Writing a song that’s mainly a set of verses, each one ending with a pay-off line, has a simplicity that really works well. The pay-off line– a refrain — often sneaks into the song at first, without it being obvious that it’s operating as a powerful closer that’s going to keep coming back.
Bruce Springsteen’s “All That Heaven Will Allow” from his 1987 “Tunnel of Love” album is a great model for this kind of song. It also does what most verse-refrain songs do, which is to include a simply-designed bridge just to add a bit of variety to what’s happened before.
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Let’s take a look at that Springsteen tune to get a better sense of how to make the verse-refrain-bridge form work for you.
Giving the Melody the Right Shape
You’ll notice that many songs that use a verse that ends with a pay-off line will use some variety of this kind of shape:
No one song does this the same way, but here are the general structures that you’ll notice in most verse-refrain songs:
- The verse starts relatively low in pitch compared to the notes that follow a bit later in that verse.
- The pay-off (refrain) will often start relatively high in pitch and then descend to the close of the verse.
- The verse typically ends with a tonic (I) chord.
When you take this design and see what Springsteen does with it in “All That Heaven Will Allow”, we get a lot of repetition of melodic shapes, with the highest notes happening in the middle, and the pay-off line bringing the melody down to its lowest notes:
You’ll also notice that the verse is a two-part structure, with part one written above these chords: G C G D G C D. (The song is in the key of G major).
For the second half of the melody, the progression changes to: C G C D G.
As you can see, part 1 of the verse ends on a V-chord — a D. It needs more to complete it, and part 2 starts on a IV-chord. That accentuates the sense of “musical journey” in the verse: a little journey that starts on I, moves to V, and then spends the rest of the verse getting back to I. All together, it makes a beautiful design for a short, simple song:
Writing A Bridge That Works
Most song bridges do several things, and the three most important are:
- Allows for a completion of the lyric (especially in verse-chorus songs), or to allow “the other shoe to drop” in verse-bridge songs.
- Offer a new melody.
- Takes the song in a slightly different direction with regard to chords and key.
In “All That Heaven Will Allow”, the simplicity of the verse means that the bridge is designed to be as simple as possible. It wouldn’t suit the song to go into too much of a different direction. And so Springsteen writes a bridge that mimics the second half of the verse, with the addition of a new chord: Em. That Em is all the change that’s really necessary. With that one subtle addition of a minor chord, he’s given all the variety he needs to give.
Using “All That Heaven Will Allow” As a Model For Your Song
If you’re looking to design a song that has the simplicity but power of “All That Heaven Will Allow”, take note of these simple design tips:
- Write a melody that dwells on some note other than the tonic. Springsteen focuses on the dominant note (D in the key of G major).
- Think of your melody as being in two parts — a first half and a second half.
- Create a chord progression that starts on the tonic chord (I), moves to the dominant chord at its mid-point. Then create a second-half progression that starts either on a V or IV-chord, then moves back to the tonic.
- End your melody on the tonic note. Placing the tonic note at the end of your melody gives a powerful sense of repose to your tune.
- Allow your melody to rise as it moves along, with the highest notes happening just after the mid-point.
- Create an enticing pay-off line. Think of this as a line that, on its own, gives people a warm, happy feeling. Or create a line that will intrigue the listener by having them think, “Hmmm, I wonder what they mean by that?
- Create a bridge melody that borrows heavily from the basic shapes, chords and lyric feel of the verse.
There are lots of ways to write a verse-refrain-bridge song; this post isn’t meant to convey that Springsteen is the only one that ever got it right. But the simplicity of the design of “All That Heaven Will Allow” means that it’s a great model for how to do it.
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