Vinyl records and headphones

Mark Solarski

When writing a song, it’s important to think about structure. Whether you’re writing the music or the lyrics first, a strong structure can help your song really shine and reach your listeners effectively! It can also stop it from becoming a mess of incoherent thoughts and melodies jumbled together in an endless stream of consciousness.

Understanding the basic elements of a classic song structure helped me so much when I was just starting out as a songwriter, because it gave me a framework in which to work in. Obviously when you’re feeling comfortable with basic structures and have improved your composition skills, you can switch the elements around and make the structure as simple or complicated as you like.

Most songs don’t actually have that many sections; we’re usually looking at 3 to 6 sections per song, and this definitely makes it easier for us. Let’s look at the basic structure, delve into the detail of each part and then analyse a couple of well known songs to see what their specific structure looks like.

The Basic Song Structure

This is actually quite simple. This is the basic structure most songs use today:

  • Verse
  • (Pre-chorus)
  • Chorus
  • Verse
  • (Pre-chorus)
  • Chorus
  • Bridge
  • Chorus

The pre-chorus is in brackets because it isn’t always there. To these parts you can add the intro, which is usually a beginning riff or sequence of chords which introduces the song.

The Verse

Normally the verse is a pretty simple structure. Usually songs start with one or (more often) two verses; this is your chance to introduce the story and to create interest in listeners. While it isn’t essential to rhyme, it is useful as it creates stability right from the beginning. The melody of the verses usually stays the same for each verse, with perhaps small variations, while the lyrics change.

The Chorus (The Centre of a Song)

The chorus is your number one shot at blowing the listeners away. It’s usually the catchiest part of the song and it stands out more than the verses. It has the same melody and the same words every time we hear it (unless you want to change up the final chorus to give the song a sudden different meaning). This is the section which listeners sing or hum and remember most so it needs to stand out.

You can make your chorus stand out by changing volume, intensity and often pitch as well; the chorus is normally the part where the “high notes” come in. Although I don’t particularly fancy making the chorus a singer’s technique-fest (“Oh-look-how-good-I-am-and-how-high-my-voice-can-go”stereotype), it can be an effective way of making your chorus stand out. If you are also producing your own songs, the chorus is where you need to step up the rhythm section and give your song a fuller sound. Again, usually.

The title of your song will probably come from the chorus most of the time, but that isn’t always the case. Although having the title in the chorus can be a great way to make your song more memorable, sometimes the title isn’t even in the song or might appear at the very end. This is what happens in Violet Hill by Coldplay, where the title actually only comes out in the bridge. Incidentally, Violet Hill doesn’t even really have a chorus, but only a short refrain (“If you love me, won’t you let me know”).

If your motivation for writing songs is pitching them to the industry, try to get to the chorus in a minute or less. Most record label executives aren’t particularly aware musically speaking, and tend to prefer a song which gets to the chorus quickly. Of course, this isn’t a necessary requisite as there are beautiful songs with totally weird structures and choruses which aren’t really even choruses (see Violet Hill above).

To switch things around, you could even try to start your song with the chorus. There are plenty of songs which do this effectively, such as Any Way You Want It by Journey, or You Give Love A Bad Name by Bon Jovi.

The Pre-chorus

The pre-chorus is a part which is used to link the verse to the chorus. It utilises a different melody to both chorus and verse, although it can be similar or simply a variation of the verse. It makes the transition between verse and chorus smoother or serves to introduce elements which add interest (e.g. a particular bass sound). The pre-choruses are the same melody wise whereas; concerning lyrics, there isn’t a specific rule but they’re often the same.

The Bridge

I loooooove the bridge. Love it love it love it. Did I mention I love it?

The bridge is something NEW. I adore it because it usually adds a moment of realisation, or surprise, or an emotional peak. It’s usually the place where you give the listener an “aha!” moment or a special insight into your song. Alternatively (love this!) it can be an instrumental part where there’s a simple catchy solo before the final chorus.

Being something new, the melody should be different from both chorus and verse. Experiment with changing melody length or motion, as well as with chords you haven’t used before. A bridge can make your song much stronger if used right!

It’s also particularly useful when there’s a key change between verse and chorus but. However, I don’t recommend doing that, especially at the beginning; it can be confusing and also sounds quite old. It was a commonly used technique a few years ago though, when songs used to go up quite a bit in the final chorus. This was mainly used to showcase the singer’s technical ability and to create a change in the piece. A clear example of this is My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion, which goes from C#minor to F minor…quite a jump!

The Intro

Here’s my suggestion: avoid the intro if it’s simply a repetition of four chords. There really is no point; you’re better off starting your song with the verse straight away. Use the intro if you need it to introduce a particular sound or riff which is going to identify the whole song. Take Shape of My Heart by Sting, for example; most people actually remember the beginning guitar riff better than any other part of the song!

Song Analysis N.1: The Beatles – Let It Be

This is an easy example of a very very basic song structure and yet an absolutely amazing song.

  • Verse 1 (When I find myself in times of trouble…)
  • Verse 2 (And in my hour of darkness…)
  • Chorus (Let it be)
  • Verse 3 (And when the brokenhearted people…)
  • Verse 4 (For though they may be parted…)
  • Chorus
  • Verse 5 (And when the night is cloudy)
  • Verse 6 ( I wake up to the sound of music…)
  • Final Chorus

Song Analysis N.2: Madonna – Give It To Me

This structure is not as regular, but I chose it as an example because I’m going to use this song again when talking about harmonic structure (i.e. which chords to use). This song only uses ONE chord. That’s right, one throughout the whole song. Here’s the rundown on the structure.

  • Verse 1 (What are you waiting for…)
  • Verse 2 – but this time it has a different melody to verse 1 (Got no boundaries…)
  • Pre-chorus (Don’t stop me now…)
  • Chorus (Give it to me)
  • Verse 3 (They say that a good thing never lasts…)
  • Verse 4 – again, different melody (Give me the bass line and I’ll shake it…)
  • Pre-chorus (Don’t stop me now…)
  • Chorus (Give it to me)
  • Bridge (feat. Pharrell, Get stupid)
  • Pre-chorus (Don’t stop me now…)
  • Final Chorus + Coda (You’re only here to win…)

Phew…and all that with only one chord! Anyway, I hope that cleared up song structure a little bit!

Analysing songs like this may seem like a pointless exercise but it’s actually really really useful. By studying structures, you will also internalise them and start using them in your own songs.

How do you apply structure in your songs? Let me know in the comments!



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