In this article, I am going to define and explain ‘Song Structure’. I will then give some explanations and examples of common song structures in different genres and contexts, plus why the structure is so important when writing a song.
What Is Song Structure?
Song structure is the form of the song and how it is arranged. As an important part of the songwriting process, it is typically sectional and uses repeating forms.
As an example – imagine building a house. You might say ‘I want the house to look like this’, with vague ideas. Then come to the decision on how many bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms, kitchens etc you want. These are the sections or ‘repeatable forms’.
Where these chosen areas will go is the arrangement. For example, where will the 3 bedrooms go in relation to the bathrooms? What will be the flow or movement between the kitchen, dining, living areas and so on?
What Are The Building Blocks Of A Song?
Song structure can differ depending on the type of song genre or the song and if you wish to repeat a section of a song. Here is the standard structure for pop music below (verse, pre-chorus, chorus)
This does exactly what it says on the tin – it introduces the song, so it goes at the start. The intro has several functions in a song, for example, it gives people an initial idea of what the song will be like, and sets the scene for what’s to come. It can be used to get people into the best mind frame to enjoy the song and tease the mood that will follow.
Introductions are important because the human ear and mind sometimes have a delay factor when hearing something new. As an example – try walking up to your partner or a friend and saying an important statement without any expression or warning beforehand. More often than not the other person will miss it, not hear it, or only get the second half of the statement. This is because it takes a moment for them to tune into you and what you are saying.
However, if you were to flag that important statement first by saying “I’ve got something to tell you” or “can you listen to this?”, you have given them the introduction and provided them with time to tune in as you elaborate.
An introduction doesn’t have to be long. In some genres, it might be 4 bars, in a lot of ‘radio-ready’ songs it may be a cut-down/altered part of the chorus. In a DJ/Club arrangement, the intro beat may go on for 8 or more bars to allow the DJ to merge your song with the previous one. It can be based on what is appropriate for the genre of popular music or situation – or just might be a case of personal preference.
The verses, both lyrically and instrumentally, are often the ‘story’ of the song. In some genres (especially in country music), there are real stories that take you on a journey over 2-3 or more verses. In others, it provides a framework for the statement or theme in the chorus. For some, it is a stepping stone before a highlight.
Not all songs have a Pre-Chorus. If one is included, it is usually around 2-4 bars. This provides a build towards the chorus or drop. Alternatively, it may just be an instrumental space between the verse and the chorus.
In most cases, the Pre-Chorus is repeated after each verse before the chorus – whether the same lyrics or not, it will be the same form. Sometimes, there may only be a Pre-Chorus before the first chorus.
The chorus is the statement in the song, and often the highest energy point. It’s where the main reason for the song is given – the ‘conclusion of the story’ or the message the songwriter wants you to get from the song. The chorus will normally include the title of the song, but not always, as can be included in another part of the song or not at all.
Depending on the way that the song is arranged, the last chorus repeats might be ‘bigger’ or fuller than the others, with extra embellishments, melodies and more. In EDM music, this is also called the ‘drop’.
Bridge / Refrain
The Bridge allows the songwriter to introduce a little side thought or a bit of a change. It is almost a ‘but wait’ moment before the final statements or choruses. It is usually a change to provide relief or a reawakening of the listener’s interest between the repetitive sections, or before the final big crescendo.
Often, it will move from a low point with some level of build-up before the next section. Sometimes it will have a bigger build and then a drop to complete silence before going on – again, it’s a choice.
The Outro is how the songwriter wants to finish the journey with the listener. It may be a big, final chord that leaves the listener a little breathless, wanting to stand and applaud.
Or, it may be a smooth chord that rings out. It may be a repeating phrase that gradually fades away. The choice will again depend on the context, then genre and the feeling in the song.
Whilst not a part of the basic song structure, there are other considerations in the songwriter’s plan that influences elements in a song structure. Such things as the hook.
The hook (rhythm and melody) is the motif that becomes that repetitive phrase that the listener can catch on to, that ‘hooks’ them onto the song. So, one needs to consider the hook (or hooks), and where they will come from.
Who doesn’t like a guitar solo? Well, a solo (from any instrument) can break up the song structure whilst complementing the rest of the song. You’ll more likely see this in live music arrangements where each band member will get the chance to show off their improvisation skills. However, a guitar solo is more common in a recorded track.
Arrangement: Putting The Song Structure Together
Putting the sections together in a song is partly about running the ‘story’ of the song in a logical order.
One of the most popular song structures is the Verse/Chorus or Verse/Chorus/Bridge structure.
The most popular of which is Verse (A), Chorus (B), Verse (A), Chorus (B), Bridge (C), Chorus (B) (and maybe a last Chorus repeat). Often referred to as ABABCB (B). Some examples include ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams and ‘Every Breath You Take’ by Police.
Two alternatives within this form are:
- Adding a third verse after the bridge (ABABCAB)
- Having the bridge after the 3rd verse, before the chorus (ABABACBB)
Since the 1960s, this has been arguably the most popular structure of pop, rock, country and a range of other genres.
Another popular arrangement without a bridge is Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus (ABABAB). Examples of this include ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple and ‘Foxy Lady’ by Jimi Hendrix.
However, song structures vary as much as the ideas for songs do. Here are some examples of interesting structures:
- The ‘One Form’ or ‘Stropic’ AAAA, developed from putting poetry to music (For example “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan).
- AABA – This is a very popular Jazz form, and was very popular in the ‘tin pan alley’ days of the mid-twentieth century songwriting in America. A good example is Gershwin.
- AACA (Examples include ‘We Can Work It Out’ by The Beatles and ‘Still Rock and Roll to Me’ by Billy Joel.
- Often in classical music, you will have a ‘thoroughly composed’ arrangement where no section is repeated (ABCD).
In some modern genres, the names and intents can be different but the essence is the same. For example, in Dance Music, the sections might be Intro – Riff/Hook-Break – Crescendo/Drop – Riff/Hook – Outro. Also, in most EDM music there is a ‘Breakdown’ (maybe a complete stop) before the drop, which would be equivalent to the Pre-chorus in other genres.
It’s important to understand chord progressions, chorus structure and all aspects of music theory. Especially when writing a typical song with common forms for pop songs.
From there, one can go into extended forms or compound forms and more because there is no real right or wrong answer. Decisions should be made based on what works for the message in the song, the length, the genre and so on. It’s a matter of choice in the end.
Furthermore, the length of a song is also greatly impacted by variables within the song. It is often said that for radio, a song should be between 3:15-3:40 minutes long, However, there are songs such as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, which is nearly 6 minutes long. Or ‘Purple Rain’ by Prince & The Revolution, which is almost 9 minutes long!
One final consideration in setting out song structure is dynamics. Consideration of dynamics over the length of the song, plus the ebb and flow of the tide, is very important when planning a song’s structure.
The human ear gets bored easily, and as a result, can turn off instead of pay attention – or numb to a lot of repetition through a long song. So, having dynamic movement through the song is an important part of developing the arrangement and production within the structure.
Part of this can be seen through the use of the sections like the Pre-chorus and Bridge, where different dynamics usually come into play to shake up the song a little. Other ways that dynamics can be utilised is by making the choruses bigger as the song continues, having the outro minimal or big, the range of the build in a bridge, the difference in feel between the verse and the chorus, and so on.
Song Structure Examples Diagram
In conclusion, once a songwriter has thought of the idea or theme for a song and knows the genre and what they want to achieve – that is where the song structure begins to form. Hopefully, this happens before production starts to ensure that the final product is constructed for maximum effect. There needs to be a plan of the song flow, the sections and their order and what each section wants to achieve in regards to the feel and the story.