How you know your song’s structure is working: you don’t notice it.
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Ask anyone who knows even the tiniest bit about what song structure is, and they’ll probably tell you that it relates to the choices you make regarding a song’s basic form: whether or not you have an intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc. It also relates to what order you choose to place those elements. For example, it’s a structural decision to choose to start your song with the chorus instead of an intro. Every choice you make regarding these kinds of nuts and bolts are structural decisions. But structure goes even deeper than that, pulling practically every aspect of a song together in an important web of responsibility for the song’s success.
And it’s a tricky subject. Bad structure doesn’t usually mean that you chose to write 3 verses instead of 4, or that you used a guitar solo after verse 2. Those kinds of decisions don’t usually compromise the quality of your music.
But it does weaken your song if your song if energy dies during the chorus, when we know that choruses should build energy. It weakens your song if you put verse-like lyrics in your bridge. Your song’s structure can be weakened in very subtle ways, which means that your song can possibly fail without it being obvious why it’s failing.
Because practically every element of a song has a responsibility for strengthening your song’s formal structure, bad form actually ends up being one of the most common errors made by developing songwriters.
Here’s a short list of things you can check against your latest songs. How many of these errors are you making?
- Chorus melodies need to build energy, usually by being higher than verses in pitch range. If you find song energy dies a bit during the chorus, solve the problem by a) rewriting your chorus to be higher; b) increasing the number of instruments you’re using in the chorus; and c) have instruments play higher in pitch and with more rhythmic energy.
- Make verse lyrics describe people and situations, and allow chorus lyrics to make emotional commentary. If you use your verse to emote too much, your song turns into a 4-minute-long complain-a-thon.
- Verses and bridges can be more adventurous with melody, harmony and rhythm, but once you get to the chorus you need to allow everything to simplify. The chorus should use shorter, stronger chord progressions that focus on the tonic chord, with a simpler melody that has a memorable hook.
- Use a pre-chorus if your verse melody is very simple and short, and/or if the end of the verse melody is far away (in scale steps) from the start of the chorus.
- Don’t allow your song intro to go on too long. If it’s an interesting intro, with important duties for establishing mood and significant motifs, a long intro may be warranted. But most song intros for 4-5 minute pop songs should be 10 – 20 seconds in length.
That’s just a short list. It’s a reminder that nothing happens in isolation in a good song. Everything affects something else, and they almost all relate back to a song’s basic formal structure.
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