If there is one thing that would drastically improve your skills of composing and writing songs, it would be the knowledge of how the different parts of a song are structured.
A song structure is how a musical piece is organized. A song has unique parts like the intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, and outro. How these parts are organized makes up the song structure. A well-structured song could greatly increase the listener’s engagement and emotional connection to it.
When is the chorus going to kick in? Are we going to have a bridge? Whether you are a singer-songwriter or a film composer, this post will give you the tools to connect the different parts in a way that will make a great emotional impact on the listener.
Why is Song Structure so Important?
For the longest time, I really didn’t care much for learning about the song structures.
And while I thought I was cool breaking the rules on this (like so many others before me), it really hurt my compositional skills. In fact, after I learned about the different structures, my film scoring capabilities got better too!
The points that follow tell you why structuring your songs make you a better composer/songwriter:
Good structure engages the listener
It is hard for the listener to get a grip on, and getting interested in a song without any structure. We tend to not like chaos, so if your song is badly structured (or not structured at all), chances are that many of your listeners won’t give your song another chance.
By knowing where to do something new in your song, such as adding a pre-chorus, you will always give your listeners something new to chew on.
This does not necessarily have to be adding new parts – it could also be new instruments entering and building the song, like the french horns that enter in ‘Time” from Inception.
So, if you are looking for a masterclass in making the same 4-chord progression exciting for 5 straight minutes, listen to Hans Zimmer.
It establishes something we are familiar with
Most of us are pretty stuck in our ways. We live a routine-based life and we like things that are familiar to us. That is why movies mostly follow a storytelling blueprint that has basically been used since the theatres of ancient Greece.
Same goes for music.
Why do we behave that way? When we experience things we know, we are much more likely to respond well, so when we hear a song structured in a familiar way, us anticipating what’s gonna happen next is contributing to:
- We pay attention
- We are more likely to listen to it again
A structure makes it easier for us to remember the song. It also makes it possible for us to decide whether we like the song or not.
Structure adds order
How would you feel if this article had no pictures, no subheadings, and massive walls of text with no air in-between them?
You would probably felt that the article was very monotone and boring
I like to keep it simple, so you can actually be comfortable reading this.
The same thing goes for how a song is organized. Your job is to make it digestible for the listener, making it as easy as possible for her to get engaged and emotionally connected to your song.
What Parts Make up the Structure?
Let’s begin with the parts that generally make up the structure of a song. There are 6 parts that often are involved:
Intro: This is the part that is supposed to gain our interest as fast as possible. The intro section is kind of a foreshadowing of the rest of the song. In other words, the intro establishes the tempo, key and the general ‘feeling’ of the song.
- In song lyrics: The lyrics in the verses are different from each other, resulting in each verse telling a new part of the story.
- In instrumentals: Either, a new instrument enters, building the song, and/or the melody is played somewhat differently, with slight variations. For example, the last note of a melody could change from the first verse to the second, further progressing and intensifying the song.
Pre-Chorus: Something new is coming. A pre-chorus is a signal of what is yet to come – the chorus. For example, in my original song ‘Sky’, you can clearly hear the song taking a new turn after the verse is played. The building nature of this part is increasing our anticipation, preparing us for the chorus.
Chorus: Maybe regarded as the most memorable part of the song. This is where we often sing along, regardless if it is actual lyrics or just an instrumental. However, a chorus doesn’t always has to be the most
Bridge: Ah, but we are not done yet! To make things a little more interesting and to break up the repetitiveness, we could sometimes add a bridge part. This most often comes right before the last chorus.
Outro (a.k.a Coda): This is where we clearly feel that the song is coming to an end. How do we make them feel this?
We can make the listener feel that the song is coming to an end by:
- Gradually fade out the volume.
- Decreasing the tempo
- Removing instruments
So, how are all these parts put together? And is every part essential to create a good song?
Rule of Thumb
Intros, bridge, and outros are most often used only once during a song. The pre-chorus, chorus, and verses, however, are being used multiple times. And no – you don’t have to use every part to create a great, well-structured song.
The Most Common Song Structures
Now, we are going to explore some of the most common song structures/musical forms out there today.
The most common song structure today is:
If you have searched around a bit, or touched upon the subject of song structures before, you have probably seen the letter combos.
“ABAAB”. “ABABCB” And so on.
The letters are simply another way of organizing the different parts of a song. For example, the “A” could mean “verse” and the “B” could mean “Chorus”.
Notice that I write could mean because this might not always be the case. Sometimes, the “B” means bridge, and you’ll maybe see letter combos like AABBCCDD too.
The main point of the different letters is to illustrate that there are contrasting sections within the song.
And that is why I wouldn’t get too obsessed with the exact mechanics behind them. Only how you can use them to create a well-structured song.
So, without further ado, here is a list you should definitely look to and try out.
1. The Ballad Form (32-Bar Structure)
Sometimes, you will hear songs in which you remember the very first lyrics, rather than the chorus. Like: “Somewheeeeere, over the raaainbow…”
Then you’d most likely listened to the AABA structure.
In this case, the “B” is not a chorus, but a bridge. The main emphasis is on the verses in this layout.
And if you think of it: what are the most memorable parts of “Yesterday”, by the Beatles?
Exactly! The verse.
Famous songs using the AABA structure: “Yesterday” (The Beatles), “Over The Rainbow” (Judy Garland)
2. “I know this!” (The Verse-Chorus/Binary Structure)
This is a very familiar structure to almost anyone who has ever listened to music
In contrast to the AABA form, this layout focuses on a greater contrast between verse and chorus.
Here is a couple of examples you could try out within this form:
- ABAB Structure
Famous songs using ABAB structure: “Hotel California” (The Eagles), “Back in Black” (AC/DC).
- The ABABCB Structure
It is very similar to the ABAB, but we add a
Famous songs using this structure: “Sharp Dressed Man” (ZZ Top), “Hurts So Good” (John J. Mellencamp) “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” (Tina Turner)
3. “Repeat and build it!” (The Strophic Form)
This is known as the verse-repeating form, and is putting emphasis only on the same melody throughout the whole song. Listen to the most memorable track from the movie Inception (“Time”), and you will hear that the same melody is playing throughout the whole track.
However, it never gets boring, and that is because of the building nature of the song, underlined by the gradual entrance of new instruments.
Famous songs using the AAA structure: “The Times They Are a-Changin’ (Bob Dylan)”, “Amazing Grace”, “Old MacDonald”
4. The Ternary Form
In this structure, the “B” is often a closely related key, which means that it shares many of the same tones as “A”, yet still different enough to create contrast.
If you are writing film music, this might be a cool musical form to try out. Why? Because every section could easily be its own song. You wouldn’t necessarily expect the song to progress further after the first “A”.
Think of the main theme of Forrest Gump (“I’m Forrest…Forrest Gump”): around 01:28, the key changes, making an already interesting melody even more interesting. Then it goes back to a melody much closer to the very first seconds of the track.
Famous songs using ABA structure: “Honky Tonk Woman” (Rolling Stones)
Examples of other Structures (with pre-chorus)
How to Create An Exciting Song
Contrasts are key to an interesting song. And there are a lot of ways you can create contrast. You can change tempo, change the key, new melody, add new instruments, new lyrics and much more.
5. Through-Composed Song
This is a structure in which nothing repeats itself. Not even verses and choruses.
A through-composed song
Are these structures only meant for
song and lyrics?
What if I want to create an orchestral piece? Could I follow any of the structures above?
Yes, you can. They are not only meant for songwriters, but for composers as well.
In orchestra music, the song structure is more commonly known as “musical form”.
What can you Take Away From This Knowledge?
The structural layouts provided in this article is the cornerstone of every great song. But that doesn’t mean you can’t play around with them.
You will often see an extra chorus or verse added to the basis. There are quite a few songs with repeating choruses near the end, for instance.
Variations are welcomed, and you don’t have to look long to discover that a lot of famous songs out there as made variations of the basic formula.
So, try to add a pre-chorus and a bridge and a couple of extra choruses in the mix to see if your song gets even more interesting!