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Because most songs are 4-5 minutes in length, you don’t get a lot of time to venture far away from your chosen key. There are songwriters who specialize in progressions that are often best described as ambiguous (Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, and almost any prog rock group), but most hit songs stay close to “home.” Nonetheless, it’s during the bridge that you’ll find most opportunity to move away from the home key a little, and allow for a bit more harmonic complexity. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
The bridge usually happens after the second chorus. Here’s one typical example:
Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus – Chorus
Verse progressions can be a bit ambiguous, which is not the same as saying complex. An ambiguous progression (one that I’ve also called fragile) is a set of chords that does not strongly point to one chord as being the tonic. It works nicely in verses because of the nature of the verse lyric: you’re describing a story that’s not yet clear or complete. By the time you get to the chorus however, progressions need to be stronger, usually pointing with no uncertainty to one note as the tonic note.
So a verse and chorus work together, proceeding from fragile to strong, to clearly point to a note and chord as being the tonic: the harmonic goal. I’ve placed an example below.
As you’ll notice, the verse progression is primarily fragile because though in the key of C major, it never gives a clear, root position C chord, and there are almost no root movements of 4ths or 5ths. The chorus progression finally settles in to the key of C major, with the tonic chord playing a significant role.
F G Am G F G Am G C/E F Dm Am F G Am G
C Dm G Am C F G C Am Dm G Am C F G C
This kind of ambiguity moving toward certainty, from a harmonic point of view, partners nicely with what we typically find in a song’s lyric, moving from an incomplete description of a story, situation or person, toward a more conclusive emotional response.
So what do we do with a bridge? The bridge will allow for us to move away from the tonic, and offer opportunities to explore closely related keys. In practical musical terms, a closely related key is one that uses a key signature that’s usually no more than one accidental away from the main key. For example, the key signature for C major is no sharps, no flats. So your choices for closely related keys might be: A minor (no sharps or flats), G major (1 sharp), F major (1 flat), or their relative minor cousins E minor (1 sharp) or D minor (1 flat).
By the end of the bridge, you’ll need something that gets you back to your original key. So given the progressions I created above, a bridge progression might look like the following. The progression starts in Am (modal), but by the time it passes the midway point you start seeing the chordal relationships that bring it back to C major:
Am G Am F Dm Em Am G Am C Dm G Am F Gsus4 G
The focus on the key of A minor gives us a nice diversion away from C major. It’s closely related to C major because both keys use the same key signature: no sharps or flats. Listeners psychologically hear that the music has moved away from the home key, and musical tension and energy is created by anticipating the return to the home key.
A song’s bridge is a great way to build energy and momentum. The example I’ve given above is a common approach: start the bridge in the opposite mode (i.e., if you’re song is in a major key, start the bridge on a minor chord). That major/minor relationship offers enough musical variety to ensure that the return to the original key sounds fresh and exciting.
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