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One of the biggest causes of bad songs is bad form. That may seem like a controversial statement, since it may appear that there are lots of reasons that a song could be bad, where form might not tend to rate very high on that list.
But the truth is that in many cases, problems with song structure, though they may actually be problems with lyrics, with melodic construction, or with how chords are working (or not), all point back to a basic problem with the form of the music. It’s something I’ve written about several times in the past on this blog: here, for example.
Here is a list of seven common problems that songwriters face, problems that ultimately relate to song form. Take a look, and see which ones can help you become a better songwriter:
- What do I do to make a melody sound like a chorus? Answer: Chorus melodies typically sit higher in pitch than verse melodies. So make sure that whatever precedes it is lower.
- What do I do to write a song that doesn’t use a chorus? Answer: Songs without a chorus will work fine, especially if there is a climactic high point somewhere in the second half of the melody. Amanda McBroom’s “The Rose“, made most famous by Bette Midler, is a great example of a verse-only song where the climactic moment occurs right after the mid-point, then descends. Some songs that don’t use a chorus will add a bridge, such as Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood“.
- How does song form relate to the contrast principle? Answer: The form of a song has one important duty: to make one section sound different enough from the section that precedes it and follows it. Some songs have sections that are difficult to label in terms of verse, chorus or bridge. They sound like one section that is followed by something different, but hard to label as being a particular kind of section. “Old Days” by James Pankow (Chicago VIII) might be a good example of this. Whatever your song’s design, it works best when one section contrasts well with what comes before and what comes immediately after.
- What’s the difference between a refrain and a chorus? Answer: A refrain operates as an ending to a verse, rather than as a section on its own. A chorus is a separate section of 4 or 8 musical phrases and can generally be repeated as a separately-existing section. A refrain doesn’t have the same requirement of being able to be repeated (though some song refrains do get repeated, such as the refrain in “Bridge Over Troubled Water.“)
- How does song form relate to song energy? Answer: Song energy should generally move in an upward direction throughout the length of a song. It does this by alternating between low-energy sections and high-energy sections. So if you were to draw a map of the energy level of a song, successful songs show a zig-zag line that generally moves upward.
- How long should my song intro be? Answer: It really depends, but the average length of an intro in the pop music genre these days is between 10 and 15 seconds. For instrumental intros that feature good solos, you can stretch that to be much longer. But keep in mind that an intro’s most important job is to grab listener attention and keep them focused. So a guitar-strumming intro that goes on for 30 seconds or more is risky.
- Is the expression “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” true? Answer: In many songs, the answer is yes. The chorus is the hooky bit that people will remember, so writing a verse that’s too long will run the risk of causing listeners to turn away from your song. Generally speaking, you should be reaching the chorus within 45 seconds to 1 minute from the start of a song.
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