When you talk about the form or design of a song, most people understand that you’re likely talking about the overall structure of a song — the verse-chorus-other aspect. Non-musicians likely know that most songs will move from the intro to the verse to the chorus, and then they might know to expect to hear a pre-chorus or bridge.
It’s actually worth thinking about why songs have verses and choruses. Not all do, of course; some (“The Rose” – Amanda McBroom) just feature verses and nothing else. But the vast majority of popular songs are structured in such a way that we easily hear the verse moving to something else.
In most cases, a song’s design is a major part of its success or failure. A song’s design will pull an audience in if it’s working well, or will repel a listener if it isn’t.
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The answer to why songs have verses and choruses, as well as other miscellaneous optional sections, is that it creates a pleasant sense of tension and release… of artistic variety.
In music, tension is created when something sounds either unresolved or incomplete. The release comes from the resolution or completion.
The tension and release aspect of music often comes as a surprise to listeners. Sometimes the audience doesn’t realize tension has been building at all until it resolves itself.
Adele’s single, “Water Under the Bridge” from her “25” album, is a great song to use as a model for how tension, release, and basic issues of song form work to entice an audience to keep listening:
It’s a song that displays a lot of cohesion from beginning to end. Yes, you can hear it move from one section to the next, but not a lot changes. The feel of the song stays remarkably stable and unchanging as it progresses.
So where’s the tension and release that’s supposed to be pulling people in? It’s done in the best way possible: with subtlety.
Let’s take a look at some of the different song elements in “Water Under the Bridge”, and identify the ways in which listeners feel compelled to keep listening.
1. Formal design.
The song presents itself as a nothing-out-of-the-ordinary kind of shape. We hear what we assume to be a standard verse, with a repeating melodic fragment and a repeating chord progression. Our instincts tell us that the chorus is on the way, and that’s a good thing.
We don’t know (at least not right away) that we’re going to be taken through a pre-chorus first, but that only serves to heighten the pleasant sense of tension I mentioned earlier. Good song form is not just about moving from one section to another, but of creating a sense of anticipation, and that’s what “Water Under the Bridge” does so well. The pre-chorus delays the arrival of the chorus, and that’s the tension.
The song is in Eb major, but the verse and pre-chorus chords avoid that chord entirely. It’s a nice little turn-around — Ab Fm Cm Bb — and even though most listeners don’t have the theory background to know that those chords all come from the key of Eb major, our cultural understanding of chords makes us “hear” Eb, even though it’s not being played. It’s like seeing a picture of your neighbourhood without seeing your own house: you still know your house is there!
In the chorus, the chords finally give us the resolution and release our ears have been waiting for: Eb Fm Cm Ab, a progression that keeps returning to Eb. She makes us wait for more than a minute to hear that arrival of the Eb (tonic) chord, but it feels worth the wait.
3. Melodic Shape
In the verse, the shape of the main melodic features both up and down movement, but I think we hear the upward shape as being most noticeable:
In the pre-chorus, that shape changes so that we hear downward direction as being a bit more prominent:
The chorus melody features both up (“If you’re going to let me down”) and down (“…let me down gently…”). That juxtaposition of up and down is a standard and well-used technique for getting the most out of melodic tension and release, and it comes naturally to most good songwriters.
There is a lot more that song form does for building tension and release, such as a verse lyric that describes a situation (“If you’re not the one for me/ Why do I hate the idea of being free?”), switching to a chorus lyric that taps a bit more into our emotions: “If you’re going to let me down, let me down gently…”
When all is said and done, good song design is all about creating conflict and tension, in the best, most artistic sense of those words, and then offers a chance for the listener to experience a release or resolution.
The difficulty is that a song that works well usually sounds static and cohesive from beginning to end. So all the tension and release that you provide in your own song needs to be done with subtlety.
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