There’s nothing like the word “structure” to turn off an artistically-minded musician. When a song sounds good, we don’t necessarily think about its structure. We just revel in the fact that it just sounds great.
But when songs sound good, it’s at least in part due to its structure. So what exactly do we mean by structure?
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It’s best to use an analogy, and building a house is a great one, because we often refer to houses as structures. No matter how beautiful a house looks, we need to know that its underlying structure is sound and supportive.
When that house’s underlying structure is solid, we don’t tend to think about it. We don’t need to be aware of the viability of the frame of a house in order to enjoy the rest of it. When we think about its structure, we appreciate it, but we like when it’s not obvious.
Musical structure works in a similar fashion. When it’s working for you, you end up with a song that sounds great, and your listeners don’t think at all about structure.
What are the things to think about when you consider a song’s structure? Probably the most important one is contrast:
- Loud/soft. Typically you’ll hear soft verses, louder choruses, and the cycling back and forth between those two sections gives a natural dynamic contrast that’s important in most songs.
- Low/high. Melodies are usually lower in verses, higher in choruses, and then the bridge will either contrast with the chorus to move even higher, or contrast by moving lower especially if the verse/chorus combination is all highly energetic.
- Major/minor. It’s a common songwriting technique to put a verse in minor, move to major for the chorus, and then wander between minor and major for a bridge. This constant shifting creates a sense of expectation in the listener. We tend to accept whatever key the chorus is in as the main key of the song, and when it shifts away from that key, we eagerly anticipate the return of the chorus key.
There are other important aspects of contrast as well. For example, verses tend to be unemotional and narrative in style, while choruses are usually more emotive and expressive.
So while a good house relies on the placement of strong beams, all attached properly to each other based on an engineer’s estimation of what will give the most strength, the strength of a song’s structure will largely depend on subtle contrasting of important musical features.
When it’s working well, musical structure is not obvious. Listeners are not usually aware that the song is moving, let’s say, from minor to major. It just sounds “satisfying” somehow.
In that sense, we can get away with the impression of strength, while a house builder can’t rely on impressions. It’s safe to say that in songwriting, a song that sounds good is good.
And contrast works because of the pleasant sense of anticipation it creates in your audience.
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