Development: Song Structure

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Yep, you know the routine – we write these as students not masters and hope you enjoy the sharing.  This is a rough overview of song-structure to give you some basic vocabulary, a few examples  and then five basic  lessons.

Part One:  Song Structure, The Basics:   A key lesson for us over time has been to be much more thoughtful around song structure, musically and lyrically and invest in all parts of the song and to not let cement harder early on structure.   There are wonderful on line debates about the right song structure, where to put guitar solo’s etc.  You should join in – here’s a good example:  click here.   Now for the building blocks, briefly:

  • Lyrics:   In terms of words,  we mostly break songs down into Verses and Choruses, with some songs having a Middle 8.  It is worth adding ‘intro’s’ and ‘outro’s’ on the list as well.
  • Musically:  Musically, there’s much more going on, with the building blogs being:  intro’s, verses, choruses, Middle 8’s, outro’s and then transitions (transitions are often called Pre-Choruses and Bridges)  and solo’s.   These can be overlapping (e.g., intro’s and verses might be same) but you need to be deliberate in deciding this.   Too often, because the band doesn’t talk about what is going on in a song, decisions are made by default. The intro and outro  is just a once around the verse , and transitions are just once around the verse again.  Might be fine, but might also be pretty boring.
  • Structurally, you then need to decide how to put together the pieces.  The classic is:  Intro, V1, V2, C1, V3, C2 outro.   About 80% of songs follow this.   But, of course, this doesn’t really capture the band’s choices even on a basic song because what you really have is:  Intro, Transition 1, V1, Transition 2, V2, Transition 3, C1, Transition 4, V3, Transition 5, C2, Transition 6, Outro.  A basic song has 13 choices for music and tha’t before we bring in middle 8’s, solo’s and changing the tune between verses or Chorus and long before we start thinking about challenging the order – why not a C1 opening, then intro, followed by 3 straight verses with a middle 8 followed by a chorus outro?
  • The So What?   The point is that all this matters and during the demo stage of a song, you shouldn’t let the cement harder too fast:  a lyricist might have brought some words the follow a v1, v2, C1, v3, C2 pattern, but there’s no reason that the song will end up there.    Play with the basic building blocks, and play with the transitions to see if you can make some thing special.   Here’s a nice website on basic song structures:  click here.

Part Two:  Song Structures in Action a Quick Review:  it is interesting to break down songs to see how many different musical ideas are happening and what the artists are doing about basic structure.    Here’s a few:

  • The Classic Example:    So at it’s simplist, here’s a pretty classic song structure, from the The Beach Boys, California Girls:   intro, v1, v2, C1, v3, v4, C2, M8, C3-outro.    The song depends on great intro, verses and chorus, with the chorus then morphing to outro.  Simple M8, but nothing special.  Anyone Else but You, in Juno,  is as simple as: v1, v2, v3, v4, v5, v6, V7 (do do do).  The magic comes from the verses feeling like half verse and half chorus and the alternative voices – but there is only one musical building block.  Not even an intro or outro.
  • Some subtle Moves:     But you find pretty quickly that even the most straight forward songs have a lot of lovely subtlety.  The Beatles first single,  Love Me Do  is really just a chorus, with no verses at all but a killer intro and m8, followinig this structure:   intro, C1, intro, C2, intro, M8, C3, intro, solo, C4, intro.   They struck gold with John’s harmonica and simply used it for all transitions and outro.   Adele, Someone Like You  is stunning in the variety of melodies, as she throws two separate verse medologies, a stunning long chorus (with two separate hooks) and a wonderful middle 8.  Each building block is a stunner and the song is more an Adele’s greatest hits than one song.  Here’s the structure:  intro, Va1, Va2, Va3, Vb1, C1, Va4, Va5, Vb2, Pre-chorus, C2, M8, Pre-chorus, C3, C4, Outro. 
  • A few WTF Moments:  A lot of what makes the new song writers so exciting is that they throw a lot of ‘classic structures’ out the window.  it takes a numbrer of listens to find the chorus in Laura Marlings New Romantic Way but that is what makes it so good.     The Libertines, Don’t Look Back in the Sun:    Basically a great intro, great outro and a few fast verses and chorus – but feels like it’s in a great hurry to hook up the intro to the outro.  Also, has fun by having the title be named after the first line of the verses vs the chorus.   Looks like a basic structure but a lot going on musically:  great intro, pre-verse, v1, v2, C1, v3, v4, C2, solo, m8, C3, solo, outro.

Part Three:  Our Five Humble Lessons:  As we’ve gone through the four albums and help our discovery artists, we’ve started pulling together some basic ‘studio lessons.’  They might be helpful to you:

  1. Tear up the linear structure implied by lyrics:   A lot of our songs start with lyrics, and a lot of those lyrics start with pretty basic v1,v2, C1, v3, C2 structures (our lyricist lacks imagination).  Our first rule is not get locked into that as final structure.   Unless there is a very strong narrative that requires the chorus to come after V2, there’s no reason we can’t start with a chorus, or add a middle 8, or repeat a verse, etc… Don’t pursue the lyrics demand a song structure.
  2. Don’t let cement harden:  Play around.  Even if someone brings in a ‘demo’ or sings the song for you with all verses and choruses known, don’t just jump in and presume you have a song structure.  let the band play, deconstruct and reconstruct and try varients.
  3. Let the Building Block ‘Be all it can Be’:   Make sure you let each bit of the song have a life of it’s own.  Resist the one or two musical idea them.  Sometimes the intro is just a run around the verse, but it doesn’t always need to be.  Let each little building block ‘be it that it can be…’:
    1. Intros:   In other blogs we’ve described 8 types of intro’s?  Are you introducing a killer riff, are you starting with a cow bell, are you seducing your listener with a three chord loop?  Don’t just make the intro be a once around the verse 1 chords.
    2. Verses:   Are you locked in one melody?  Or are you doing a bit of variation?  Is there any surprises between verses?
    3. Pre-chorus:   What have you done musically to build to the chorus?  The best is typically a build and release.  Did you do this?  What are the drums and guitars doing to build to the Chorus moment?
    4. Chorus:   Hook?  Hook?  Hook?  Hook?
    5. Middle 8:  v1, v2, C1?  I’m bored now.  Mess me up with a middle 8. Break for a drum solo. .
    6. Solo’s:  Is your guitarist just noodling around the chords?  Stop it.  Time for a slide whistle…
    7. Other bridges:  have you talked other transitions… are there any exciting ones that the band is having fun with or are you just going through the motions?
    8. Outros:  We describe 9 in another blog.  Are you just fading????
  4. Leave Time and Space for Transitions:   Play a lot with transitions, there’s a lot of fun there…. We are only just discovering the power of a great transition between verse and chorus.
  5. Then Throw Most of it Away and Break three minutes:   We are also learning though that the best songs are closer to 2 minutes than 4, and we have to be doing something really specifical to break the 3 minute mark (which we do too often with not very special material).  Once you’ve explored structures and given a chance for each litle building block to achieve it’s little full potential, then you need to start stripping back again and get rid of ‘useless’ bars that aren’t offering new information.  We’ve found a lot of time wasted in bad transitions, in ‘once arounds’ etc… strip it all back and beat the three minute mark.

That’s it.


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