Best Song Structure Techniques For The 21st Century Songwriter

best song structure

Basic Structure of A Song

A song structure is a framework that dictates the flow of your song and the elements that are in it. In other words, it is the skeleton that your entire song is built on.

It is a combination of different parts or sections that makes the entire whole of your song.

Song structure also affects the sequence of your music and how music is arranged. By song structure, we refer to today’s song form – the ones we always hear on the radio.

To understand and remember these sections better, we can allocate a specific letter for each section.

Different Sections of a Song Structure

You can divide a song into sections. Examples of these sections are:

Intro

– whenever we listen to a song, we begin with the first familiar part, which is the Intro. When a song is played on the radio, we can quickly identify the title of the song just by hearing the Intro.

The Intro is the part where a songwriter sets the mood of the music and captures the listener’s attention.

Here are ways where you can set the mood of a song using your Intro.

Here’s an example of an intro that sounds happy from the song “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton.

This one is an example of an intor which is a bit sad by John Leged – “All of Me”

Most intros are short, but it doesn’t mean it can’t belong. When you are writing a song for radio, it is recommended to keep an intro short due to limited air time.

If you are publishing your album or an online streaming platform, it’s up to you to make it long or short. Generally, you don’t want to keep your listener’s board by such a long intro.

Here’s a list of songs with long intros.

As or an example of a song with a short intro, here’s a song from Westlife’s “Swear It Again.”

Some songs are not using any intro. Although this is not common practice, it’s also an effective way to write the structure of a song.

Here’s a song from the famous band Journey entitled “Anyway You Want It.” This song doesn’t have an intro.

An intro also set’s the tempo, rhythm, and even the melody of a song. Also, the Intro of a song sets the key of the music for the singer to sing.

Verse

The verse of a song is where you can do most of the following:

  1. Telling a story or develop your plot.
  2. Get your listeners to imagine things
  3. Choose to use one or multiple verses
  4. Split the story using verses

Telling a story

The verse of a song is the perfect area of the entire song structure to write a story. Here you can start telling your listeners the reason why your chorus is saying a certain thing.

For example, your chorus is singing how broken your heart is and how hard it is to move on, then the verse will explain the details that happened that led to heartbreak.

Interestingly, you can also do that the opposite way. You can tell the world how in love you are with your chorus, but people will understand that your verses contain the reasons why you are so in love.

Get your listeners to imagine things

I’ve said that in the verse, you will find the story of your song that leads to your chorus. To be more specific, you can develop your plot in the verse.

Much like in the film, you can write scenes in your verses. This will help your listeners make use of their imagination.

Make Contrast Between Verses

Your verses don’t have to agree with each other. You can write butterflies and rainbows in your first verse and then talk about rain and darkness in the second verse.

Making use of contrast is very useful because it creates interest and removes the monotony of your song.

Use One Or More Verses

You can choose to write just one verse for your entire song and go back to it again for your second.

You can also choose to have multiple verses; it’s actually up to you and your creativity on how many verses you would like your song to have.

Split The Story Using Verses

Proper usage of the verse of a song is to split your story using your verses. Make them like episodes where the first verse tells your audience something; then, the continuity flows through the second verse.

You can decide to create a third verse or continue the story with your bridge and other parts of the song.

The main takeaway here is that you can split or give your listeners small bits of the story within your song using your verses.

Pre-Chorus

This is not a necessary part of a song. You can choose to use a pre-chorus to skip this part. It will be dependent upon your artistic taste.

A pre-chorus is like a snippet of what’s to come at the chorus of your song. Think of it as a trailer, a small portion of your incoming chorus.

Your pre-chorus doesn’t have to sound like your chorus. The emotion and the vibe it sets should connect towards your chorus.

Should you decide to use a pre-chorus, the following tips can help you create an effective pre-chorus.

Introduce new chords and harmonies

When writing your pre-chorus, it would be wise to deviate from the verse in terms of the melodic structure and the harmonies or the chords you are using.

If you don’t add interest by doing these small changes, your pre-chorus won’t be that effective, and your song would sound flat.

Introducing a bit of a change will cause your listeners to be anxious and excited about what’s to come, which is the chorus. These little changes can add life and interest in your song structure.

Introduce a different rhythmic pattern or a drum line

Chords and harmonies aren’t the only things you can add in your pre-chorus to introduce change and interest. You can add a different rhythmic pattern in your drumline or any instruments of your music.

The goal of writing a pre-chorus is to create a sense of anticipation, a build-up towards your chorus. If you can manage to do this very thing, your chorus will have the desired effect once the listeners get into it.

Chorus

This is the heart of your song! Everything you’ve been building up since the Intro of your song culminates into this critical section in the entire song structure.

Oftentimes, people would take the lyrics of a song and use it as a title. It’s the part of the song that people remember the most.

It’s the catchiest part.

Here are some tips to make your chorus effective

Make It Grand

All the build from Intro to your Pre-Chorus leads to an expectation that the chorus is fantastic. One way to do this is to make your chorus grand!

How do I make my chorus grand?

Grand is a descriptive but subjective term. It’s up to you what sounds grand, but one thing you can do is to bring all available tracks or instruments together in your chorus.

To make it grand, you need to have the majority of your musical elements working together in this section of your song structure.

The electric guitar can come in, the drums are pumping, and everything is doing their part. Just remember not to go overboard, or you’ll be making it noisy instead of grandiose.

Make One of your Choruses Anti Climactic

This may raise many eyebrows, but it is a possible choice for your chorus. When I say make it anticlimactic, I do not mean to make it boring or downright depressing.

People are always expecting that we write songs leading to a chorus. All those build-ups create anticipation for your listeners, luring them to the thought that the chorus will be a blast.

Once you’ve set this expectation, you can choose to disappoint your listeners artistically. To disappoint may not be the right term, but twisting your audience can induce mixed emotions. When you do it the right way, people will remember you.

This is a risk, though, and use it with care.

The Difference Between A Refrain and A Chorus

Before I proceed with the other sections of our energetic structure, I need to make a distinction between a refrain and a chorus.

To make things simple, just remember the following:

  • Refrains can be part of your chorus but not the other way around
  • Refrains are a few lines of words repeated over and over to make a point, but a chorus is an entire section with more words to complete that section.
  • Refrains are more of the lyrics part of your song and what you have to say while the chorus involves everything you want to be heard altogether. That includes the music, the melody, and every possible element you see fit.

Bridge

Typically, you only want to do this once in the entire song structure, and it usually happens between the second and third chorus. 

The bridge changes the pace of a song, and it stands out in many ways. The bridge is like an entirely different material within the same song. It’s different in terms of music and lyrics.

The main point of writing a bridge is to knock your listeners to the reality that there is still more to the song. Once they have been so caught up in the format of your verses and choruses, the bridge is an effective section to give them a dose of surprise.

Here are some things you can do with your bridge to make it more useful and exciting.

Introduce a different melodic structure

If you have a good song, most probably, your listeners are already enjoying the verses and choruses. The bridge is a very effective section to introduce something different as far as your melody is concerned.

Remember, your verses are somehow related in terms of their melody, you just change a few lines a little bit to add contrast, but the entirety of the verses are tied.

The same goes for your choruses; they sound the same!

Now, the bridge is a perfect section to add a new melodic line, something that the listeners are not expecting. When done right, your listeners will love this portion.

Make a new musical arrangement and a different key signature

The goal of the bridge is to introduce something new within the song, what better way to do it than to juggle the entire musical arrangement?

Introduce a new key signature. Writing a foreign key from where the song initially started can be very captivating for your audience.

I strongly suggest to hype things up and bring your listeners to a new dimension using the bridge.

Instrumental or Adlib

I guess this part is a bit redundant because both the Intro and the outro are also instrumentals or only music without the vocals.

This is more a lay man’s term and not necessarily an official term found in a dictionary for songwriting. Yet, thousands of songs were produced with this section of the song structure.

This section is pretty straight forward; it introduces a segment where an instrumentalist can highlight their skills while adding flavor to the song.

It’s a pretty common thing to do back in the days, but for our current 21st-century music, this portion has been largely left out, although there are still a few producers who are taking advantage of this part.

Ultimately, it’s you who will be the one to decide if you include this section or not. 

Coda

The coda is the part of your song or music that brings the entire structure towards an end. Pretty straight forward.

After all the journey, your listeners went through; the coda is the section where you want them to realize we are coming to an end.

Now, this is also a bit subjective because, in music, a coda is a section where we can jump to if we have the term “dal segno al coda,” which means jump to coda when you get to the segno.

Get this. Not all songs have a coda. Some songs simply end with a final chorus and then an outro.

This part of the song structure is much like the instrumental part. A song can exist with and without this section.

Outro

This is the final part of our entire song structure. It tells the listener that the song is coming to an end. There are a lot of ways to create an excellent, effective outro.

Here are some of the ways you can make your outro interesting.”

  • Do the opposite of your Intro. If your Intro is a bit fast, you can slow things down with your outro.
  • Use your Intro as your outro. This may not be exciting, but it’s also an option.
  • Use the theme of the chorus to create an outro
  • Slowly fade while using the chorus as your outro.
  • Make a different melodic structure for your outro to keep things interesting.

    image by Squirrel Trench Audio.

The ABABCB Song Structure

We can call

A as the verse

B for the chorus

and C for the bridge.

For the other sections, you can allocate other letters if you want, but for the sake of this discussion let us focus first on the first 3 sections mentioned.

Today’s songs you hear on the radio have a typical structure that they follow. It’s something we are very familiar with even though we hear a song for the first time.

Famous examples of ABABCB song structure include:

  • “High and Dry” by Radiohead (1995)
  • “What’s Love Got To Do With It” by Tina Turner (1984)
  • “Hot N Cold” by Katy Perry (2008)

We know when the chorus is coming, or a final change key is about to come in. We know it because we are used to hearing the same structure or a closely related structure of a particular song from another song.

Common Song Structures

Ever wondered why the majority of pop songs that were written follow the same structure? This is because it works and has been entirely successful for decades across different genres.

It’s a structure that we are all familiar with and have come to enjoy listening to.

AABA (32 Bar Form)

This form is a prevalent American songwriting form during the first half of the twentieth century. Some names worthy of mentioning that were champions of this form were Bing Crosby and Cole Porter.

This form is made up of the following:

  • An A section that is 2 eight-bar long
  • B section that is an eight-bar long and usually contrasting in harmony from the first section
  • Final eight-bar A section which is almost the same as the previous A-sections.

An example of this form is 

  • “All I Have to Do Is Dream” by The Everly Brothers (1958)

Verse-Chorus Form

Currently, the most popular song structure that is used in pop songs, rock, and almost any other genre available today.

Unlike the 32-bar form, the chorus is a crucial part of and what people remember the most when they listen to this form.

It’s the exact form you hear in most songs produced and played on the radio today.

Conclusion and More Resources

The goal of knowing all of these is to equip you with the knowledge of how to create a song that is pleasing to hear.

A song that has a sense of direction and fulfillment. Hence, we structure them properly.

I also wrote an article on how to write better lyrics. Head over there and become a better songwriter now.

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