Writing Songs That Use an Ad Hoc Design

An ad hoc form is one that’s unique and specifically designed for one song. Here’s how to create one.


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Mo KenneyWhen we talk about form in songwriting, we usually mean the arrangement of verses and choruses, and then any and all other optional sections that might also be in there: pre-chorus, bridge, instrumental solo, and so on.

The most popular song form is the verse-chorus format, all varieties of which have the possibility of containing any of those other optional sections. There are reasons that verse-chorus songs are so popular amongst songwriters:

  1. They generate a natural up-and-down flow of song energy, where choruses are more energetic than verses. That kind of varying energy plan is an important part of successful music.
  2. They generate a natural up-and-down flow of emotional release, where chorus lyrics, melodic range and accompaniments are more emotional than verses.
  3. They cut the music up into small 30-second to 45-second chunks before moving on to the next section, making the musical form easily understood by the listener.

While verse-chorus songs are undeniably popular, there are other ways to structure your songs, ways that don’t necessarily use contrasting verse and chorus sections, at least not in the traditional, expected way. Progressive rock songwriters know about this, of course, because they’ve been using what could be termed ad hoc designs since the 60s.

An ad hoc design simply means a song form that’s been designed for that one song, and may (but often likely won’t) include verses and choruses. Progressive rock songs tend to be longer than traditional pop songs, and so the ad hoc design works well: it means that you can put together as many sections as you want, where each section differs from the previous one.

You might be identifying a potential problem with ad hoc designs at this point; namely, that the listener might get lost if they listen to music that keeps changing. At least with a common verse-chorus design, you’ve got the repetition of choruses to give the listener the comfort that comes from musical familiarity.

And then another issue: what if you only want to write a 3-minute pop song, not a 25-minute song cycle. Can an ad hoc design help you out there?

Some pop songs approach being an ad hoc design, in the sense that it’s difficult to make great distinctions between verse and chorus. Mo Kenney’s song “Sucker” is an example of a song where each successive section moves higher in energy, and you do definitely get the feeling of verse and chorus, but the lyrics don’t feature repetition in a traditional chorus manner. So without those repeating lyrics, you get more of a seamless quality of one section simply moving to another. That seamless connecting of sections is a feature of ad hoc designs.

Using an ad hoc design for your songs still requires you to make distinctions between various song sections. If you’d like to have a go at an ad hoc design that stays within the 3-4 minute range expected of pop songs, try this:

  1. Create a song lyric that doesn’t feature a repeating chorus. That should be easy enough if you’re already writing songs in a verse-only design.
  2. Be sure that song sections you create place the melody in different ranges. It’s typical to start with a lower range, and then move to a higher one.
  3. Create an instrumentation that has some similarities between all sections, but has something unique to its own section. The differing instrumentations will help to create and maintain energy levels unique to each section.
  4. Don’t be reluctant to repeat a section. Repeating may seem contrary to the principle of the ad hoc design, but that’s not necessarily true. Many progressive rock tunes feature repeating sections without making it sound like verse-chorus.
  5. Include song sections that use STRONG chord progressions. A strong progression is one in which the tonic chord is clear and unambiguous. In fact, a strong chord progression will strengthen any design.

You know you’ve succeeded in creating a good ad hoc design if you’ve got a song with 1) a good sense of variety between sections; 2) no clear verse or chorus; and 3) an energy plot that moves up and down, but generally upward as the song progresses.

Don’t be afraid to repeat melodies, progressions and instrumental approaches as your song progresses. You may wind up with something that approaches a simple verse-chorus form, but without the strongly distinguishing features normally found. The result will be something seamless, naturally flowing and unique.

Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.  (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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