A Short Guide to Song Structure
Songwriting can be a bit overwhelming if you’ve never done it before. Don’t worry! With this guide to song structure, you’ll be writing songs in no time.
At first, the unknown is difficult to grasp as we fumble around for anything familiar to get our bearings. An unwritten song is no different.
However, breaking a song into smaller parts will help you understand what songwriting is all about. The songwriting process becomes straightforward with a clear picture of the structure. Before you know it, you’ll be adding your personal touch.
We’ll go over the pieces that make up a song and explain how songwriters have put them together to create unique tunes that leave lasting impressions on their listeners.
Let’s start with the components we’re working with.
Fundamentals of song structure.
A song is a fluid, creative, and emotional auditory creation on the surface. However, smaller intertwining parts lie beneath the melodic reverberations that capture our attention.
A typical song structure includes an introduction, verses, a pre-chorus, a chorus, a bridge/refrain, and an outro.
The Introduction does exactly what you think it does–introduces the song. Therefore, we use them at the beginning of the song. This phase of the song aims to capture the listener’s attention, build the stage, and set the mood.
Determining the length of a song’s introduction really comes down to your preference. Some songwriters prefer to keep them short and sweet, while others lean into them.
Verses are usually the most common component of a song. They tell the story musically and lyrically and can be the center of attention or blend in behind the chorus.
A pre-chorus is about two to four bars that build (or drop) into the chorus. Think of them as the ramp, or jump before the airtime.
The chorus is often the pinnacle and the catchiest part of a song. The best choruses are undoubtedly deeply imprinted into the memories of listeners’ minds. A chorus is also the most energetic part of a song. It’s where you find the song’s central theme–often inspiring its name.
There are many ways that artists play around with the chorus. Musicians occasionally play choruses repeatedly at the end of a song–a little different each time–building towards a climax and then ending abruptly or drifting out into softer variations.
A bridge or refrain is like a side quest that brings some diversity to the song’s rhythm. From a lyrical standpoint, it is a trail of thought that is relevant but not necessarily central to the song’s ideas. The instrumental aspect of a song also shifts gears during the bridge, reinvigorating the listener.
Outros are a songwriter’s exit strategy or closing of the curtains. There are many unique ways to do it. Some songs end dramatically on their final note, and others will gradually drift into silence.
The way a song ends can emphasize its message and leave the listener with a lasting impression.
Forms of song structure.
Now that we’ve got a preliminary understanding of the building blocks that generally make up a song, it’s time to look at forms.
When designing a song structure, you need to consider the genre of music you’re writing, the energy and length of the song, and the message you want to convey.
While using a template is common, there is no single ideal to follow. The structure of a song varies from one genre to the next. Many ancient song forms are still popular today.
Keep in mind that there are countless ways to put together a song.
So with that, let’s look at some typical song structures.
Different song structures.
First up, we have the Strophic song structure. The verses sing in a melody, merging poetry and music for the first time in European history. Centuries ago it was common entertainment for the royal courts.
The 12 Bar Blues form emerge from–no surprise here–the blues genre. The twelve bars are the number of bars or measures in a typical blues song. Variations of this structure include 8-bars and 16 bars.
Another structure that emerged in the early 20th century is the American Popular Song Form. This format is typical for Jazz, Pop, and Gospel music and was the predominant song form until the 1960s.
Finally, we have the popular verse/chorus form. From the 1960s onward, the AB format took over as the favorite structure. From here, we can see a fundamental shift in the focus of the music.
The verse/chorus form emphasizes the chorus of the song. The hook is the central focus that the other components of a piece build around.
This format became famous in pop, country, rap, and rock music.
Examples of song structure.
For simplicity, the musical structure represents a particular component of a song with a letter.
A popular form is ABABCB – verse (A), chorus (B), verse (A), chorus (B), verse (A), bridge (C), chorus (B).
Some variations include ABABACB, where you add a verse and bridge before the final chorus, and ABABACBB, which closes with two back-to-back hooks.
You can represent the Strophic (the form with no chorus) with AAAA.
You can check out your favorite songs and take notes of their arrangements to discover more forms. Ultimately, there are many forms, each with varying complexity and simplicity. Understanding song form can open up an entirely new avenue of musical expression.
Like anything, we can penetrate the mystery by breaking complex ideas into smaller pieces. With a deeper appreciation of the various components and arrangements of songwriting, we can begin to create our own unique songs.
Check out these six songwriting tips for more.