There’s probably no word less inspiring in the world of songwriting than “structure”. And let’s face it, when was the last time you thought about “structure” when you wrote a song?
But the structure of a song can be a vital part of what makes it work. It’s easiest to think about what structure really is by thinking of the building of a house. When we think about a house’s structure, we think about the strength and viability of its skeletal parts: the foundation, the beams, joists, and everything else that ensures the house will stand no matter what storms pass by.
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In songwriting, structure is a word that refers to the many bits that make a song work. But just as in house building, we’re not talking about how beautiful or catchy your song is when we talk about its structure. For example, it’s not about how attractive the chord progression is, but whether it does the job of targeting the tonic chord and giving a sense of harmonic direction.
If a song sounds great, you don’t have to give much thought to whether the structure is working. While it may be hard to see good structure in a house once it’s built, the fact that a song sounds great is usually the indicator that the structure is working.
But if you’re interested in putting the magnifying glass on your songs to get a better sense of their structure, here are five ways you can be sure the structure of your songs is solid.
- Harmonic structure: Chord progressions should make one chord sound like the harmonic target. When you play through a progression like C Am Dm G C, you can hear how C sounds like “home”, and that sense of musical relaxation that occurs when that chord happens is a vital part of its harmonic structure.
- Lyrical structure. Lyrics, even in emotional songs, need to fluctuate between words and phrases that are more observational and less emotional, and ones that are full of feeling and emotion. That up and down of emotional value usually pairs up with another important aspect of structure: formal design.
- Formal design. The design of a song refers to the sections you write: verse, chorus, bridge, etc. These usually need to be similar in length. A verse may be as much as twice the length of a chorus, but no matter what decisions you make in that regard, the different sections usually need to be related. So a 16-bar verse might use an 8-bar chorus. Or a 12-bar verse (like the blues) might similarly use a 12-bar chorus. Allowing one section to be noticeably different and unrelated in length can make a song sound unstructured or disorganized.
- Melodic design. It’s not just that verse melodies are typically lower in pitch than choruses, but putting the magnifying glass on melodies will show other structural characteristics. Good melodies make great use of repetition, and a well-structure melody will show a general direction — starting low and moving higher over the length of the song’s section, for example. And good melodic structure means that it works well with the chords that are supporting it, as well as the lyrics that get paired with it.
- Instrumental/production ideas. Instruments that happen haphazardly in songs — brought in, and then dropped unexpectedly — can make a song sound confusing. Just as your song represents a plan that involves melody, lyrics and chords, good production means that instrumental decisions make sense. A song might be primarily keyboard-based, or guitar-based. It might use percussion, or not. But every decision that’s made builds on (or subtracts from) something that’s come immediately before. So just as a good chord progression sounds good because it’s considering the chords that come before and after, good production sounds good because it’s part of a plan.
Usually, your ears will be your guide in identifying songs that suffer from bad structure. While a finished building can hide structural problems, a song with structural problems usually results in something sounding wrong.
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