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Getting People Listening — and Keeping Them Listening

When you talk about form as it applies to a song, part of what you’re talking about is how one section differs from another. In fact, you could argue that the sections that comprise your song, and how they differ, are the most important aspects of form.

In my experience, most songwriters’ eyes glaze over when you discuss form, because it seems so removed from the things that listeners care about: melodies, lyrics, chord choices and so on. But in fact, a proper discussion of form needs to include talking about those things.

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That’s because the differing melodies, lyrics and chords are what separates a verse from a chorus, or a chorus from a bridge, and so on.

There are songs where it’s not obvious that there are verses and choruses in the structure. Progressive rock has lots of examples where you can’t label one section as a verse, or another as a chorus. “Supper’s Ready“, composed by Genesis for their 1972 album “Foxtrot” is a great example. There are many sections — in a song-cycle kind of form — but all together, how you might label those sections seems unimportant.

One section of “Supper’s Ready” might have the vague characteristics of a chorus — highly energetic and emotional — while another section might be more like a verse: narrative and less energetic. Labels like “verse” and “chorus”, though, seem irrelevant in this song.

So what is important? Answering that identifies probably the most important aspect of song form in any song: the emotional/musical energy of any one section.

And more specifically: a song’s sections need to show an ebb and flow of emotional/musical energy in order to keep listeners interested.

Arguably the easiest way to create the ups and downs of musical energy that listeners expect to hear is to create verses and choruses. In that sense, using a verse-chorus structure is like using a ready-made template.

But if you’re interested and willing to experiment, try writing a song where you create different sections, but don’t worry about a standard verse-chorus song form. I’ve talked about this before, and mentioned Chicago’s 1975 hit “Old Days“, which has several sections, but none that feel specifically like a verse or chorus. It’s more a collection of sections that move up and down in musical energy.

That up-and-down of musical energy is what keeps people enticed to keep listening. In fact, that energy fluctuation is what song form is all about. Listen to any song from any genre, and you become aware that when energy dissipates, we instinctively expect it to rise again, and we’re willing to wait for it to happen.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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