Understanding Song Structures and Forms
So, you have just begun to get your head around the Diatonic Modes of the Major Scale and are beginning to explore the scales and chord progressions that come from them. You practice your ass off with licks and arpeggios, but you soon realise that all of these scales and and other 'shredderings' are useless unless you put them into a song. So how do you do that? Well, if chord progressions are the building blocks of a song, then understanding a songs' structure and form is the blueprint you must be able to read .
Song structure is the arrangement of a song. Some songs are made from a single chord progression that is played over & over again in the same way from beginning to end (strophic form) and are complete songs. Other songs have different sections and multiple chord progressions that are arranged in a far more complex manner. This doesn’t make one more or less impactful than the other, just approached differently. The arrangement of a song is typically sectional, meaning that unique structures are arranged in such a way to create a form which defines the song.
Understanding the various parts of a song not only is important to your development as a budding song writer or composer but also as a hobby guitarist/musician. I know this topic is a favourite in my classes, because it helps my students walk, run & fly as composers
Song Structure Terms
Introduction – the introduction (intro) is the structure easiest to understand. It lives at the beginning of a song. It’s generally instrumental and establishes the songs’ key elements, such as the tempo, the key, and its rhythmic feel.
Sometimes an intro is a completely unique and doesn’t have any of the elements of the more repetitive parts of a song. Although in most pop songs the intro is generally an 8 or 16 bar grab of the main hook of the song. This is the first opportunity a songwriter gets to hook you into a great guitar riff (Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple), a three or four part vocal harmony (Fat Bottom Girls by Queen), or memorable drum beat (We Will Rock You also by Queen) helps to tune the listener’s ears to the forthcoming repetitive parts of the song.
Verse- Lyrically, the verse is where the story of the song gets told. A song has multiple verses and even though, the lyrics can be quite different, it is used to develop the story. As we listen from one verse to the next, we’re fed a little more information about the characters of the song.
Musically, the verse can be as simple as two chords bouncing between each other (Horse with No Name by America – E min – D6/9) or complex and varied (Space Oddity by David Bowie
C- Em- C- Em- Am- Am/G-D/F#)
Pre-Chorus- lives as you can probably tell just before the chorus. It is also known as the ‘lift’.
Lyrically the pre-chorus sets you up for the memorable chorus lines. Musically it’s an intentional build which uses both intensity and pitch as contrast to the verse. In order to build intensity via pitch, we use modulation. At this point we are trying to get to the chorus in a flowing way. So, the use of IV & V chords lead us well into the chorus which is going back to the I chord (tonic) of the song.
Chorus - Think of your chorus as the big idea for what your song’s all about. That’s partly why your title is most likely to show up in your chorus. Your title also sums up what the song’s about. Melodically, the chorus will be the catchiest part of your song, unless you have a separate hook. This is what people will have stuck in their head long after your song is over. When people get your chorus stuck in their head, they’ll easily know what your song sounds like and is called and therefore be able to find it later when they want to hear it again.
Look up Axis of Awesome- ‘Four Chord Song’ on Youtube with their comedy song about the most famous four chords ever used ( I- V – vi – IV)in writing a number 1 hit. Now, there are numerous ways to go about writing a chorus, but after watching that video, I think you will agree that you can deliberately use well-trodden paths to help you write a song.
Bridge – the Bridge, also known as the middle eight is a section that provides a departure from the intro, verse, pre-chorus and chorus. The music is always different here. You can choose anything melodically and rhythmically that you feel appropriate in this section, and I dare say you will get away with it. I like to use different rhythmic feels and modal shift both in key as well as changing keys to help achieve a middle eight section.
The reason why the bridge is also known as a middle eight, is because of the number of bars generally used in this section.
Hook-the hook doesn’t necessarily refer to a specific section of a song, except to say it’s the catchiest part of a song. Most of the time, it will be your chorus. It’s repeated throughout the song numerous times to do one thing only. Get stuck in your head. I used Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple as an intro example earlier. Truth is, the intro riff to Smoke on the Water hits six times as an intro with a further two between verses, chorus and the guitar solo, but also another 4 times in the outro (coda). It is a Rock riff of legendary status and known as the million-dollar Riff!
Outro – an outro or the ‘Coda” is the way the song ends. There are numerous ways that you can end a song. The most popular are either a repeat of the hook or chorus to a fade out, or the big ending with the stop.
Song Form describes the structure of songs in an easy to understand framework. When using song form letters are assigned to the different sections of a song, where repeated sections are assigned the same letter as was assigned on the first occurrence of that section.
The letters then create a map of the overall song, or the song architecture of the key feature of that type of song. Thinking of song form helps song writers retain an overview of songs and how the sections of music that make up the song are organised. It also helps other musicians to memorise the form of a song they are playing
Popular Song Forms
AAA – (Strophic Song Form) All sections identical in chord structure and direction
e.g. Verse / Verse / Verse
AABA- e.g. Verse / Verse / Chorus /Verse
ABAB – e.g. Verse / Chorus / Verse/Chorus
ABC- e.g. Verse / Chorus / Bridge
ABAC – e.g. Verse / Chorus / Verse/ Bridge
ABCD – Intro / Verse / Chorus / Bridge
12-Bar Song Form
16 Bar Song form
I hope this has made it a lot easier to understand those songs you have always wanted to emulate.