Songwriting Secrets – Structure

Songwriting Secrets is my insight into songwriting tips, tricks and things I have learnt over the years. Things I wished I had known when I first started out in songwriting, as well as techniques and ideas I am still using and developing today!

Song Structure

Song structure is crucial to writing great music.

Understanding song structure will help you stay creative and avoid writer’s block.  Its also really important for the listeners experience.
Structure gives our songs organisation. It’s the arrangement of the different sections in the song, some of which repeat, some of which don’t.  How a song is organised plays a huge role in whether the listener is invited in or kept at arm’s length.
A song’s structure can immerse your listeners in your story through use of certain formatting. such as repetition of lyrics or use of certain chord progressions.

What’s Good Song Structure?

You are probably already aware of song structure through your listening of music; even if you don’t know it yet!  Thats because good songs follow certain patterns and formatting which means you can follow the song through its structure.  You can feel the structure as you listen!

Good structure feels right. Nothing feels jarring, disorienting, or boring. You can listen along without any red flags or question marks appearing, like “Where is this going?” or “why does that sound weird?”

The Roadmap to Your Song

A song’s structure is its roadmap

Imagine you’re in a car with your best pals and you want to drive somewhere you’ve never been before. Everyones excited but no one has GPS on their phone. Without GPS, you won’t be able to get there; because you don’t know how to get there.

If you don’t have the roadmap (ok, your phone’s map app) in front of you, you can set off in the right direction and take guesses along the way.  With all those good intentions, its still not going to get you to where you want to be.  How much easier is it if you follow the map?  So do yourself a favour and use a roadmap while writing your songs!

Write Better Songs in Less Time

Take your songs on the road…Literally!

It’s a lot easier to come up with a cool melody than to finish an entire song. Using tried and true song structures will help you write songs that sound better and take way less time. A firm song structure will tell you where the song should go next. You’ll waste a lot less time guessing and getting lost. Plus…

Listeners Want Structure

Your audience wants to know the song will follow a similar format to other songs in the same genre.  They’ll need it to be at a reasonable length without too many new sections. You don’t want them to get completely lost in a song that feels like it’s dragging along forever.

Without good structure, people will need a lot of concentration to listen to your song and probably won’t enjoy it as much.

4 Points Of Structure To Live By

Structure helps listeners know right where they are, because they know where they’ve been. So what are some of the ways you can provide structure for your listeners? Here are some opportunities:

  • Embrace Repetition
    A repetitive section in your song is a great opportunity to invite your listener into your song. When they hear the repeating section again they will know what to expect. They’ll quickly learn the words and be singing along in no time.
  • Use Tension and Release Wisely
    Keep your songs dynamic. To tell a story, you want to lead your listeners through various moments of heightening tension, followed by a release. This is something storytellers use in all mediums, from music to movies to novels. Ask yourself, “Does my song have very little tension/release? Or is there too much?”
  • Hook them with a Hook
    Another way to provide climactic moments in your songs is to only deliver your hook at points of high tension. Let your hook be the release the listener has been waiting for. It’s the most important line of your song, so make sure it gets the most impact. Create that ear worm!
  • Use Transitions to Link Sections
    Does each section of your song seem to rush right into the next? Add a little musical space between sections to break them up a bit. This gives the ear a rest before moving on. Conversely, if your songs have too much space between sections, it can get boring fast. Chop overly long sections in half.

Repetition Is Your Friend

Popular music had been stereotyped for being repetitive and dumb. That couldn’t be farther from the truth! Theres a reason why popular music is, well, popular

Repetition isn’t dumb!

Repetition is a highly effective tool that can make songs irresistible.

Regardless of your opinion of current music, pop music really gets this right.  but pretty much every musical genre utilises repetition; some more than others! Repetition keeps your listeners engaged. It teaches them the song as they listen to it.

This is why we hear so many sections, like choruses or hooks, that are short and repeat frequently. If a listener can learn the chorus after one pass and sing along on the second pass, you’ve made a fan!

Some Popular Song Structures

These are examples, and are not the be all and end all of song structures available to utilise. But these are common, well used and well loved examples.  You can even adapt all of these structures by throwing a musical interlude or instrument solo in various places to break up the structure.

Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus

Seen a lot less in pop music today, this structure does still work in some circumstances. At its worst, this structure can be overly repetitive and boring. At its best, the story is killer and works well. “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple follows this form as does “Angels” by Robbie Williams. Songs can easily get boring when using this structure, so writers often use the musical and vocal arrangements to keep the listener engaged.

Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus

This is perhaps the most common song structure in music today. It’s practically ubiquitous – we hear it everywhere. Sometimes the first verse section can be a double length verse plus other minor variations. Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” uses this well-loved structure, as does “Im A Believer” The Monkees, and “Come As You Are” by Nirvana.

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

This structure is nearly identical to the previous one, except we have the addition of a prechorus.  A prechorus is normally a short section linking the verse and chorus, allowing the build up to the chorus. You can hear this structure in Katy Perry’s “Firework.” The prechorus is really essential in linking the verse and building up the tension before releasing with that catchy chorus. The Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” is also another great example of this form.

Verse/Refrain – Verse/Refrain – Bridge – Verse/Refrain

This song structure is less used today, but still some great tracks use it from time to time. There is no chorus. Typically each verse will have a refrain at the beginning or end of it to be the repetitive element. It can be heard in a lot of bluegrass, gospel, and occasionally country music but some modern songs have made great use of this structure. “Make You Feel My Love” sang by Adele is a great example of this, but this is a song originally written and recorded by Bob Dylan. “Yesterday” by The Beatles and “Don’t Know Why” by Nora Jones are also examples of this unusual yet powerful structure.

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

In pop music, we’ve seen the reinvention of the hook.  It’s gone from a single line of a chorus to its own independent section immediately after a chorus. They are filled with delightful musical energy and a repetitive lyric. You can hear a hook used like this in action in Dua Lipa’s “New Rules,” and in Calvin Harris / Sam Smith’s song “Promises” and in many other contemporary pop hits.

Breaking the Rules

While certain song structure is expected across different genres of music, I strongly feel that rules are meant to be broken. That’s where innovation is made!

Trying new things with your songs structure can lead to some really inventive songs when it feels right.   But that’s the key – it has to feel right.  If your structure is a bit too avant-garde, you risk losing listeners and potentially make things complicated for melody and lyric writing. Good structure leads the listener along the journey. Remember, a song’s structure is the listener’s roadmap.

Where Should You Start?

The short answer is: Anywhere you want!

Many songwriters start with their hook, while others begin with the verse. Some will even write all the music and melodies first then bring in lyrics; or vice versa. If you feel like you’re pulled toward one section of your song first, write that first. Then see what else needs to be written around that section in order for it all to feel like it fits.

Experiment away! But most importantly, keep writing!

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