One of the reasons that you might add a bridge to your song is that it can make it just a bit longer, if all you’ve got is a couple of verses. So if, by the time you’ve reached the end of your second go-through of the chorus, you feel that your song would sound too short if you ended there, a bridge can help.
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A song’s bridge bears a bit of resemblance to a verse in the sense that it typically uses a melody and lyric that’s different from the chorus. But there’s usually another important difference: it takes your song on a chord progression journey that contrasts with anything else you’ve heard before that point.
And most of the time, that journey starts in what would be called an opposite mode. This means that if your song’s chorus is in a major key, the bridge often starts out sounding minor.
Getting the Bridge Started
So let’s say that you’ve identified the need for a bridge, but you can’t get it started. Here are a couple of chord progression starters that will give you at least the first two chords, and from those two chords you can then create a more complete progression that will serve your bridge well.
Let’s say your song’s chorus is in C major, and the chorus progression ends with Dm-G (sounding like it wants to move on to C). The two progression starters that are practically always going to work for you are:
vi – ii (Am – Dm)
vi – FlatVII (Am – Bb)
Minor Key Suggestions
If your chorus is in a minor key, you’ll want to create contrast by starting a bridge perhaps with a major-key feel. So if your chorus progression ends with those same Dm-G chords (iv – bVII in minor key roman numerals), but sounding like it wants to move on to Am, try this as a bridge starter :
Flat-II – VI (Bb – F)
VI – III (F – C)
As you probably already know, once you get the first two chords, you can almost hear what might happen next, so do lots of experimenting. Just remember that all bridges come to an end, usually after eight bars (the so-called “middle-8”), so your progression doesn’t need to be overly long. Generally, it’s four bars in this new key, and then the next four bars you need to find a way back to the key or your chorus for those final chorus repeats.
Don’t forget that there are other considerations for writing a good song bridge. In addition to a unique progression, you’ll also need to write a lyric that offers a completion to the “story” (either literal or figurative) that has happened up to that point.
And regarding melody, a bridge is a great place to offer some sort of high, climactic point that gives your bridge an important role to play.
But even if you know all this, sometimes the problem is just getting started. If you’re stuck, just getting the first two chords can release the logjam and get your songwriting process moving again.
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This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, and so I’ll state this up front, and then give you some additional thoughts:
Good music is not meant to express emotion; good music IS meant to create emotion.
I want to tell you a bit more about this. To say that a good song is meant to express emotion is like saying that a good car is meant to burn gas. Yes, good cars burn gas, but so do bad cars. And a bad song can express a lot of emotion without creating it in the listener, and that’s a song with a problem.
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I have said many times that good songs are about feelings — about emotions. But those are emotions that are created in the listener as they listen to the combination of all the components that make up that song: the melody, chords, lyrics, instrumentation, vocal style, and so on.
In the attempt to create emotion within the listener, the good singer-songwriters will likely express a lot of emotion: Art Garfunkel singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water”; Leonard Cohen singing “Hallelujah”; Adele singing “When We Were Young.”
But emotion is meaningless if the listener isn’t using it to generate their own emotional response. If you listen to a song and feel nothing — either because the subject doesn’t resonate with you, or there’s just something not sitting well in the production of the recording — then all the emotion of the singer (songwriter, producer, etc.) is meaningless.
As you write your own songs and you are at the final stages of writing and then recording the song, you need to listen to what you’ve written, and ask yourself — from a songwriting point of view — “Does this song have the capability of creating emotion within the heart of the listener?”
Sure, your performance of your own song may be dripping with feeling, but have you managed to write something that has the ability to create emotion within the person who’s listening to it?
A song’s ability to create emotion comes down to that complex formula generated by the partnership of elements: Is the lyric speaking powerfully to the audience? Are your chord choices generating the mood you require? Does the melody move up and down with the ebb and flow of the emotion of the words?
It may seem like I’m just playing with words here, but I always cringe when I hear people say that good songs express emotions. Yes, they certainly do. But the mark of a good song has little to do with the emotions being expressed, and everything to do with the emotions being created.
And that’s a big difference.
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You may think that a good chord progression is the end result of a random process, but it rarely is. If you spend your time playing one random chord after another, you’ll be looking for a long time before you find something that works.
I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t have the time to randomly play through all the chords I know. There’s a much better way, and it involves focusing your attention on tonally strong chords.
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A progression that is tonally strong is one that clearly points to one particular chord as the tonic chord — the one representing the key of your song. So if your song is in C major, a tonally strong progression will make C sound like the “home” chord in a clear and unambiguous way.
The easiest way to create progressions that are tonally strong is to identify the seven chords that naturally exist in your chosen key. You do this by playing a major scale from the key of your song, then building triads (3-note chords) on top of each note of the scale.
The notes of a C major scale are: C-D-E-F-G-A-B. If you build chords on top of each of those notes, you get these chords:
So instead of randomly playing through all the chords you know, start simple: create progressions that use just those chords:
There are many ways to put those chord together into a progression. But as I say, that’s just the start. If you want to create progressions that are more creative, take one of these simple progressions and add other chords:
- Experiment with secondary dominant chords. The easiest way to do this is to take a chord that’s normally minor, and if it is followed by a chord whose root is a fourth higher, switch that minor chord for a major one that uses the same root. For example, the second progression above has a Dm that is followed by G. Switch Dm to a major D chord, and you get:
- Experiment with modal mixture chords. A modal mixture does sort of the opposite of that: you take a chord that’s normally major, and turn it into minor (F becomes Fm, for example). Or switch a minor chord to become diminished:
- Add non-chord tones to triads. Take any of the chords in a progression, and experiment with adding a note that you wouldn’t normally find in that chord. There are some standard choices here: you could add a 9th (add9 or add2) to a chord, or a 7th, as a common option:
There are lots of ways to make a progression sound more creative. But as you can see, what you’re really doing is creating a simple, tonally strong progression as a starting point, and then finding ways to add something creative without destroying that all-important sense of tonal strength that comes with the original progression.
I’ve been reading all sorts of commentary, both civil and uncivil, about the latest incarnation of the Rolling Stones list of the 500 Best Songs of All Time, released this month. Predictably, most people have something negative to say about it all. If you’re one of the ones who takes issue with which songs are on the list, and what number they come in on, my message for you is: this list, like all lists, don’t matter much.
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In music, it’s impossible to say which songs are the best ones. As members of the human race, you love some songs, and you dislike other ones. That’s normal. It’s impossible for the songs you love to all make it to the top of any list. Music, like all the arts, just doesn’t work that way. If you’re a songwriter, you hopefully know that every song you write will have lovers and haters. That is normal.
You need to realize why this kind of list exists in the first place: Rolling Stone is a business. They sell products (lists, articles, subscriptions, advertising) like practically any other online entity. They make a list called The 500 Best Songs of All Time because they want to make money.
That’s why if you click on the link “More On How We Made the List and Who Voted”, you find out that that information is only available if you subscribe. It’s a money maker. It’s why they make the list: they’re a business.
I like this list for one main reason: I get to familiarize myself with songs I don’t really know. But as to which song is best, I can’t think of anything less relevant to me. There is probably someone right now weeping into their coffee because they can’t handle the fact that “Blowin’ In the Wind” isn’t the best song of all time. But I hope it isn’t you.
Because for you, “Blowin’ In the Wind” may be the most significant, powerful song you’ve ever heard. It may have moved you to become the songwriter you are. There’s nothing better than that.
So how Rolling Stone ranks a song should be no more important to you than how anybody ranks a song. It’s merely information, and may not be very important information.
So if you’ve been stressing over how Rolling Stone compiled their latest list of 500 best songs, you’re losing proper perspective. It’s just a list, compiled by considering the opinions of some professional musicians. Opinions, by definition, can’t be scientific.
So rest assured, your opinions of the best songs out there are still as completely valid — to you — as they’ve always been. Nothing has changed. Rolling Stone is making money.
And that hasn’t changed either.
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Though for the best part of my music career I analyze songs and pull them apart to better understand them, I’m just like any other consumer of music: I want to be entertained.
That means when I listen to music, I’m not always critiquing. Sometimes, like you, I just want to sit back and enjoy what I’m listening to, and not always feel that I need to analyze everything. But that being said, whenever I hear a song that I really love, one that just seems to work, I find myself wondering: WHY is this song so good? What makes it work?
If you like starting songs by working with a chord progression, you need to read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It will give you the pros and cons of this songwriting method, and help you create songs that really work!
From the first time I heard Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” (Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne), I noticed a powerful feeling of cohesion. Every phrase in that song seems to lead naturally to the next one. How did they work in that strong sense of musical glue?
Part of it is immediately obvious: the melody works upward from verse to chorus, and that’s a very common trait for most great songs. And when successive song sections move upward, you feel musical momentum building, and that keeps people wanting to listen.
But there’s another bit of musical construction in “I Won’t Back Down” that’s not immediately obvious, but one that I think is every bit as important: each musical phrase, whether you’re talking about long phrases (several lines considered together) or even just short ones (separate lines), you become aware of a constant downward direction of the melodic fragments:
And if you keep thinking of melodic lines through the entire song, you hear the same thing — the consistently downward-moving melodic line.
So why is this important? (And I’d argue that it’s perhaps even more important than the chorus that moves higher than the verse.) It’s mainly because when we hear a musical motif — an idea that gets repeated over and over again — we hear it as an important structural element, something that helps each musical phrase communicate more effectively with all the others. That is, in fact, what a motif does.
A motif is simply an idea. It could be a bit of rhythm that we hear, like the rhythmic syncopation in the bass and guitar in Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” (the bit behind the line “Though his mind is not for rent, Don’t put him down as arrogant…“, for example. Or it might be a melodic idea as we hear in “I Won’t Back Down.”
We might hear that idea change over time: the melodic shape stays the same, but the actual notes change. But the constancy of that shape throughout “I Won’t Back Down” is why we feel that all the phrases lead so effortlessly one to the next.
It didn’t have to be that way, mind you. They could have composed a verse with downward-moving phrases, and a chorus with upward-moving ones. That would still have worked. We’d still pick up the importance of the shape in the verse, and see that the chorus is simply an inversion of that shape. (McCartney uses this technique in “Penny Lane.”)
If you feel that your songs don’t create forward motion in the way that you hope, one way of troubleshooting the song might be to take a closer look at the various melodies you’ve used. If there’s no motivic connection at all between the different tunes, you might try a bit of rewriting to provide the musical glue that makes it all work just a bit better.
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I’m Gary Ewer. For years I’ve been helping songwriters understand the basic fundamentals of good songwriting. I do that mainly through the free articles on this blog, and also through my 10-eBook bundle. If you lack consistency in your songwriting, and you want to take your abilities to the next level, everything you need to know is in that bundle package, so please take a look at those ebooks. And if you want to browse through the more than 2300 posts in the blog archive, scroll to the bottom of this page.
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