Here’s what we will do on this page:
- Make sense of conventional labels used for the different sections of a popular song
- Learn how to structure a song by checking out some traditional song forms (Including Strophic Form, 32 bar song form, and ABABCB form) And, we’ll explore how they lend a hand to the songwriter
- Discover why song structure is awesome
See here for all our ideas on how to compose a song.
Today, I am joined here by my friend, Skeptical Joe.
“Is song structure really that important in songwriting? I mean, I know what a verse and a chorus are. Duh.”
Well, let me make a case here. In short, song structure is practical and it gives you an immediate connection with listeners. Each part of the song (Verse, Chorus, Bridge…) has a role to play. More awareness of these traditional roles speeds up the process and gives you some very useful tools to play with in your songwriting shed.
“Okay. Go on.”
Let’s look at some terminology and typical song structures. We can get into more of why it’s useful after.
“I told you I know all the terminology. But fine.”
Song Structure Terminology
These are the opening bars that establish the atmosphere of the room. A hook in the intro is standard practice – some kind of catchy motive to immediately smack us in the face, or excite us, like a face-melting riff.
The role of the verse is used to tell a story, or ask questions, or paint images. Whatever is established in the verse will be addressed in the chorus.
Think of it like a preacher on the pulpit in the verse, giving us the argument or the set-up for the moral that will be stated in the chorus. Or it could be word-painting where the verse establishes the images and the or chorus reflects on those images. If the song is a narrative, the verse establishes the characters involved, the scene, and what everyone wants.
It has become so common to transition into the chorus, that we’ve invented a new term for this transition. In pop songs, it’s usually supposed to get us excited for the glory of the chorus.
This is traditionally the repeated section of the song that follows the verse. The lyrics of the chorus usually contain the moral of the story or the reason behind the song. “This happened” is in the verse, “this is how I feel about it all” is in the chorus. The hook is traditionally part of the chorus, or at the very end.
Used in strophic songs without a chorus. Different from a chorus, in that it is not a new section, instead, just a single phrase at the end of the verse, like we have here in Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm. The title phrase is the refrain.
This is a catchy melodic motive meant to grab the attention of the listener. It usually answers any questions asked in the verses or the chorus. It traditionally occurs at the top of the chorus or at the end.
A section that provides a “bridge” between two different sections. It usually carries the listener into a different emotional place. The bridge itself is made of materials (chords, rhythms, melodies, colors…) that we haven’t heard hitherto.
A term that originally comes from the 32 bar AABA form (each section is 8 bars, B is the middle 8). Sometimes it feels like a bridge and the tension will build to the next section. But outside of 32 bar AABA form, it has become a section shorter than a traditional bridge to reflect on what has been said without much build-up of tension, like here in P.Y.T:
A not-so-frequently-used section that occurs after the chorus. It is commonly used to reiterate the awesome energy of the chorus. A post-chorus is often 4 or 8 bars occurring after the chorus with the intention of keeping the party going. Like in Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You (the player starts from the chorus, with the post-chorus coming in at 1:16)
Or, here’s an example of a more contemplative post-chorus, Beck’s Lost Cause (The player starts from the chorus. The post-chorus comes in at 2:01)
Here we have a moment for instrumental solos using the same chords as the chorus or verse. Sometimes the break occurs because you want to dance, like Prince here below:
This is usually a few bars to take the edge off and say goodbye.
“Thanks for the boring terminology. I guess some of that was interesting. But, why are people so uptight about definitions. Like ‘Hey man, that’s a middle 8, not a bridge!’”
Agreed. Everyone should relax with the labeling. Even so, the sticklers for labels have a point: each part of the song has a specific, traditional role to play. If you’re mislabeling, the overall energy of that mislabelled section becomes confusing.
Okay, let’s look at some typical song structures.
Traditional Song Structures
Strophic, AAA Song Form
This is the simplest form. Instead of a separate chorus section, a refrain often occurs at the end of each verse.
The following two examples below use strophic form:
AB… Song Form
Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus…
Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Verse…
This is a straightforward song form alternating two different sections. Sufjan Stevens, Chicago here uses the Verse – Chorus… form.
AABA song form, or 32 Bar Song Form
Verse – Verse – Chorus – Verse
This is a song structure that was frequently used by Tin Pan Alley composers like Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter. It holds to a strict 8-bar-per-section form. The term ‘Middle 8’ originates from this form.
The hook often occurs in the first or last line of the verse, sometimes both. In any case, it happens in the same place with every repetition. The A sections are frequently modified as the song progresses. As in the example below:
The exact 32 bar song structure has loosened and modified over the years while keeping the AABA form. An extra A section at the end is also quite standard, like here in Crazy, Patsy Cline:
ABABCB Song Form
Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus
This has become the dominant shape in popular music. From this form come all the standard variations which sometimes include a pre-chorus or a post-chorus. It usually dives straight into the chorus after the bridge but often there’s a final verse-chorus build, as we do here in Smells Like Teen Spirit:
ABCABCDC Song Form
Verse – Pre-chorus – Chorus – Verse – Pre-chorus – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus
This is the most common variation on ABABCB song form. It was the most popular form in the top 50 songs last year. (You may have noticed Nirvana also uses a pre-chorus in the above example.)
This variation offers a steady build of tension leading up to the chorus release. When A returns, we start the build again, this time with ears familiar with the melody so the build is more satisfying with the second repetition. The bridge gives a change of pace leading us to the final payoff in the last chorus, which is often repeated a gazillion times.
Here’s another example, The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights,
Rondo Form, ABACABA Song Form
In Rondo song form, the A section is the focus. No matter what other melodies or harmonies are introduced, you can be sure that A will return. The A section stays the same yet somehow sounds different as we juxtapose it next to B and C and B again. As in Für Elise, Beethoven, played by Lang Lang:
In the example below, Rondo form is perfect for expressing an obsessive love (A), that remains constant in spite of a challenging, shifting world (B and C).
Every Breath You Take, The Police
Why Song Structure is Awesome
1. Song Strucure is Practical
“Those are interesting forms and all, but you said structure is awesome. Come on, man.”
Okay, Joe. Here goes. First, the practical side. When you say, hey “let’s try that again starting from the bridge,” it’s helpful if everyone in the band, and everyone recording the band knows what the hell a bridge is.
Also, it speeds up the songwriting process. It becomes a way to quickly solve problems in songwriting. As you give your ideas structure, the form will show you what is missing without having to work through it 500 times.
Streaming services don’t give artists credit unless the listener listens for at least 30 seconds. So if you’re writing hits, find a form that gets the hook into the first 30 seconds. The form does the work for you.
Structure not only helps speed up the process, it also makes for less effort. Structure creates a natural tension and release in your song. With the structure is supporting you, you won’t have to work so hard with all the other elements,
2.Song Structure Gives You a Connection to Your Listeners
Second, structure gives you an immediate connection to your listeners. With a familiar structure, your listener knows what they’re getting into.
Without structure, it just sounds like practice. When I listen to free-form jazz or watch open-ended improvisational theatre, I get the feeling that the presence of the audience isn’t all that important for the performers. I have no idea where their efforts are going and I quickly get lost and bored. I don’t think I’m alone in this experience.
3. Song Structure simply works
Finally, song structure just works. Form follows function.
All the musical elements all have traditional roles to play. Tempo, rhythm, timbre, meter, harmony – all have familiar patterns that create meaning and atmosphere. Major and minor chords have conventional roles. Certain chord progressions have become familiar to our ears. We’re used to hearing them in certain contexts, so they have traditional function and meaning.
In the same way, the structural pieces of a song – the verse, the chorus, the bridge, etc. – have functions. That gives a songwriter some great tools to play with. Is the switch to the chorus too abrupt? Consider a pre-chorus. Are you looking for a short break to reflect on what has been said after the chorus? A middle 8 could help you.
“Fine. But you have to understand something: I don’t write cookie-cutter songs. I’m not putting an IKEA table together here. I’m writing a song, man! From the heart!”
I hear you. That’s valid. Many songwriters find song forms instinctively. David Byrne discusses this idea here:
People will tell you that you need to structure a song a certain way for it to ‘work’. And yet, there are endless examples of great songs that break rules of form.
Don’t let these song structures cramp your style. They are simply tools in the shed if you need them. (P.S. You probably will)
For more of our ideas on songwriting, see our songwriting category page.
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