It would be a no-brainer to say that I think Paul McCartney discovered things about songwriting that many other writers just don’t ever get to know. But one aspect of his writing that I think has contributed to his success is his very loose concept of what song form is.
Most of the time when we talk about song form, we’re talking about the basic structure of a song — the verse-chorus design. And it’s possible to dig down even deeper into the concept of form, and talk about things like rhyming scheme, use of instruments, or rhythmic patterns.
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But thinking of the traditional definition of song form, which is to examine the overall structure of a song, is probably the concept that we’re all most familiar with. We look at songs and try to determine not just where the verse, chorus and other miscellaneous sections happen, but also what differentiates those different sections.
When you study pop songs from the last six or seven decades, you discover that most songwriters have a similar kind of approach to how the various sections within a song work. For example, most songwriters will put the verse lower in pitch, generally speaking, than the chorus.
You’ll also find that verse lyrics tend to describe situations, people and circumstances, while choruses describe emotions.
But when I say that I think McCartney discovered things about songwriting form that others haven’t, I mean this: I believe McCartney discovered that the main difference between the different sections of a song is the musical energy that we feel.
And more to the point, McCartney very often wrote songs where it was hard to discern any particular verse-chorus relationship. “Hey Jude“, “Live and Let Die“, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” – these are songs where you might get a sense of a verse and a chorus structure, but labelling those sections just seems unimportant to the final musical result.
But what is important, then? Why do these songs work, when what we seem to be hearing is a simple case of one unlabelled section moving on to another one?
The reason they work is why the verse-chorus structure of pop songs work in the first place: the various sections of a McCartney song display noticeably different levels of musical energy, even if there’s no particular verse or chorus relationship in the song.
So the success of the verse-chorus structure comes down to musical energy: specifically, that a lower-energy section (the verse) is seeking out and moving toward a higher-energy section (the chorus).
And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from a McCartney song, it’s that that relationship doesn’t necessarily have to be a verse moving to a chorus. It’s more this section moving to that section, in a way that causes musical energy to change in a noticeable way.
If you’ve never written a song where it’s simply one section moving to another — not necessarily verse moving to chorus — it may be time to give that a try. How do you start?
Probably the best approach is to do what McCartney often did, which was to simply bring together various song ideas that were created at different times, but didn’t seem to go anywhere. So many of his songs were bits and pieces — musical ideas — that didn’t have enough on their own to make a complete song.
But with a bit of thought he was able to “jam them together” in the same song, and the results were often unique, innovative and powerful.
So today may be a day to look back through your musical notebook to find the bits of songs that never went anywhere for you, and see if you can pull some of them together into a complete song. The only thing you really need to be sure of is that the different sections bring with them very different levels of musical energy.
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