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Strengthening the Structure of Your Songs

If you look closely at the way Classical composers wrote their music, you’ll find some very sophisticated characteristics that leave you wondering: Did they actually think people would notice?
Here’s a bit of what I mean.

Musicologists will tell you that Bach had an interesting way of structuring his music: he would write a short musical phrase — maybe only five or six notes — to start a movement, which showed a particularly distinctive shape. Take the final movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The violin starts the movement by playing a very quick line that moves up and then immediately down:

Shape of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3: III

He then takes that general shape and applies it to the first section of the movement, so that we hear that the movement starts relatively low, then moves upward, gradually descending downward for the next several bars.

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Then if you look at the entire movement, you notice that in general, the movement starts relatively low, moves upward, and then moves downward.

By doing this, Bach’s hope was that, even if listeners weren’t noticing, there’d be a strengthening of the musical structure of the movement that would make the entire movement better.

I don’t think Bach thought people would notice this. If he did, he was wildly overestimating the musical sophistication of the majority of the people who would be listening. But the fact that it’s there makes the music better. And even if people weren’t able to put their finger on why it sounded better, that technique still worked.

Musical Structure of Pop Music

I wrote about this a number of years ago on this blog when I analyzed Imogen Heap’s song “Tidal” from her 2009 album “Ellipse”. (You can read that article and analysis here.)

We don’t know a lot about Bach’s compositional process, but we assume that he had as one of the items in his “bags of tricks” the notion that he would replicate the general shape of the opening line in the general shape of the entire movement.

Most of the time, the way you write pop songs is going to be governed in large part by your musical instincts. And so you might think that doing something similar to what Bach did isn’t really going to work.

So as a pop songwriter, is there anything you can do that might strengthen the structure of your songs? It all starts by defining what we mean by a pop song’s structure.

The structure of a song is anything that contributes to its power and its understanding as a musical entity. So some things that you already do as part of your natural songwriting process are already contributing to its structure:

  • You make verses sit low in pitch compared to the relatively high chorus pitch.
  • You use a cleaner, more transparent vocal style in the verse compared to a higher and generally more energetic vocal quality in the chorus.
  • You vary your use of instruments throughout the song, moving from lighter to fuller and back again as the song progresses, partnering up with the musical energy of the moment.
  • You make observations in your verse lyrics, and switch to more emotional content in the chorus lyric.

Like Bach’s technique of replicating a musical shape throughout a movement, these are things that the audience may or may not be aware of as they listen, but even if they don’t notice that you’ve applied those songwriting techniques, they are still very important, and they still work.

The interesting thing is that you can write a song where, for example, the chorus sits lower than the verse, like the Genesis tune “No Reply At All“, where the chorus is considerably lower in pitch than the verse, seemingly in violation of the principle of higher-pitched choruses. So why does the song still work?

It’s because the general principle is a more focused one: the chorus should sound more energetic than the verse. An easy way to do that is to raise the pitch of the chorus, but if you haven’t done that, you rely on other characteristics, such as a more intense instrumental accompaniment, or perhaps a more intensely emotional chorus lyric.

When you’ve finished a song and you’re ready to record, that’s the time to take a closer look at what you’ve written, and ask yourself: have I done anything that contributes to the overall structure of my song?

Most of the time, you’ll be doing 95% of what you need to do if you simply examine the musical energy — the ups and downs of the intensity — and make note of the ways in which you’ve allowed those fluctuations to happen. Look at how lyrics, melody range, even chord choice, all contribute — or not — to the intention of your song.

And in the final analysis, it won’t matter a whole lot if your fans don’t actually notice that you’ve put that kind of thought into your songs. The songs will simply be better, even if they don’t know why.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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