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 number of analogies, all of which, it could be argued, apply metaphorically to songwriting:
- A house has walls, beams and other elements, the primary purpose of which is to hold the building up.
- A house has walls and other elements, the primary purpose of which is to add a positive aesthetic (beauty) to the building.
- 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.
The 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:
- Overall structure. The basic sectional design of your song. Verse-chorus-bridge might be your latest song’s overall structure.
- 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:
- a well-written verse that doesn’t connect properly (or well) to the section that follows it;
- a melody that doesn’t properly match the emotional content of the lyrics;
- a chord progression that doesn’t properly accompany the melody above it;
- a lyric that takes a haphazard approach to emotional build;
- 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.
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.