Computer - Music Studio

The Similarities Between a Building’s Structure and a Song’s Structure

What exactly is song structure, and how important is it to the success of a song? When we talk about structure with regard to, let’s say, a house you’re building, we can generate a good House frame - Structurenumber of analogies, all of which, it could be argued, apply metaphorically to songwriting:

  1. A house has walls, beams and other elements, the primary purpose of which is to hold the building up.
  2. A house has walls and other elements, the primary purpose of which is to add a positive aesthetic (beauty) to the building.
  3. A house, regardless of its size, its shape, its materials, or what it looks like, is meant to provide shelter to the family who lives there.

There’s lots more to be said about each one of those statements. For example, regarding point #1, there’s usually a considerable amount of symmetry in the basic structure of a house. Parallel walls, evenly-spaced floors, struts and beams — symmetry plays an important role.And in fact, when the structure is good, and you haven’t even gotten to adding the elements that are meant to be simply decorative, there’s a kind of beauty we perceive in the bare-bones skeleton of a well-structured house.

chordsfirst_smThe chords-first method of songwriting can work, but you need to keep your eye on what listeners want to focus on: a good melody and good lyrics. “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” shows you how to get the chords-first method working for you.

Regarding point #2, there are elements that are primarily decorative, as far as the homeowner is concerned, but might actually be serving a dual purpose of being structurally vital while also being beautiful.

Regarding point #3, though a house’s primary job might be to provide shelter to the family, it usually isn’t the only purpose. For other people in the town, for example, a person’s house might serve as a landmark, or as a building that adds beauty to the community.

Structure in Songwriting

What is a song’s structure? What happens to a song if its structure is weak?

Just as with a house, the word structure applies to different aspects of songwriting, depending on how strong a magnifying glass you use. These two are worth considering:

  1. Overall structure. The basic sectional design of your song. Verse-chorus-bridge might be your latest song’s overall structure.
  2. Elemental structure. For each element that contributes to your song, we can identify a kind of structure or design. How the various chord progressions relate to each other, for example, is a design consideration. How lyrics progress, how a melody develops – these can all be seen as structural concerns.

As a songwriter, you might be thinking that all songs use verses and choruses, all songs use melodies and chords… so what’s the big concern about structure? As long as your chords and melodies play nice, and as long as your verses move to choruses… isn’t that really what structure is? How can you mess that part up?

Jumping back to the house analogy, that’s like saying as long as my house is framed in, and uses floor boards and walls, what can go wrong?

What can go wrong usually happens where one element joins on to another. You may have a wall that’s properly built, but if it isn’t correctly connected to the floor framing, that well-built wall can fall down.

In that sense, there’s nothing wrong with the wall, and nothing wrong with the floor, but something very wrong with how the two were connected to each other.

In songwriting, a structural problem means that you may have:

  1. a well-written verse that doesn’t connect properly (or well) to the section that follows it;
  2. a melody that doesn’t properly match the emotional content of the lyrics;
  3. a chord progression that doesn’t properly accompany the melody above it;
  4. a lyric that takes a haphazard approach to emotional build;
  5. a rhythmic approach that interferes with the general groove of the song.

So when we talk about structural problems in music, we generally mean problems with one element relating or connecting to another element. That means that each element, on their own, might be wonderful. But the connecting fibres of the song are at fault.

That‘s what a structural problem is. And how you know that your song has a structural problem is that each element, on their own, sounds great. And you can spend a lot of time studying your latest song trying to figure out why it’s not making any kind of positive impact on the audience. That’s what bad structure does.

With house, you know you’ve got a structure problem when, despite how beautiful it is, it starts to wobble in the wind. A song with a structure problem has its own version of “wobbling”, but you generally don’t notice it until you’ve put your entire song together.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Essential Secrets of Songwriting, 3rd ed.Good song structure is what “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” is all about. It’s 333 pages of how the world’s best songs work, why they work, and how to put that information to use when you write your own songs.

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  1. Pingback: The Similarities Between a Building’s Structure and a Song’s Structure - The Hit Songwriting Formula | The Hit Songwriting Formula

  2. Nice article Gary. I work with teams of architects and visual designers and one thing I’ve definitely taken away from it is how similar almost all human, artistic endeavors are. Almost everything, whether visual or auditory has a logical structure to it and the process of building that structure also has its own logical form. Your blog covers these concepts very well with regard to songs which is why I keep returning to it 🙂

    When you see something, generally you might sort of take it all in at once and appreciate the structure intuitively. When you hear music, it’s almost always linear in the way you experience it and so I find it easier to determine a structure from that. It sort of lays itself out one piece at a time where as a house must be mentally deconstructed in order to appreciate its big structural parts. You can of course then deconstruct each section of a piece of music into further parts, but the big structural ideas don’t tend to happen at the same time. I suppose the equivalent to “listening” to a house would be walking through it room by room and in that you can appreciate the feeling each room is intended to give, how adjacent rooms compliment that. Like your foyer is the intro, the hallways and living room are verses and choruses, kitchen as a bridge and bedroom as your outro. I’m sort of rambling now but you got me thinking so thanks!

    • Thanks very much for your very interesting thoughts on this. Last summer I built a playhouse for my daughter, and it was the first time I’d ever done anything like that. I couldn’t help but notice how so much of putting it together reminded me of the writing of music! Using quality materials, of course, but also how one small error could be compounded the further into the building process I got. Also how the beauty of the work depended on the parts of the structure that were more or less unseen.

      Thanks again!

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