What a Song's Bridge Needs to Make It Work

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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The bridge, also called the middle-8, can be the trickiest part for songwriters to get a handle on. In general, the problem seems to be that bridges will wander about too much without any real direction if you’re not careful. Not every song needs a bridge, and you’ll know if it needs one if, by the end of the second chorus, you’re really needing something different. So the bridge needs a purpose, and there can be several reasons to include a bridge in your song:
  1. To intensify the music before presenting a final chorus (including an intensification of the lyric and instrumentation.)
  2. To provide a diversion from the verse-chorus melodic and harmonic material before coming back to a final verse or chorus.
  3. To provide opportunities for an instrumental solo (which can also be combined with a vocal bridge).
Point #1, in combination with #2 above is probably the most common type of bridge. Verse lyrics present issues and questions, chorus lyrics tend to provide answers and conclusions to those questions, and bridge lyrics need to do both. Bridge lyrics intensify song energy by posing a situation or question in one line, and then quickly providing an answer. That “back-and-forth” lyrical action helps to build song energy, and that’s what the bridge is usually all about.
But where most songwriters struggle is with the harmony and melodic content of a bridge. If you’re not careful, a bridge can simply wander around, and that’s a trap songwriters may fall into.
The best way to allow a bridge to build harmonic energy without wandering is to work backwards: If your chorus starts on a I-chord (as most choruses do), your bridge will want to finish on some sort of dominant chord (usually the V-chord, but you might consider a ii-chord or IV-chord). And if your chorus is in a major key, you’ll want to consider starting the bridge on a minor chord.
There are many ways to do this, but here’s one possible example that shows how the harmonies of the verse, chorus and bridge might work together. Try it in any style, maybe starting with 2 beats per chord, then play around with it a bit:
F#m  Bm  |D  E  |F#m  Bm  |D  E  |F#m  D  |E  C#m  | D  A  |D  E ||
A  Bm  |D  E  |A  Bm  |D  E  |D  A  |Bm  C#  |F#m  A  |Bm  E  ||
F#m G  |C  F  |Dm  G  |C  F  |Am  F  |G  C  |D  E  |D  E  ||

In this particular example, I used the bridge to actually temporarily change key (into C major), and then jump back into A major for the last two bars of the bridge.
I chose to change key only because it can provide a nice “relief” from the constant A major feel that precedes it. But bridges can do almost anything, as long as the progressions you use become progressively strong in whatever key you’ve chosen, and as long as you don’t stray too far for too long.
While I like that change of key, here’s a bridge that stays “closer to home” and doesn’t stray too far:
F#m  G  |D  E  |F#m  G  |D  E  |F#m  C#m  |F#m  C#m  |D  Bm  |E       ||

I like the term “middle-8” to describe the bridge for the main reason that it reminds you that you’ve got 8 bars (more or less) to do your work. You can use the first half of that number to provide interesting harmonies and directions, but you’ve got to use the latter part of the bridge to get pointing back to the chorus harmonies.


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