The deeper into the adventure of song writing you delve, the more you'll begin to notice patterns, especially relating to song structure. Differing genres and decades will display their various influences and preferences, but at the end of the day the basic song structure essentials never change. One or two of the fundamentals may disappear in exchange for others here and there, but you'll typically find the same elements over and over again in various orders.
Some songs may feature two full verses before you hear the first instance of the chorus. Some songs may have a four-bar intro and go straight into a chorus. Others will feature a pre-chorus or a bridge while pop songs, for example, may not. Your own personal goal will change depending on the style of music or the emotional impact you're trying to create. It will serve you well to be familiar with each structural unit of a song so you can listen critically and discover more arrangements to use in your own music.
The basic and essential units of a song are:
Again, not all songs will feature all of these parts and will arrange them in differing orders, but this is what you will find in 95% of music. As you venture into other types of music such as progressive rock medleys and classical overtures, you'll begin to discover more types and songs that completely break all of the rules. But it all always comes back to these main six.
The structure of a song is comprised of its parts, and its parts will each be one of the following building blocks. Read on to learn about how each piece functions and what purpose it serves.
Let's take a look at each individual piece of the typical non-pop song. Understanding the purpose and function of each of the following pieces will prepare you to write songs that feel mature and complete. They may or may not include all of them and definitely aren't constrained to the following order.
When you begin a song, you don't want to come in at full force. Your listeners need a chance to become accustomed to you, your style, and your intentions. This is the goal of an introduction: to acclimate the user and allow them an attempt to anticipate the adventure. Like a movie or novel, music should feature a clear start, gradual build-up, an exciting climax, and a final act that debriefs and returns the enjoyer back to their original state of mind.
Typically, intro's have been fairly low-key and don't feature all of the instrumentation of the song. It will often allow a backing instrument to play a rendition of the lead melody, easing it into the listener's mind to bring on immediate familiarity. Some genres however, like the newer Dubstep, have further developed the usage of the intro, creating a giant crescendo that leads into the first verse in a very dramatic fashion, taking as long as a full minute of listening time.
Traditionally in most styles of music, intros will last anywhere from four measures to eight measures. Your goal is to establish the rhythm, the tempo, foreshadow the lead melody, introduce the vocalist's voice, and more. Show the user your conceptual idea without giving away the whole show.
Many people feel that the verses of a song are only there to give the brain a break before hammering it again with the chorus. The big industry bosses have realized this, which is why most rap singles have the hottest R&B pop singer on the chorus every time without fail. It's how you ensnare most non-committed listeners. But huge opportunities are lost by this "make the chorus rock and forget about the verses" methodology.
Pink Floyd said it best:
How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?
It's no surprise pop music is shoveled and marketed towards kids and teenagers. These are the same people who want to eat their dessert first and spoil the meal. You don't have to ask a listener to delay their gratification though. You should be entertaining and developing the story throughout the verses. The best songwriters have managed to write verses that completely change the meaning of the chorus after each separate verse. Yes, verses can literally be mind blowing. It's your chance to explore the depth of emotion and intellect of your listener. It is the meat and potatoes that sustains the listener and readies their pallet for another chorus.
A great approach is to think of a verse as having two segments of eight bars each. Taking advantage of this allows your to keep things feeling creative and different while unified. You can have varying melodies, chord progressions, and harmonizations that drive the listener higher and higher until you wow them with the chorus.
But not just yet. It's time to tease them with the pre-chorus which accomplishes a few goals. I'll go as far as to say most songs don't use a pre-chorus, but they allow you to heighten the impact of the chorus by delaying them just two more bars before the chorus hits. This build or turnaround also indicates that a transition is coming. With the chorus on the horizon, it gives a chance to snag the listener's attention as if to say "hey, perk up, it's time!" You can also break patterns, bring in novel harmonies, and use interesting drum breaks. Basically, whatever you've got to do bring full attention back to the song.
Because, as Blues Traveler tells us:
Because the Hook brings you back
I ain't tellin' you no lie
The Hook brings you back
On that you can rely
The most essential part of song structure is the chorus, or refrain. It is the portion of a song that is repeated between verses that returns the song back to a sort of baseline. Due to the repetition of vocals, rhythm, and melody, it gives the listener a chance to rest the ears in familiar territory.
Choruses should be sonically offset from the verses. What this means is that a verse can be a bit calmer and build towards a climactic chorus that brings a larger impact, or the chorus can be a dynamic reduction in intensity that helps accentuate the other parts of the song. There are a lot of options available.
For a very unique exploration of the chorus, listen to Owl City's Fireflies and pay attention to how the role of chorus changes as the song develops. The video is below for your convenience.
Whatever you choose, do so with deep thought. This is arguably the most important part of your song, due to it's repetition and memorability.
As Led Zeppelin asked us in a bridge-less song while goofing on James Brown:
Where's that confounded bridge?
The bridge exists to bring forth a sense of novelty later in the song while providing a contrast to the rest of the song. Just when the listener is expecting the beginning of another possibly tiresome verse, they are confronted by a drastically different bridge that jars them awake and gets their attention again. How is this accomplished?
Some common conventions to achieve the goal is to switch to a relative key that uses the same key signature. For instance, if you're playing a song in A-Minor you may switch to C-Major in the bridge. Switch up your chord progression and melody and you can create a contrasting emotional experience. Another convention is to do none of the above, but allow 8 to 16 measures for a guitarist, pianist, flutist, etc. to smash out a rippin' solo. The soloist should improvise, and if help is needed they can play off of the lead melody.
Be careful to not allow the solo to go on for too long (unless you're playing Death Metal), since many listeners attempt to hold their breath during it out of respect and reverence to the soloist. This behavior is not condoned by LedgerNote. Please consult your doctor before attempting to worship the Rock Gods in this manner.
If you attempt to catalog all of the various ways of handling the outro, you'll never stop. The goal is to clearly delineate the fact that the song is ending. Some bands prefer a nice sinusoidal or linear digital fade out, but I personally don't like anything that can't be replicated live. You can create an interesting rhythmic break that ends abruptly, repeat the chorus in a low key manner, reiterate the intro, or even repeat the first half of the first verse. You can be very creative here as long as you get the key point across, which is preparing the listener for the eventuality of the song being over.
You're now familiar and knowledgeable about the various elements of the structure of a song. Which you include or leave out largely depends on the type of song and your intended audience. As you go about your days in the car with the radio, or streaming music online, try to analyze the songs you hear and label each piece of the song. You'll begin to notice various structures that will help you emphasize the purpose of your song. Take what you hear and play with it in your own songs. You'll learn as you listen and as you create. Both will carry you forward on your journey.