Monday, May 25, 2009

Song Structure Part One: Overview

As both a touring musician and the owner of a small record label, you can imagine how many demos I get handed. Unsurprisingly, these run the gamut from slick and polished to "Holy crap, I think you just destroyed Music." Production cues aside, one of the most telling signs that a band is just starting out is a lack of coherent structure to their songs. So for the next couple of days, I want to talk about this topic a bit.

Music, at its most fundamental level, is about organization. Notes are organized by rhythms and pitches within bars, and those bars of music, in turn, make up verses, choruses, and bridges that make up the song as a whole. To totally suck all the romance out of it, the difference between a great song and a poor song comes about 80% down to how skillfully these elements are arranged. For the purposes of our discussion, we're going to focus on pop-oriented song structures, as they are the most common. At their most simple level, pop songs consist of two main sub-structures: the verse and the chorus. Less common (these days, at least) is the bridge. This is often replaced by a 'breakdown' section in dance music.

Before I get into this, I want to stress that there are no hard, fast rules when it comes to what defines these parts. In fact, misusing or doing something unexpected with them can often sound genius. But you need to be able to walk before you can run, so let's keep it simple for now. At the basic level, a song is an arrangement of verses and choruses assembled together in meaningful way. While verses exist mainly to propel the song (and especially the lyrics) forward, the chorus is your payoff. You're essentially 'teasing' the listener with the verse to build up to the excitement and power of the chorus.

Ideally, your verse sections and chorus sections should differ musically. One sure sign that I've been given a demo by someone just starting out is that the songs consist of the same thing musically for 5 minutes. Of course, it is possible to write fantastic songs where the verse and chorus share the same chord progressions, but the most successful songs like this get around the repetition factor that by manipulating the energy levels in between sections. (More on this tomorrow...) So when you're starting out, concentrate on coming up with at least two musically distinct parts to serve as your verse and chorus sections.

From here, it makes sense to think of the structure of the entire song. Again, there are no rules here, but what makes for a successful song is at least partly based on knowing just how long to tease the listener with the verses before letting them have the payoff of the chorus. If that time is too short, the choruses (chorii?) lose a bit of their impact, and if you wait too long, the listener may become bored and lose interest. You mainly have to trust your gut when it comes to this sort of thing, and experience will make it easier as time goes on. In most western pop music, song sections come in chunks of 16, or 32 bars (and rarely 8 bars). So use that as a starting point for getting the length of sections right.

As far as the actual organization of these sections, there are several factors that can have an influence, not the least of which is how many verses you need in order to tell your story lyrically. But again, this is largely something you need to develop an instinct for. This isn't difficult, and you should rather quickly be able to get a feel for it just by dissecting a few songs you really like. I've given this advice more than any, but I think it's worth repeating - if you want to learn about how a good song is put together, the best thing you can do is to reverse engineer it. Find a song or two by another artist that you really like and put together a cover version of it. The aim here is not to get arty and make your own, dramatically different version, but to imitate the original as closely as you can. When you see the structure of a song you like laid out in your sequencer, I guarantee song structure will start making more sense to you.

Next time out, we will focus on the chorus and what makes a good one.


nulldevice said...

One example of a hit song with no change in chord structure is Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" (a song with which I am rather familiar). It's the same three chords repeated over and over. It's all about what hey do within the parameters of those three chords.

Tom said...

Yeah, definitely. It certainly takes skill to pull that off well!

Will C. said...

"Blue Monday" by New Order is another once. F C D, F C D, F C D, G C D. It has a less traditional structure, though--extended instrumentals and no chorus.

David Anderson said...

I would love to hear an example of "you just destroyed Music." :)

Tom said...

David - Trust me. You really don't. haha

mangadrive said...

"involuntary headbob"

Master this and you master composition. I could write a book about it with a scary amount of words, but in this day in age people left things like breakdowns and builds in the 90's especially in my genres and scenes. New music that makes me want to groove is just getting rare.