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Songwriting 101: Basic Song Structure
Posted on September 3, 2021
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Maybe by now you’ve started to get the hang of playing your instrument of choice and you’re progressing nicely. You may start to feel like putting your new playing skills to good use and come up with something to play that has not been written by someone else. Sounds like you’re getting ready to start writing your own songs.
In order to write a catchy song that others are excited to hear and maybe even sing along to, it’s not enough to have a few good guitar riffs or drum beats. Instead, you need to know how to put all of the different elements in order. That’s where the song’s structure comes in. If you want to try your hand at songwriting or just want to learn what a song is made of, keep reading as we explore the different parts of a song.
Even though there are no fixed rules for writing a song, it’s good to be familiar with the basic song structure. By following the conventions of songwriting and using the different parts of a song appropriately, you can make it easier for a listener to understand and follow the song.
Even if we’re not aware of it, we’re usually pretty good at anticipating how a song is going to progress. That’s because of the different conventions of songwriting and song structure. Let’s go through the different parts of a song that you can then use as building blocks for your next big hit.
If you want to get the listener’s attention and keep them listening to the end, you need to have a captivating intro. A good intro establishes the song and can hint at what to expect later on. For example, when writing a song try to give an idea of the genre your song is in: is it a dramatic pop ballad, an adrenaline filled rock song or a straightforward punk track. The intro can also introduce the song’s key and basic rhythm of the song while also establishing the song’s theme in its lyrics. However, don’t give away everything you have to offer during the intro but keep the listener wanting more and continue listening.
If you’re a skilled lyricist and a storyteller, the verse is your chance to highlight your songwriting skills when it comes to lyrics. The length and the number of verses can vary, but having at least two verses in a song is a good call. During the verse use your lyrics to advance the story you’re trying to tell. Just make sure that the lyrics of the different verses work together and make sense either thematically or tell the same narrative. Don’t forget to add some twists and surprises as the song progresses.
Before the chorus you can also include a pre-chorus, a section that is shorter than the verse it precedes and the chorus that follows. This part of a song is also known as a build and is used to transition from the verse to the chorus. A pre-chorus is optional but is a good way to get the listener prepared and excited for the chorus, which for many is the highlight of the song.
Next up is the chorus. The chorus is usually the most memorable part of a song, partly because it’s repeated many times during the song and contains the ‘hook’ of the song. Because of the repetition, a chorus is also known as a ‘refrain’. Usually the lyrics of a song’s chorus don’t change, but you can surprise the listener by adding something new or changing the lyrics or structure of the chorus as the song progresses. When writing a song you’ll want to make sure that the chorus is the song’s emotional high-point and contains more energy than the verse, for instance.
What is the difference between a chorus and a hook? One thing that people can often mix up is the difference between the chorus of a song and a ‘hook’. Whereas the chorus is a part of the song, a hook can be a bit trickier to nail down and not everyone agrees with the definition of a hook. You know the feeling when a song gets stuck playing in your head and you can only hear the same part of the song repeating over and over again? That’s the hook.
Like with a fishing hook to a fish, the hook of a song is intended to catch the listener and their attention. This can be done with a simple musical element such as a riff or a melody, or perhaps a line of lyrics during the chorus. You can also have multiple hooks in the song, but there’s usually a single extremely memorable and catchy hook that will get the song stuck in the listener’s head.
The bridge of a song usually occurs after the second chorus and acts as a sort of transition. In a way, this section acts as a ‘bridge’ between the second and third chorus of the song. This is why the bridge also differs from both the verse and chorus. By adding a bridge section before the third and final chorus you can avoid the listener getting bored by too much repetition. So when writing a bridge, try contrasting it with the chorus and the verse if possible.
The bridge is a great place to add your impressive guitar solo, a familiar convention of all great rock songs. The solo doesn’t have to be for the guitar though and it’s a great opportunity to showcase your playing skills no matter the instrument. The solo also allows for some improvisation with your instrument or you can have multiple solos back to back where each player can show their skills, whether they are a bass player, drummer, saxophonist or pianist.
Finally we have the outro, the end of the song—it’s the opposite of the song’s intro. There are many ways to go about finishing up your song. The outro could just be a repetition of the final chorus as the song slowly fades out or maybe you’ll want to do an AC/DC-style big rock ending and end the song with a bang. The importance of an outro shouldn’t be underestimated as it will be very confusing to the listener if the song just abruptly stops. You’ve written a great track, so don’t disappoint the listener by having a lackluster ending.
Different song structures
Here are a few well-known song structures that you can find used in a variety of rock and pop songs throughout the years. Here the different parts of a song are marked with the letters A, B and C.
When it comes to modern pop and rock music, the ABABCB structure is probably the most common one. Simply put, the ABABCB song structure translates to verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus, with an intro and outro bookending the song.
The AABA song structure, also known as the 32-bar form, starts with two A-sections with eight bars, followed by a B-section with eighth bars and a third repetition of the first A-section. Although the three A-parts can differ to some extent, overall they’re quite similar. This song structure used to be popular in American popular music of the early 1900s, but has since been taken over by the now common ABABCB song structure.
To simplify things a bit, there’s also the AAA song structure, or the strophic form. Here different sections of the song are repeated over and over again with the lyrics changing as the song progresses. In case you can’t come up with more than one part for the song but have a great story to tell with your lyrics, give this less common song structure a try. However, having a captivating and memorable hook in the AAA-structure is crucial to keep the song from getting too repetitive.
Tips for writing rock and pop songs
Let’s wrap things up with a short checklist to help you write the next big rock anthem or the catchiest earworm everyone’s ever heard. You can use these as simple guidelines but don’t get too caught up with other people’s opinions. Experimenting and coming up with new things may lead to something new and exciting.
We’re told not to judge a book by its cover and the same applies to songs and song titles. However, a good song title may get your listener interested. On top of that, if you’re having a hard time getting started with your song, try coming up with a great title and start building your song around the title.
Unless you’re making an instrumental song, having good and memorable lyrics is key. Write about something you know or a theme that’s close to your heart. Use the intro or the first verse as an introduction to the story you’re trying to tell and progress the narrative during the second verse and the bridge. For the chorus, try coming up with simple but memorable lyrics that people can maybe even sing along to.
To help you with songwriting, come up with a chord progression for your song. If the lyrics and melodies aren’t coming naturally, you can use a simple four chord progression to help you write the rest of the song. Once you have the chord progression in place it’s much easier to improvise the lyrics and melodies on top of that, instead of coming up with them out of thin air.
As we already mentioned, the hook of a song is crucial in order to make your song memorable and catchy. Luckily the hook can be many different things, such as a sung melody or a simple riff. Add a catchy hook in the chorus of your song and you’re sure to have a tune that will get the listener coming back again and again.
Start writing your own songs
And there you have it. Now you’re ready to try your hand at songwriting. Use the basic song structure and different parts of the song together to build a great memorable track. Just remember that a single part alone or a hook placed out of its context doesn’t make a great song. By combining all of the different parts together you can create something truly unique.
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