of the song, and typically contains a refrain of some sort. This is where you can really drive the point, main idea, or message of your song home. While a song structure can take on practically any form, this will most commonly be the “high-energy” part of the song; the climax the other components build up to.
Songwriting Pro Tip #2
Listener experiences can vary greatly depending on the style of writing, but the chorus is generally the most memorable part of your song. Once you’ve written a chorus for your piece, take a step back to examine it. Imagine that a listener was only able to hear 30 seconds of your song, and this chorus is what they heard. Would it make them want to come back for more?
The aptly named bridge connects sections of your song. This component, perhaps more so than all the others, is entirely optional. With regards to song structure, the bridge typically falls towards the end, although it could be used anywhere. The contents of the bridge are largely dependent on where it is used, or more specifically which components it’s connecting. More generally, it’s a place where you can experiment with musical ideas or variations on your main theme. Key changes, guitar solos, vocal styles that differentiate from the rest of the song, alternate melodies, counter melodies, or harmonies; it’s all fair game here.
Songwriting Pro Tip #3
The bridge provides you with lots of room for experimentation and artistic expression. It’s important, however, to be aware of the “musical journey” you’ve taken the listener on. A great bridge can really spin the brain and open up a whole realm that was unexpected, but if it isn’t resolved well at the end, the song can end feeling like it spun out of control and hit a wall. As expertly as you shoot them into space, be equally good at bringing them back down to where you started. This can be the difference in your song being a thrill ride or a car wreck.
You guessed it, this is the ending of your song. It can be basically non-existent (an abrupt ending) or a long fade-out. It all depends on the overall design of your particular song structure. You can use this component to squeeze in a few more shots of your refrain or hook, repeat a memorable or striking line from a verse, or just let the instruments fill the space for a bit. However you decide to handle it, be sure not to “phone it in”; it’d be a shame to blemish all your hard work thus far by hot-gluing a tail onto an otherwise well-written song, just for the sake of calling it “done”.
A bad ending can ruin an otherwise great song!
Song Structure | Transitions
If components are the “bricks” of song structure, transitions are the “mortar” or glue. More specifically, transitions are the way you move from one component to another. This can be simple and abrupt, a verse that jumps straight into a chorus, for example, or more drawn out and deliberate, such as a pre-verse or pre-chorus. Transitions serve to help move the song along, without it feeling bumpy or jilted. The idea, usually, is to move from the melodies and rhythms of one component to the next, without an audible “stop and start” feeling. Depending on the different melodies, riffs, or rhythms utilized in your song, this may be simple or more complex. Focus on your transitions when you want to really tailor the “flow” of your song.
Songwriting Pro Tip #4
If your plan for your music includes licensing opportunities, pay close attention to your transitions. This is paramount when making a song “editor friendly”. Editors using your music for tv, film, or ad spots will need to be able to grab sections and string them together as needed to fit the theme of the spot and fit within the time frame. If your transitions are too abrupt, or too complex, it may prove to difficult for them to do this, leading them to go with another song for their spot.
Song Structure | Song Structure Examples
While there is no “set in stone” list of song structures, there are common examples. When you’re first approaching songwriting, it can be helpful to examine them, particularly the most common song structures in hit songs in your market/genre.
A very basic and common song structure would be as follows:
Or more simplified:
While these are common and obvious arrangements, any song structure can be successful, depending on the writing. A somewhat less orthodox structure would be:
Or any other combination you can come up with using the above components. You should switch it up some from song to song. While simplicity of your song structure is a factor for commercialization or a broad target audience, you still want to avoid getting into a rut of songs that have identical layouts. There are, however, people who have made quite a lucrative career with exactly that, so your mileage may vary. It ultimately depends on how you want to approach your own music.
You might also see discussions about song structure using a notation such as “ABAB“, much like the notation for rhyme schemes used in poetry. This is just a simplification of the above layouts, with components given letter labels. Typically, A and B are verse and chorus, respectively. Thus, a song structure of ABAB would be a verse-chorus-verse-chorus layout.
Hopefully this has helped you layout your own song structure, and have a better understanding of some of the common terms and ideas. What structures do you find you use most often? Is there any useful info I missed? Hit me up in the comments below!