The Worst Place to Get Creative

structureFor most people, it’s part of our nature to be comfortable with structure. We want turkey on Thanksgiving and barbeque on the 4th of July. We want both of the headlights on our car to be identical. Artists in the fine arts often strive to push the boudaries of form and challenge our sense of structure. But if you are a songwriter who would like to hear your songs on the radio, you have a much better chance if you stick with standard song forms.

Standard song forms are recognizable, predictable patterns for organizing melodies. They have distinct sections that are the same each time you hear them but different from the other sections. There are a few set ways to arrange them that seem to have an innate logic that feels pleasing and satisfying to listeners. I can’t explain why they do, any more than I can explain why C F G C is such a satisfying chord progression, but I can tell you that in my classes and workshops I have analyzed hundreds of hit songs and rarely found one that doesn’t follow a standard song form, and those that don’t are usually a slight variation of a standard form.

These forms get used over and over because they work, and part of why they work is because they get used over and over. Listeners are familiar with them without even being aware of it. Hit songs play on the radio, and most people listen to the radio while they are doing something else. It’s easier for them to stay focused on a song if they know instinctively what’s coming next. 

Even if you’re not convinced of the value of standard song forms, be aware that publishers, producers, record labels, artists and radio programmers are. You’ll find an occasional exception (George Strait’s “The Chair” and Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” for example) but as a developing writer it will be hard to find acceptance on Music Row if you abandon that formula.

Here is a list of the standard forms along with some guidelines for using them.

Verse – Verse – Verse

This is an old-fashioned folk song form. There are a few country classics that use it such as “Amarillo By Morning” and  “Something In Red” it but it is rarely used these days.

 

Verse – Chorus- Verse – Chorus

Variations:

Verse – Verse – Chorus – Verse – Verse – Chorus

Verse – Verse – Chorus –Verse – Chorus

Verse – Chorus- Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus

Chorus – Verse – Chorus –Verse – Chorus

When using this form:

  • You can take away a verse, but don’t add one.
  • It’s VERY RARE to have more than three verses.
  • Each verse should have the same melody but different lyrics.
  • Each chorus should have the same melody. They usually have the same lyrics, but it’s okay to change them. If you do it’s good to keep some continuity from one chorus to the next and the hook should come at the same place each time.
  • It is okay to start with the chorus, although not common today.

 

Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus 

A bridge is a segment of the song that has a different melody than the verse or chorus. It comes after the second chorus and adds something fresh to help keep listeners interested. 

Variation:

Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Verse – Chorus

When using this form:

  • Don’t add a bridge until we have heard the verse and chorus twice.
  • After the bridge you can go into a third verse or right into the chorus.
  • Once you have put the chorus after the bridge (or after the third verse and bridge) do not add another verse and chorus. It will make the song feel too long even if it isn’t.
  • This is the most common song form in current commercial music, but there are lots of hit songs without bridges so don’t feel the need to write one if your melody feels complete and you have said all you need to say without one.

 

Verse – Verse –Bridge – Verse (Also referred to as AABA)

This is a classic form that many old standards use, as well as a handful of contemporary songs. The term “middle eight” refers to the bridge in this song form.

Variation:

Verse – Verse –Bridge – Verse –Bridge – Verse

In this variation the bridge usually has the same lyrics each time. The 4th verse can be a repeat of the first or third verse or it can have different lyrics of its own.

When using this form:

  • The bridge uses a different melody than the verses and is usually more soaring and dramatic than the verse.
  • The hook is usually in the last line of each verse but sometimes in the first line.
  • Most often the hook is not in the bridge; it may feel over-used if it is.

 

Verse – Pre-chorus – Chorus – Verse – Pre-chorus – Chorus

The pre-chorus creates a transition between the verse and chorus. Channel is another name for pre-chorus. Other names for it are climb, rise or lift because it is usually an ascending melody that builds up to a soaring chorus.

Variation

Verse – Lift – Chorus – Verse – Lift – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus

When using this form:

  • Most songs that use a pre-chorus use it after each verse but some use it only once.
  • The pre-chorus is most often shorter than the verses, typically 2 lines after a 4 line verse.
  • It is uncommon to use a pre-chorus if you have 2 verses before the chorus. If you want to, be sure it does not make your song feel too long or your melody feel too complicated.
  • In pop songs every pre-chorus usually has the same lyrics but in country songs they are usually different each time.
  • Sometimes after the second verse-chorus, the pre-chorus can be used as a bridge. This can work well if there is a lot going on in the melody and adding a bridge melody would feel like too much.

 

Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus

This form is called a rondo. Itoriginated with symphonic music but it occasionally finds its way into a pop or country song, such as “Good Morning Beautiful.”

 

Additional general guidelines

  • Each melodic segment (verse, chorus, bridge and pre-chorus) should have the same melody every time but there should be contrast between the melodies of the different segments.
  • The chorus should stand out from and be more soaring than the verses. Most often the chorus starts on a higher note than the verses.
  • It is very rare to hear the chorus more than three times unless the chorus repeats at the end as part of the arrangement of the song.