by Alex Bruce & Karen Randle
Structure is of course one of the central elements of songwriting. And although it’s fair to say that structure has been used (or abandoned) very creatively by many artists over the years, there are still far fewer variables and options than there are in song content i.e. Chord pattern choices, instrumentation etc.
Song structure is also similar to music theory, in the sense that it’s better to know the rules and then consciously break them, than to break all the rules by simply being unaware.
So, as for precisely how to structure your song, unless you’re writing a highly-commercialized pop song it’s very hard to give you direct instruction.
Instead, you’ll see that below, each common ‘element’ of song structure is described and explained. How many of each to use, when, in what order, and so on, are all the calls the writer must make.
Here is a typical song structure includes a verse, chorus, and bridge in the following arrangement: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro. This is known as an ABABCB structure, where A is the verse, B is the chorus and C is the bridge.
Remember, you don’t have to use every single one of these elements in every song. Think of this list as more of a palette of ingredients to select from.
Fairly self-explanatory here. Short for introduction, the ‘intro’ is the first thing a listener hears. It may be a riff, or establishing a theme that will then play out in full in the verse or chorus, but fundamentally it’s about setting the scene. One of its functional purposes is to establish the key for the vocalist too. Listen to various songs and critically question the intro’s purpose. Compare and contrast songs spanning different genres too.
Very often the first sung section you’ll hear (though not always as plenty of highly commercial songs start with a chorus), the verse is essentially the second-most-main section behind the chorus. It establishes the song’s theme, tone, lyrical style and content and ultimately sets up the chorus and continuation of the song. A great number of rock and pop songs begin Intro > Verse > Chorus, so study some and observe the role of the verse, expanding upon the intro, but not yet the chorus.
Not always present, as some songs jump straight from a verse into a chorus. But when it is present, the pre-chorus acts like a pathway from the verse to the chorus. These sections can be at times maligned as gap-filling things designed to patch together a verse and a chorus that otherwise don’t really work together. However, when deliberately and consciously implemented in their own right they can provide fantastic build and tension and heighten the effect of the chorus. You’ll know if a song has a pre-chorus simply because there seems to be an additional section after the verse (and different to it) but before the chorus comes.
The pay-off moment, and most-repeated section, of most songs. A song’s chorus is usually distinctive by being some combination of the following factors:
The most memorable section (or the ‘hook’)
The section that lyrically contains the song’s title
The main melodic theme of the song
A place where additional voices/instruments are added
The simplest lyrical section
The chorus is usually the section most people know and remember, and in commercial pop music is the section on which a song is almost entirely judged. It either pays for itself or it doesn’t. Even down to various pop producers and record labels having rules about the maximum number of seconds into a song that a chorus may happen!
Post-Chorus / Break / Tag
This is one of the less common elements of song structure. This shows in its 3 (and maybe more) different names, in that it is not so defined or established as verse or chorus for example.
This section is something that comes on the end of or after a chorus (but isn’t the chorus), but equally is not yet the next verse, or simply a repeat of the intro section.
Much as the pre-chorus can be a build-up to the chorus. The post-chorus can act like a warm-down or wind-down afterwards.
The bridge is usually a songwriter’s chance to insert something totally different. It isn’t like a verse, or a chorus, or in fact any other of the sections above/below, most of which serve as a build-up or warm-down to the verse/chorus, or relate to it in some way.
The bridge is usually something quite different. Sometimes there’s a key change, a change in instrumentation, it may be acapella (voices only), or it may be a complete about turn in tone, mood and emphasis.
In pop/rock, the bridge is very often followed by a final chorus or final double chorus before the song ends. So for that reason, the art of writing a good bridge section is writing something that, when the section begins, feels totally different, but by its end point, flows naturally back into the chorus section.
Often the solo section is interchangeable with the bridge - it’s unusual to get both unless the song is very long and/or experimental.
Essentially an instrumental section, often played by instruments we might consider expressive, ‘lead’ instruments, such as electric guitar, saxophone and so on, this is a moment of instrumental expression, something different, a break for the vocalist(s) and a thrill for the instrumentalist(s).
Solos have been famously used across the decades from the very minimal, thematic, reserved iterations, to the full-blown, 3 minute long shredding guitar solos.
How the solo is executed is determined by the writer’s style, tastes, expression and intentions.
Another section that’s not always present, as many songs end after a final chorus, or in rock/blues after a guitar solo quite often too.
When an outro is present, it can vary from something quite short and simplistic, to an epilogue - a final, epic, concluding act.
It may be a continuation or adaptation of the section that has just come before it. Equally it may be a return to the theme of the intro, which provides a nice sense of symmetry.
Have a listen to 10 different songs and consider how they end, asking yourself - why is this song ending in this way? Does it refer back to another section of the song? What purpose does this outro serve? Is it a section in its own right? Do I like it? Why?
Alex Bruce is a writer for Guitartricks.com and 30Daysinger.com
For information on USA Songwriting Competition, go to: https://www.songwriting.net