Are there such things as rules when it comes to writing and structuring a song? To what extent do our favourite songs conform to anything approaching a map, blue-print, timeline or formula for the perfect song? And if there are such things as rules when it comes to the art of songwriting, aren’t they just begging to be broken?
As in previous posts, I’ll be drawing on the best selling singles of all time on the Official UK chart for examples and to carry out some unequivocally non peer-reviewed research.
Musical Form and Structure.
All art is possessed of some kind of form. Form can be thought of as all those elements that relate to the design of piece (as distinct from it’s content). In music, the way a piece is structured is integral to its form.
But is structure really worth getting excited about at all? After all, it’s surely not as direct as melody or harmony when it comes to telling the people just how sad, ecstatic or downright funky you feel. Or maybe there’s more to it than first meets the eye.
“[Anyone] involved in the enterprise of interpreting songs should be aware that expressive content such as tension and boredom, calm and impatience, departure and homecoming, order and impudence, chaos, change, surprise, satisfaction, or unease can be both reinforced and undermined by song forms.” (Von Appen, R & Frei-Hauenschild, M, 2015, p2)
Music is actually quite a mathematical means of expression when you dig under its flouncy, poetic surface, and boffins throughout the ages have been at pains to reveal the patterns which underpin it. The Golden Ratio and Fibonacci series for example, have certainly proved useful in understanding some masterpieces of the visual art world, and are sometimes cited as having similar significance to the way a composer structures a piece of music, if only at a subconscious level. Music may well be riddled with Fibonacci sequences and Golden Ratios hiding in plain… earshot, but the very way we digest music (in a linear, start-to-finish kinda way, with our ears and not our eyes) makes it difficult to appreciate these phenomena when (and indeed if) they are there to be found at all. We ought to be too lost in the music to notice that the musical climax at bar 19 divides that particular 32 bar section perfectly according to the Golden Ratio. But maybe that’s the point.
On the other hand, a recent chat I had with a high profile mixing engineer and producer estimated that 80% of today’s pop music would fit within a very rigid structural formula. So, from a commercial point of view, sticking to a well-trodden path may well pay dividends.
The wonderfully cynical Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty (The KLF) were spotting the patterns on our behalf back in 1988, so that we too could write a number one hit.
“Unwrap pop’s layers and what we are left with is the same old plate of meat and two veg that have kept generations of pop pickers well satisfied.” (Drummond & Cauty, 1988)
Even that most anarchic of musical statements, God Save The Queen (the one by the Sex Pistols, the other one’s not really what you’d call anarchic) would not, according to the boys KLF, have been successful if it hadn’t stuck to ‘The Golden Rules’, a blue-print applied to the songwriting process regardless of genre, guaranteed to bring commercial success and thus untold riches.
So where do we start? Well, if nothing else we can safely say that songs tend to be divided up into distinct sections, whether they relate mathematically to one another or not, and that those sections tend to get arranged in one of a handful of ways.
“There are a number of formal types that return frequently in the repertory, crossing stylistic and historical boundaries.” (Covach, J, p65)
In Music and Memory, Bob Snyder loosely defines a section as…
“… a relatively self-contained grouping of musical events that is usually larger than a phrase and that requires long-term memory for its comprehension. Sectional units have relatively clear boundaries and may be of many different sizes.” (Snyder, B, 2001)
The bookends of a particular section might be a new melody, new chord sequence, perhaps a subtle (or indeed not so subtle) shift in key-center. In his book “Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Music”, Allan F. Moore highlights the importance of one further musical element to signify these boundaries, that of texture.
“I had to learn the hard way that it was changes in the detail of texture that proved really useful… by dismissing texture we run the risk of missing crucial details about the music, and about how it relates to us, since texture is of its nature about relationships… we may find our relationships mapped in the music.” (Moore, A. F, 2016, p76)
Within pop songs, we might think of texture as relating to the ‘density’ of the music, i.e. the number of different layers you can hear at any one time. New sections might feature new instrumental parts, vocal harmonies, a more or less busy drum beat etc.
The technical term for the basic structure of most popular songs is ‘strophic‘. Strophic pieces involve repetition. Sometimes this repetition is solely of the musical bed upon which each lyrical stanza (a grouped set of lines) sits, as in the different verses of a song. At other times, whole-sale repetition of both lyrics and music occurs. This has served perfectly well as the basis (albeit with plenty of room for variation) for a vast majority of popular song throughout its history. Conversely, through-composed pieces feature fresh music for each new stanza, though this is much less common within modern popular music (save from some more progressive pieces, only a handful of which could be said to be truly popular). Generally though, for maximum impact the sections need to be hammered into our long-term memory, through repetition, and as listeners, we can spot something we’ve heard before a musical mile-off.
“Through the associative mechanisms of long-term memory, similar patterns can still be recognized over fairly long time distances with many events intervening.” (Snyder, p203.)
Most of us are probably familiar with the main structural elements of a song, though we might not be entirely au fait with all the technical terms. This is probably just as well, as it turns out that many songwriters aren’t too clear on them either, and actually, the terms can be a bit… well… ‘woolly’ and change over time.
“Common terms like chorus, verse or bridge are subject to historical transformations.” (Von Appen, R & Frei-Hauenschild, M, 2015, p4)
Analysts of pop music occasionally borrow the far less ambiguous ‘A, B, A, B, C’ approach to labelling sections, more common to classical music. Fair dos. Its much simpler. Some academics have tried to coin new phrases more suited to pop music, like ‘transitional bridge’ and ‘primary bridge’, but they haven’t really caught on. “Take it to the transitional bridge” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Added to that, one person’s break is very much another’s bridge, with the less said about the pre-chorus the better. So, until someone comes up with anything better which actually sticks, the following list of labels is the best we’ve got.
Let me introduce you now to the many and varied sections you’re likely to encounter in a typical song.
Intro – while this is very much as the name suggests, its worth noting the sheer range of approaches to the introduction of a song. From long, drawn out build ups (Money For Nothing) to straight-to-the-chorus conciseness and everything in between. If some songs tease us with a tasty appetiser, then others throw the main course straight at us and smear it in our faces (including The Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love and She Loves You). Song writing gurus advise us to keep our intros pretty short, citing the diminishing attention spans of the general public as the driving force behind this shift. Other approaches include co-opting a gentler version of the chorus as an intro, as in none other than Aqua’s Barbie Girl.
Chorus – To continue the food metaphor, if music is a sandwich then the chorus is very much the filling you’ve paid your money for. Heaviest on repetition, both in terms of music and lyrics, the chorus is likely to pop up in a song at least two or three times, and in some cases, many more whether you asked for them or not. Some songs start with a chorus and even more end with one. The chorus is often the most ‘anthemic’ part of the song, the section that is most likely to incorporate the title of the song, and the section that most people will remember, after they’ve forgotten everything else.
“It is the most important element in a hit single because it is the part that most people carry around with them in their head… It’s the part that nags you while day dreaming in the classroom or at work or as you walk down the street.” (Drummond & Cauty, 1998)
Verse – along with the chorus, the verses constitute a fair proportion of a song’s total length. Again, there might be two, three or more verses, and musically, they can often be found to repeat in a similar way to the chorus. Lyrically, however, verses rarely repeat as they are intended to move the song’s ‘story’ along, introducing new lyrical ideas as they go. Arrangement-wise, verses can be presented in different ways throughout a song. Verse 1 and 2 might feature a full-band accompaniment, but verse 3 might be a more stripped back affair, an opportunity to turn the lights down low and engage in some deep reflection. Before the chorus kicks in of course.
Sting’s I Hung My Head is a good example of a song in which the verses push the narrative on, while the chorus reinforces the key message… which in this case is “Whoops. I accidentally shot a man.”
Pre-Chorus – a shorter linking section which, as the name suggest, precedes the chorus. Often this incorporates a build in energy toward the chorus, but is not generally considered to be part of the chorus itself. Both Wonderwall and Don’t Look Back In Anger by Oasis feature fairly clear-cut examples of the pre-chorus. “And all the roads we have to walk are winding…” and “Gonna start a revolution from my bed…” respectively. Bryan Adam’s (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, John Legend’s All Of Me, and Robbie Williams’ Angels all feature peachy pre-choruses.
Bridge – the bridge serves the opposite function to the pre-chorus as it creates a link (or indeed a bridge if you will) from the chorus back to the verse. The definition of the bridge is one of the more eggy, with some making little distinction between the bridge and the middle eight, or the pre-chorus. At least my definition gives the poor bridge some individual responsibility.
Instrumental break – this is where the vocalist finally lets someone else have a go at doing the melody, at which point we’re sure to find the guitarist, synth player, saxophonist and flautist all jostling for position. Of course we mustn’t forget that most expressive but often overlooked means of solo performance, whistling.
Middle Eight – a moment of contrast where the music and lyrics take an unexpected turn. So intriguing is the middle eight that I have written an entire post all about it. Please follow this link to find out just how strongly I feel about it.
Breakdown – similar to a middle eight, but less musically involved. As the name suggests, this is often where everything but the drums and vocals stop, while the remaining instrumentalists incite the audience to clap their hands. Good examples of the breakdown include Somebody to Love by Queen and Hey Ya! by Outkast.
Outro – also known as the ‘Coda’. Ending a song has long been considered a task of near impossibility, thus giving rise to the fade-out. Particular favourites of mine when it comes to outros include Elbow’s One Day Like This, which incidentally shares the same chord sequence with another epic outro, Hey Jude which wins the prize for ‘largest proportion of song taken up by its own outro’, though perhaps this is compensation for its lacking a true chorus.
So, that’s the theory at least, and we human beings like our labels for these things. However, if we’re to hold any hope of working out what’s going on as a song unfolds in front of us for the first time, it certainly helps to be able to determine where one section ends and another one starts. This can often begin with the lyrics as a cue, the choruses as we’ve identified usually share repeated lyrics, though as Covach points out…
“Lyrics can be repeated over different chord progressions” (Covach, J. 2005, p66)
Covach also points to harmony as a giveaway, and indeed distinct sections of a song do often roll along to their own distinct chord progressions which define them, though as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, this alone can’t be relied upon either.
“The same progression can support different lyrics” (Ibid, p66)
As an example, the chords in the verse of Oasis’s anthemic Don’t Look Back In Anger are essentially the same as those of the chorus, with only the pre-chorus changing things up a bit. In this example, it’s the paring down in rhythmic and melodic complexity that signify the chorus. As with many songs, the notes of the vocal melody are by-and-large longer in the chorus than in the verse, and as a result more anthemic.
Getting one’s affairs in order
So, returning to our search for some sort of never-fail rules, how do all these bits get strung together to form a song?
You could for instance follow a fairly standard approach as follows…
Intro | Verse 1 | Pre-Chorus | Chorus | Bridge | Verse 2 | Pre-Chorus | Chorus | Middle Eight or Breakdown | Chorus | Chorus | Outro
… and indeed according to the manual (literally, The Manual by the KLF), this would largely conform to ‘The Golden Rules’ to have a number 1 hit (in 1988 at least). Drummond and Cauty also set out some of the numbers forms.
“Each of these sections will be made up of bars in groupings of multiples of four. So you might have an intro containing four bars, a verse sixteen bars and a chorus eight bars.” (Drummond & Cauty, 1988).
If you’re not chasing that elusive number one single, then this formula can be taken with a dash of sodium, as it would be to overlook a number of other approaches, many of which have nonetheless earned acclaim. Consider for example the sheer directness of thundering in with a chorus (She Loves You, for example), a ballsy move if ever there was one, although some might deem giving all the song’s tricks away in the first 30 seconds something of a gamble. Another approach would be to further repeat the chorus toward the end of the song, just to make sure its been really hammered it into your long term memory. By this point the singer is often to be found playing merry hell with the vocal melody, melisma-ing all over the place. Songwriters of a more subtle persuasion may by contrast look to delay the hedonism by keeping the first chorus half the length of the later choruses, teasing the listener with what’s to come.
Of course, a song may not conform to notions of verses and choruses at all, which, while unorthodox by today’s standards (depending of how hard you look), certainly wouldn’t be out-of-place among a large number of songs from the folk music canon, where the repetition of verses alone is not uncommon (known as AAA form, simple verse form), with or without a recurring refrain at the end, as in Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind and Masters of War respectively. In fact, of all songs on The Freewheeling’ Bob Dylan album, only A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall could be said to have a chorus to speak of, depending on if you interpret the lyrics below to be a discreet section (i.e. a chorus) or just the refrain tagged to the end of the verse, as in Blowing In The Wind.
“And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, and it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall”
A favourite example of mine when it comes to verse form is Things The Grandchildren Should Know by the Eels, which sticks to the simplest primary chord progression, building slowly in intensity through changes in texture, but always letting the lyrics really do the talking. Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas is a good example of verse form with refrain.
Breaking the Rules
Here’s a task for you. Put on Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys. Now, take a piece of paper and a pen (ask an adult if you’re not sure what these are), and try to map out its structure. Give each section you come across a letter, and write down your final jumble of As, Bs, Cs, using the same letter again when you hear something familiar, Alternatively, you might want to assign them one of the labels we discussed earlier, like ‘verse’, ‘chorus’, ‘bridge’ etc. Whatever you’ve come up with, I’m pretty certain it won’t resemble the typical blueprint outlined above.
Would having it in a more traditional form have made it better? Worse? Any more or any less successful? Would we still be talking about it today if the Wilsons had decided that the slow section had no place in the song after all?
There are plenty more examples of similarly successful structurally skew-whiff songs, and so many permutations, with no single one of them any more ‘correct’ than any other, though you could argue that the underlying premise of a song can be enhanced or devalued by the way its structured.
As Von Appen & Frei-Hauenschild mention…
“… any conscious break with convention challenges us to interpret it.” (Von Appen & Frei-Hauenschild, 2015)
Empty Cans by the Streets (careful kids, this one’s got some swears in it) is the final track on the album A Grand Don’t Come For Free, and it plays beautifully with structure to tell two different possible outcomes to the same narrative set up throughout the rest of the album. It’s a sort of musical Sliding Doors, except this one involves a fight with a TV repair man, and rather less in the way of Gwyneth Paltrow. The song begins very much as you’d expect from the Streets, with typical dextrous, dead-pan vocal delivery and humour, but then somewhere in the middle we hear the sound of tape rewinding, and the song effectively begins again, but with a much happier ending, including a lovely piano chord sequence.
So songwriters can and do deliberately mess around with our expectations of structure, in the same way they do with harmony and melody to accentuate tension, unleash surprise etc. If there are any ‘rules’ when it comes to structure, then a great many songwriters have had no qualms in brazenly flouting them over the years to great effect, and we, the music appreciating public thank them for their audacity.
Bruce, D. (2018) “How Composers use Fibonacci Numbers & Golden Ratio | Composing with Fibonacci” – YouTube video available at https://youtu.be/yAyi8e5RDXw
Covach, J. “Form in Rock Music: A Primer,” in Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, ed. D. Stein (Oxford University Press, 2005), 65-76.
De Liesle, T “Nana na naaa! How Hey Jude became our favourite Beatles song”. Guardian article, available online at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/aug/21/how-hey-jude-became-our-favourite-beatles-song
Drummond, B & Cauty, J. (1988) The Manual KLF Publications.
Goldmacher, C. (2017) Three Tips for Writing Better Songs. Blog post on https://www.songwriting.net/blog/writingsongintros
Moore, A. F (2016). Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song. Oxford: Routledge
Service, T. (2016) “Stuck on repeat: why we love repetition in music” – Article, available online at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/apr/29/why-we-love-repetition-in-music-tom-service
Snyder, B. (2001). Music and memory. 1st ed. [Cambridge, Mass.]: CogNet.