How to Move From Fragile to Strong in Popular Songwriting

Moving from fragile elements to strong ones is an important contributor to the contrast principle of songwriting.


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Guitarist - Band concertMost songwriters are at least somewhat acquainted with the concept of verses being where we hear the basics of a song’s story, and then choruses being where we hear the emotional reaction to that story. You should also know that when it comes to chords, you’ll get the more interesting “fragile” progressions accompanying the verse, and then the stronger ones appearing in the chorus.

That moving from “fragile” to “strong” is a concept that applies to all elements in a song, not just the chords and lyrics.

To call something “fragile” in music is not a criticism. It’s an important structural characteristic. An element is considered fragile if it is in any way ambiguous in nature. In the arts, ambiguity is usually a positive attribute, something that stimulates our imagination and gets our attention.

In most cases (not just music, by the way – all the arts are like this), it’s usually most satisfying to start with the ambiguities up front, and then move to stronger, move obvious and less ambiguous structures.

In songs that are in verse-chorus format (including optional sections like the pre-chorus and bridge), you’ll usually find that the verse is the fragile element, and the chorus is the strong one. In songs that are in one of the many verse-only designs, the start of a verse will be fragile, and the end will strengthen.

Here’s a closer look at various components of a song, and how fragility and strength happens.

  1. Chord Progressions: A fragile chord progression will be any sequence of chords that, on its own, sounds interesting even if it doesn’t point in an obvious way to the key of the song. A strong progression will make the key much more obvious. An example of a fragile progression from C major: Dm  Em  Am  F  Dm  Em  F  Am… An example of a strong progression from C major:  C  F  Dm  G  Am  F  G  C.
  2. Lyrics: A fragile lyric simply means that the story could go in almost any direction, and we’re willing to get pulled along with that story line. Every line of lyric adds to the situation. A strong lyric tends to centre in on our emotional response to the story. So a chorus lyric doesn’t add much, if anything, to the story. It prompts an emotional reaction, and the strong chord progressions that go along with it aid in that concept.
  3. Melody: A fragile melody, like a fragile chord progression, will consist of shapes and ideas that move in a wandering kind of way. The melody will move up and down as the lyric and situations dictate. And like our reaction to a good lyric, we love being pulled around by that captivating melody. A strong melody will tighten up, use more repetition, and its structure will simplify, which means we’ll find it easier to sing and easier to remember.
  4. Instrumentation. A fragile instrumentation simply refers to its transparency. A verse’s instrumentation will often be lighter than what you’d find in the chorus. A strong instrumentation will give you close to everything the song is going to give you. Often the arrangement will add something to the final chorus repeats, but you get the idea: instrumentation generally moves from lighter to fuller as a song moves from verse to chorus.

Moving from fragile to strong and then back again is a crucial feature of music, even if the differences are subtle. But even subtle changes are an important contributor to the contrast principle of music, and a very important part of what makes music interesting and memorable.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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