Form, which you may also know by the words “design”, “structure”, or perhaps “outline” or “sketch,” refers to how your song changes over time. Verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, etc. – these are all words that speak to how a song develops, changes and grows through its 3-5 minutes.
But in an art form where instinct counts for so much, is it a necessary part of the songwriting process to give prior thought to formal design? Perhaps form just happens as a natural part of songwriting, as naturally as coming up with a melody or a lyric.
Certainly with the composition of classical music, giving considerable forethought to form is vital, but that importance comes mainly from the fact that classical works are often long and involved. The longer a piece of music is, the more important it becomes to preplan its formal design.
Since we think of instinct as implying spontaneity, you could argue that the more you plan in advance, the more you interfere with instinct. In other words, the argument is that any benefits you might gain from preplanning the form of your song might also have a detrimental effect on your natural songwriting instincts.
There is something to be said for allowing your innate songwriting instincts to take the lead when you compose, and see what happens. Having said that, you’ll want to keep the following in mind:
- The up-and-down of musical energy. Good song form means that musical energy and excitement should ebb and flow as a song progresses. Verses should be lower in musical excitement, while choruses should get more energetic. That up-and-down of musical energy acts as a kind of pump that gets music moving and keeps it interesting.
- Songs suffer when any one section is too long. For a song that’s typically 3-5 minutes in length, you’ll want your intro to be usually less than 15 seconds, and you should almost always be getting to the chorus before the 1-minute mark.
- Verse-chorus is not the only song form worth considering. Some songs are hard to label. It’s sometimes hard to know, for instance, if you’re listening to a 2-part verse, a verse with pre-chorus, or perhaps a verse followed by a double chorus. Believe it or not, that’s not all that important. What is important is the up-and-down of the musical energy. A good classic example of a multi-sectional song that uses up-and-down, as well as major-versus-minor, in order to strengthen the form, is Chicago’s 1975 hit “Old Days” (James Pankow), which presents the song as a 4-part structure, with the contrast happening mainly via the tonal focus of each section: Part 1: Tonic chord; Part 2: Dominant chord; Part 3: Submediant (vi-chord); Part 4: Instrumental solo.
- Form can be fixed after the fact. If your instincts have led you to create a great song that just feels unbalanced somehow, it could be problems with the formal design. From my own experience, songs that people send me to diagnose are often too long, caused by individual sections that are too long, and transitions from one part to the next being prolonged and boring. Fixing form often means simply shortening up sections. Songs will suffer from sections being too long more than they’ll suffer from sections being too short.
- All elements of a song contribute to the perception of form. In a song like “Old Days”, the form is delineated mainly by changes in where the chords sit. In a song like “Just Give Me A Reason” (Pink), the form is outlined by the melodic shape and instrumentation — a very common technique.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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