As songwriters, most of us begin writing by emulating the flow and feel of some of our favorite songs without giving too much active thought to the underlying structure. However, the longer you write and the more attention you pay to what makes songs work, the more clear it becomes that there is a great amount of consistency among commercial songs in terms of their component parts. I thought I’d take a moment and explain some of the whys and hows of commercial song structure so that the next time you sit down to write you’ll have a better understanding of what makes songs work and how to do it.
WHY PAY ATTENTION TO SONG STRUCTURE?
Commercial songwriting is all about trying to connect with the listener in the most efficient and compelling manner possible given that the typical allotted time to do so sits at around three minutes. Common, consistent song structure makes songs easier to learn/remember. When it comes to getting your listeners to sing along or an artist to consider cutting your song, making it easy to learn/remember is vital. Also, song structure, done properly, creates a sense of momentum that carries your listeners though the song and gets them to the right moments at the right time without boring or rushing them. It’s not something that the average person will actively notice but it really does make a difference.
Almost all commercial songs are made up of a series of common parts. I thought I’d start by defining/explaining these parts.
Verse – A verse is the place most often used to tell your song’s story. It’s where you put your details and try to further your song’s narrative in each successive line.
Pre-Chorus – When used, the pre-chorus’ role is to serve as a kind of ramp into the chorus. Generally, it’s shorter than the verse in length and has the feel both lyrically and musically of leading up to something.
Chorus – This is the “money” section of your song. It’s where you put your catchiest melody and use the lyric to summarize the main message of your song. In general, your lyric and melody will be the same from chorus to chorus to further hammer home your song’s main melody and lyrical message.
Bridge – Think of a bridge as a time in your song to step away from the verses and choruses and explore a new, yet related, musical and lyrical angle.
Verse/Refrain – this approach ends each verse with a “hook” or “refrain” that gets repeated even though the lyric content for the verses themselves changes.
B-Section – In a verse/refrain song structure, the B-section is somewhere in between a bridge and a chorus in terms of it’s approach. It’s got the “new angle” approach of a bridge but the melodic sensibilities (meaning catchy and interesting) of a chorus.
The majority of songs have three – or fewer – different parts
Now that you’ve got a working knowledge of the various parts of most commercial songs, it’s time to tell you that, in general, songs contain at most three of these parts. In other words, if your song has verses, pre-choruses and choruses, then it’s unnecessary to also have a bridge. However, if your song only has verses and choruses then a bridge can be a welcome addition. It’s also entirely possible for songs to have fewer parts. For example in the verse/refrain structure, songs typically have a few verse/refrains and a B-section and that’s it. Finally, there are many, many songs that are simply built from verses and choruses. All this to say, when it comes to song structure, three different parts is plenty.
THREE COMMON SONG STRUCTURES
In an attempt to give you some models to emulate, I’ve listed a few of the most common song structures below:
2. Verse-Pre-chorus-Chorus-Verse-Pre-chorus-Chorus-Repeat Chorus
Writing songs with the intention of taking your listener on a journey is easier said than done. A good working knowledge of song structure and its benefits will go a long way towards helping you achieve that goal.