How Do I Know if My Song's Structure is Working?

Led Zeppelin- Stairway to HeavenYou can write a lot of songs without even thinking about “structure.” But if you’re not at least giving a passing thought to how the various elements your music are organized, you could be unintentionally confusing listeners, and ultimately turning them off. Structure, also known as form, governs everything from the overall formal plan (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.), to song energy, to how your chords work, and more. In short, every decision you make about how your song proceeds after its first sound is a decision about form.

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Here are some basic guidelines to determine if your song’s structure is working well for you:

  1. Formal Structure. Your song needs to be assembled in a way that gives a sense of balance and design. While verse-chorus-bridge formats are very common, there are many other possibilities that can allow you to place your own individual stamp on your music. Experiment with unique ideas, including starting with an instrumental section (“Stairway to Heaven”), a harmonized unaccompanied or lightly accompanied vocal (“American Pie”), switching keys or tempo for a middle section, (“Roundabout”), etc.
  2. Harmonic Structure. It may seem logical to start with simple, predictable harmonies, and then branch out into more complex harmonies, but the opposite is actually usually true. Verses can use “fragile” chord progressions, that may not strongly imply one particular key, but your chorus should move to more predictable “strong” progressions.
  3. Lyrical Structure. However you write lyrics, the end result should usually be that one line of lyric makes the listener want to hear the next one. Some songs are not really about lyrics, though, so if your lyric is not a strong part of your song, be sure that something else is, even if it’s just the song’s captivating groove. Lyrics need to be structured so that verses ask questions and/or describe situations, while choruses emote.
  4. Instrumental Structure. It’s dangerous to use the same instruments, played the same way, throughout an entire song. Be more creative. Structure your song’s instrumental treatment so that voicings move higher in chorus and bridge sections, rhythms become busier as song energy increases, and use different instruments to add layering. In other words, give listeners more than a simple strumming guitar.

And remember that repetition is an important part of a song’s overall structure. For example, verse and chorus melodies are usually the same within a song (but check out Genesis’ “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” for a song that uses different melodies for each verse.)

The biggest error with regard to song structure is not allowing elements to repeat. Writing a song that uses too much new material throughout without repeating elements will tire a listener’s mind, and cause boredom.

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
– Follow Gary on Twitter

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