New songwriters who are serious about the craft will soon find themselves looking for the answer to the question, “what is song structure”?
Song Structure is the term used that describes the order in which various song elements appear throughout a song. These elements include 1. intro 2. verse 3. pre-chorus 4. chorus 5. bridge and 6. outro. All songs contain some form of song structure.
When I started out writing songs I was more concerned with making sure the lines rhymed and the melody of the chorus was different than the verses.
As I progressed in my songwriting skills I learned that a song is composed of various parts. Each of these pieces plays a specific role in building a great song. I discovered the importance of becoming familiar with each one of these song parts and how to implement them.
Articles have been written that describe song structure in basic terms like verse, chorus, bridge, and maybe intro and pre-chorus. I will discuss these but I’m also going to dive deeper into the subject of song structure and point out the oft-overlooked elements that I consider just as important as the previously mentioned items.
If you are a new songwriter I encourage you to study this article. Your songwriting will definitely improve once you have an understanding of how songs are structured and are committed to implementing what you learn.
Let’s take a look at the macro view of song structure which includes the intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, outro, and song order.
1. The Song Intro
The song intro refers to what the listener actually hears at the beginning of the song. It can be a short instrumental, spoken words, an immediate verse or chorus, or percussion. Basically, it’s up to the songwriter to decide which type of intro will get the song started in an interesting way.
The majority of songs have some sort of instrumental introduction. The listener is conditioned to hear this and when something else happens here it’s out of the norm. So, if another type of intro is used it should be one that grabs and holds the attention of the listener right from the start.
One example of an iconic song intro is Lynard Skynard’s “Sweet Home Alabama”. Take a listen and you’ll hear a verbal coun-toff before the guitar intro comes in. However, you hear “2,3,_” (there’s silence where the fourth beat of the measure is) and then the familiar guitar riff comes in. A very effective and memorable song intro that begins the song structure.
Another “unusual” song intro is found in the Little River Band’s song, “Lonesome Loser”. They begin with the chorus of the song and sing it a cappella. An interesting and clever way to write a song intro.
2. The Song Verse
The verses of a song are the sections where specific details are shared about the song’s subject matter. The function of the song verse within the song structure is to focus on a particular aspect of the song’s message. For example, if a song is about the joy of Summer, then each verse would detail a specific aspect of Summer that is enjoyable.
One verse might talk about how it’s nice to be out of school and hanging out with friends at the beach. Another verse could be about taking a family vacation together. Maybe another verse describes backyard barbecues and parties. Each verse points to and supports the overall theme of the song….the joy of Summer.
Take a look at the lyrics to Billy Joel’s song, “The Piano Man”. Each verse describes a person or situation that the singer observes while he’s working his job playing piano at a bar. You can see how all the verses support the theme of the song, a piano man.
(Read my article, “What is a Song Verse” for deeper insight on song verses)
3. The Song Chorus
The Chorus of a song is the place to convey the overall message. Back to our Summertime song example, the chorus would, in general terms, communicate how great Summer is. The love of doing all the fun things you can do in the Summer, how sad it is when Summer comes to an end, etc.
Whereas the verses expand on the idea with detailed specificity, the chorus generalizes the song idea. Sometimes the song structure begins with the chorus and then goes to a verse as we saw above with the Little River Band’s “Lonesome Loser Song”. It’s up to you, the songwriter, to determine what is needed to make your song the best it can be.
(Read my article, “How to Write a Chorus“)
4. The Song Pre Chorus
Sometimes a song will have a pre-chorus. The pre-chorus is usually a couple of lines between the verse and the chorus. It serves as a transition point. This can be an instrumental section or lyrical. The purpose of the song pre-chorus is to build or ramp up to the chorus. It’s a sort of gateway that leads the listener to the payoff, the song chorus.
Not every song needs a pre-chorus. Again, it’s up to you, the songwriter, to determine that. Experiment with it. Sing your song to yourself with and without a pre-chorus and see which you like better. Ask a friend or cowriter which sounds better.
If you’re starting out as a songwriter go ahead and write a pre-chorus for practice. You may or may not decide to include it in the final version of your song but writing it will improve your skills whether or not it ends up in the song.
5. The Song Bridge
I’ve written an entire article, “What is the bridge of a Song“. Check it out. I go into more detail about what a song bridge is and how to implement one. In short, it’s a section of a song that departs from the familiar sound of the chorus and verse melody and provides the listener a different perspective of the song. Usually, with its own unique melody that is different than the rest of the song.
It is a kind of lyrical detour that gives the listener a different perspective of the song. In my article on bridges, I use the analogy of driving a familiar route every day then one day deciding to take a side road that you’ve never driven before.
That short trip along the side road brings new scenery and perspective you haven’t seen before during all those days you’ve driven the familiar route in the past. You’re on the same journey, just with a brief, slightly different perspective. The bridge can also just be an instrumental section. Again, to include a bridge into your song or not depends on your judgment of whether the song would benefit from a bridge.
6. Song Outro
This is the ending of the song. You can get very creative here if you wish. An example of an extreme, abrupt ending to a song is the Beatles, “I Want You (She’s so Heavy)”. The song ends with an instrumental section that eventually just completely stops.
There’s no fade out. It’s like someone just clicked the stop button while the song was playing. A song could also have an a capella ending. There’s no limit, only your imagination. So, have fun with it and add a unique and memorable song outro to your song structure.
7. Song Layout or Flow
I use this term to describe the order of sections that make up a song. You will commonly see “Song Structure” used as well. You might see the verse referred to as “A” and the chorus as “B” and maybe a bridge as “C”.
A typical layout would be ABABCB. This is a very common layout for a song where you have a verse, chorus, another verse, then chorus, bridge, then another chorus to end the song. It could also be labeled V1, Chorus, V2, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus. Again, you will see the song flow presented in different ways depending on who is describing the song layout.
One of the oldest forms of song structure is the AAA song form. There is no chorus in an AAA song form. Although not as popular as this form once was it still is used effectively from time to time. Alan Jackson had a number one hit using this song form with “Remember When”. When you listen you’ll hear a key change in the middle of the song. So, even though there is not a chorus in the song it stays interesting, in part, because of that subtle change.
If I were to lay out a song that has a pre-chorus I might label that section (p)Chorus, or pre-chorus, or even (p)B. If I saw a layout that started with a “B” I would assume that the song begins with the chorus. There is no universal way to label the song flow. Just know to expect variations and work with it from there.
Now I want to get to some other “micro” items that I consider to be part of song structure that typically do not get included in a general discussion on song structure.
8. Rhyming scheme or pattern
It’s a good idea, in my opinion, to establish a song rhyme scheme that you will use throughout the song. Once you’re a more experienced songwriter you can “break” this rule but I think it’s important to know the rules first.
I’ve written extensively on types of rhymes in songs and song rhyme patterns. In short, let’s say you have a four-line verse and lines 1 and 3 end with words that rhyme with an “ay” sound. Day, say, portray, play, etc. And let’s make lines 2 and 4 end with an “oh” sound. Words like, So, know, grow, etc. The rhyme scheme for the verses would be ABAB.
With an ABAB rhyme scheme, you should keep all of the verses in your song structured so that lines 1 and 3 have the same rhyme sound and lines 2 and 4 would have the same rhyme sound. Again, my article “Types of Rhymes in Songs” goes into greater detail than the scope of this article can cover.
And just a quick side note: try to vary the rhyme “sound” from verse to verse. Notice I said “sound” and scheme. So, working from our example above verse 2 might have lines 1 and 3 rhyme with an “ee” sound like me, be, free, etc and lines 2 and 4 might have an “end” sound like send, commend, pretend, etc. Once more, my article on Types of Rhymes in Songs really gets more detailed.
Alliteration in songwriting is a powerful literary technique. If you want an in-depth explanation read my article “Alliteration in Songwriting“. I give examples from my own songs I’ve written. Alliteration is the term used when two words that begin with similar vowel or consanant sounds are next to each other or in close proximity to each other. Think of the Rolling Stones song, “Jumpin Jack Flash”, for example. The “J’s” next to each other sound like they belong there. It has a natural smooth flow.
10. Song Rhythm Pattern
Most beginning songwriters concentrate on lyrics and melody as far as a song’s structure goes. That’s understandable, I did the same thing. Write words that rhyme and put a melody to them, right? Well, an often overlooked part of a song structure is the rhythm to those words.
Where the words are sung within the beats/bars in the structure can make a big difference. Let’s say you have a song that has 4 beats to a measure. You can decide to sing the first word of a line on beat one, beat two, beat 3 or 4 or anywhere in between. To give you an audible example listen to this audio clip below. I will sing a brilliant lyrical and melodic line I came up with at different beats of the measure.
See how you can change the feel of a song simply by starting at various places within a measure? This is a simple way to dramatically alter the feel of the song structure. The sooner you embrace this fact the quicker your songwriting will progress.
Above are a few of the items that are just as important to know about as far as song structure goes than just what a verse or chorus is. Be sure to study this article and the links to my other articles. If you are a serious beginning songwriter you should have an appetite to learn all that you can.
Go read other songwriter books and articles. I’ve listed a few below that I recommend (Amazon affiliate links). Study your favorite songwriter’s songs and see if you can recognize why the songs are great. Can you find the sections pattern, the rhyme scheme, and any alliteration being used? What about the rhythm and how they chose to sing a line where they did? There are many things to learn. You learn by study and practice. Write songs, a lot of them.
Don’t worry about them being “good” or not. I give you permission to write about any silly subject. Just pick one and write a song. The fact that you will implement all that is in this article will strengthen your songwriting skills with each song. There are no “bad” songs. Each one is a stepping stone that leads you along the path to songwriting greatness.
I explain more about this in my article, “Why You Should Write Several “Bad” Songs“, As long as you’re heading in the right direction you’re doing it right. Thanks for checking out this article. If you’ve read this far I can tell you’re serious. That’s the first step. Now go write! I want you to succeed.