Song StructureSep 04, 2021
A lot of important things can be taken for granted. Like how every story- movie, book, or otherwise, is separated into 3 distinct acts. Song structure is something else often taken for granted.
You just know you need to write some verses, a chorus, and probably a bridge. You might not think about why or what each is for. You might not understand when and why you should sometimes break out of the Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus mold.
First, let’s look at the main pieces.
Your verses are what move your song forward. The verses are there to tell a story, or to develop your perspective or the characters of your song.
The verses are your chance to get into details. You can really dive into all the little nooks and crannies of the story you’re trying to tell. Verses will often be the most “intimate” of the parts of your song.
I’m the first in line to tell you that every part of your song needs to be great. From the middle line of the second verse to the opening line of your chorus.
But, if there’s one thing you definitely can’t get away with, it’s a bad chorus. Forgettable verses can be overcome by a great chorus, but a disappointing chorus is a deathwish for your song.
The chorus is like the main conflict of a story. It needs to be great and it merits revisiting several times. Does the hero face the villain just once at the end? Not normally.
Even if the hero and villain don’t actually meet or come to blows before the final act, there are often conflicts between them.
Take The Dark Knight. The Joker and Batman face in Bruce Wayne’s penthouse, in the street, and in the interrogation room before their final showdown.
Why? Because it amps up the conflict and they’re the best parts! Your chorus is the same thing.
Just like the main conflict in a movie, the chorus should also have the greatest emotional intensity. This is the time to belt those higher notes, have all the instruments join in, and talk about your main theme.
The bridge functions as a chance to change it up a bit. After getting used to the flow from verse to chorus, the bridge is an opportunity to give a new perspective or take the song in a different musical direction.
So what are some of the common patterns?
Ah, the most common of all the patterns. You open with a verse to set the stage, but also quickly get to the highlight- the chorus.
You don’t simply give the listener the best part once though- you give it early, right in the middle, and end on a high note by also ending your song with the chorus.
If Batman took out the Joker in the middle of the movie, what is even the point of the second part, right?
Variation 1 – CVCVCBC
The first variation of the VCVCBC structure is simply opening with the chorus.
There can be several motivations to do this. Most commonly, it’s simply that you want to hook the listener right away. What better way than instantly hitting them with the best part of your song?
Another reason you could start with the chorus would be that the chorus gives the big-picture context before the first verse, which can make the story you’re telling in the first verse make more sense.
Variation 2 – VVCVCBC
This looks like the first verse is twice as long as the second but, usually, it’s more like the second verse is half the size of the first.
But wait, that’s the same thing! Technically yes, but the idea is that you still want to get to the first chorus quickly. This pattern is often more about making the wait from the first chorus to the second chorus as short as possible rather than making the listener wait extra long before hearing the first chorus.
Once you give the listener the best part, you might not want to keep them waiting too long to get back to it!
Variation 2 – VCVCC
Who needs a bridge when you can have more cowbell chorus? Some songs will simply repeat the chorus several times at the end without a bridge.
But why? Well, because some songwriters are lazy.
Kidding. Kind of. I’m certain that’s actually true more often than we’d like to think, but another reason is to maximize chorus time. Because, if the chorus is the best part, why spend too much time on other parts?
Sometimes the chorus changes lyrics for that final chorus, giving the song one final, interesting chorus. If you’re creating interest by changing the lyrics, but keeping the same killer melody, who needs a bridge?
Of course, you can also mix and match all these different variations on the VCVCBC pattern.
You could make a whole career of great songs simply with those standard patterns. But what’s the fun in that? There’s a whole world out there!
So what is a pre-chorus?
Basically, it’s a primer for the chorus that is in between your verse and chorus. It usually will bridge the gap from the verse to the chorus in some way.
Sometimes it bridges the gap lyrically, by giving further context before diving into the chorus.
Sometimes it bridges the gap musically, by preparing the listener for the upcoming chorus. Maybe it brings up the energy from the verses to make the jump from verse to chorus less jarring.
Maybe it brings down the energy from the verses to make the jump to the chorus even more jarring.
Often, the pre-chorus functions as both a bridge to the chorus lyrically and musically. Even if you don’t need that bridge from verse to chorus, it can function as another different musical section to help keep the song interesting.
Think about it, what seems more interesting?
VCVCBC or VPCVPCBC?
The repetition of the chorus is the same, but the returns to the chorus feel less constant.
The post-chorus has really been popularized with recent pop music.
For each of those, I put a link that will take you right to the post-chorus. The post-chorus is often used to give the listener another hook. In both “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and “Shape of You”, they repeat the lyrics of the song title in the post-chorus.
The post-chorus often maintains the energy that was found in the chorus. Unlike a verse or pre-chorus, a post-chorus isn’t usually used to transition into anything, it’s used to keep the chorus-party going.
Sometimes the post-chorus is used to go to an unexpected next level from the chorus. By the end of the chorus of “Can’t Stop the Feeling”, you’re probably feeling pretty satisfied. But then the “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” post-chorus kicks in, and it feels like it raises the bar even more.
Overall, the post-chorus could be characterized as “But wait! There’s more!”
Keep in mind that post-choruses certainly are not only for pop music, I just chose those examples as they are well-known songs utilizing a post-chorus.
You may think “wait, I’ve never heard of this before!”
That’s because, where it does exist, it’s often labeled as something like “Chorus 2″.
But I think “Chorus 2” is a terrible and misleading term for it. “Chorus 2” sounds like “Verse 2”- so it has the same music but different lyrics, right?
No! That’s part of why I call this part a finale. So what is a finale?
Well, one of my favorite parts to write as a songwriter. The best-known example of what I would call a finale is the part everyone knows from “Don’t Stop Believin’”
That’s right, the best part of the song doesn’t come until the end. The structure of this song is Verse 1 – Verse 2 – Chorus – Verse 3 – Chorus – Bridge (guitar solo doing melody of finale) – Finale
So what is a “Finale”? Basically, it’s when the best part of the song comes at the end, and it is a brand new part. It’s only done once at the end. It can repeat at the end, but it doesn’t play at all until the end.
There are many reasons I like this. One is that it gives you at least 2 absolutely killer parts- the chorus and the finale.
Another reason is that it gives the listener the best part at the end and only the end, leaving them wanting more.
Have you ever watched a movie and get that satisfied feeling at the end of what you thought was the climax? And then something even more cool and mind-blowing happened?
Like the fight scene between Luke and Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. You get that iconic start to the lightsaber fight with Luke and Vader igniting their sabers in the fog. You then get 5 minutes of the climactic duel.
Then Luke’s hand is cut off, and his saber plummets below.
Vader starts talking, and you’re probably thinking “yup, typical bad guy ‘join me’ kinda talk”.
Well, at least the first time you watch it. But then. THEN. Vader drops an absolute bomb and your mind blows into little pieces. Even after you know the greatest movie twist of all time, you can still feel the epic psychological blow Luke just got.
The “I am your father” line is the finale.
A finale is a way to somehow blow people’s minds even more when they thought the highlight had already come and gone.
What are some of your favorite parts and song structures? Let us know in the comments below!
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