What you should get from this section:
After this section you should have a basic understanding of the key elements of a song structure, and how to create a song structure using the basic elements.
Creating a song structure can be as easy or as complicated as you like. For the purposes of this course, the idea is to get you to learn basic composition skills, so we’ll keep it pretty straightforward.
The good news is, that MOST songs in popular genres normally only utilise between 3 and 6 different sections or parts. This makes your job a lot easier as you won’t have to try and create 10 different sections for each song you write, and it can be a relatively quick process. I think the quickest I ever wrote a song was in about 4 minutes (not the lyrics).
So let’s look at the different elements of a song structure, and then we’ll take a look at three well know songs, break them down, and examine them as well.
Intro : This is quite often the same chords/dynamics as the verse or chorus, mainly the verse. (“When You Were Young” by the Killers is an example of the chorus being used as an intro).
Verse : Normally a pretty straightforward structure, containing four to 8 chords.
Chorus : Again, normally pretty straight forward, and consisting of four to eight chords. There is normally a change in the dynamics of a chorus to make it stand out. These include volume, intensity, catchyness (is that a real word?), and timbre.
Bridge : This is often literally a bridge-between the verse and the chorus, or the chorus and the verse. This is especially useful when you have a key change from one to the other, or the transition from verse to chorus or vice versa isn’t particularly smooth.
Middle 8: This section is used to break up the song so it isn’t just a sequence of Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus. Can change the whole feel of the song, and if used properly can make or break it. Again, the dynamics are normally different to add variety.
Outro : Finally, like the intro, this can often simply be a repeat of the verse or chorus chords/structure, but can also be totally different. Remember, there are no rules.
Building intensity during a song!
As mentioned earlier, MOST choruses have a more intense feel about them, with more dynamicness (another new word), going on! There are many ways to achieve this, using various different methods and different instruments, so let’s take a look at some of them now:
These are simply musical terms for an increase or decrease in volume. Building the overall volume will obviously increase the intensity (though be careful to make sure you don’t just use volume for volume’s sake and lose the feel, and nuances of the music). Decreasing the volume will lower the intensity of the music, and is a technique often employed when leaving a chorus and returning to a verse. (Listen to CREEP by Radiohead). You can obviously reverse this effect if you want a more chilled out chorus.
The Drums play a MASSIVE part in building the intensity of your music, and they have many different ways of doing so. Here are a few examples:
- Adding more fills on the toms, snare, kick drum, leading into, or out of a chorus/bridges. This lets the listener know that something is coming and they’d better be ready!
- Doubling your beats on the high hat from quarter notes to half or eighth notes. This gives the impression of increased speed.
- Changing the beat altogether. This works wonders as it completely changes the feel of the piece.
- Doubling speed, halving speed, etc. Again, this lets the listener know that something is changing.
- Change from a closed high hat to an open high hat for a louder, more open sound.
- Move from the closed high hat to the ride for a different sound.
- Guitars and Bass
Again, the guitars can play a MAJOR role in changing the dynamics of a piece of music, and helping to travel from a verse into a chorus or vice versa. Here are just a few of the things you can do with it to change the way the music carries.
- Increase volume
- Move from simple picking to full chords. Again, will boost the volume, and increase the intensity. Likewise, changing back to simple picking will have the opposite effect. (Coldplay’s Politik is an excellent example of this).
- Adding effects such as distortion, chorus, flange, delay, reverb, will alter the sound and can be used to increased or decrease the intensity. (Radiohead’s Creep is a perfect example)
- Changing octave. Moving from one octave to either a higher register, or lower register will change the feel of what you’re doing, and can be employed to good effect.
- Frequency of notes. By playing more of the same thing per bar, it’s going to sound “busier” so will add intensity. The opposite is also true.
- Adding bass notes to your melodies/chords will also boost the sound and add intensity.
Piano or keyboards, like guitar can totally change the effect and intensity when used correctly. Here are some examples:
- Moving from playing single notes or harmonies to full, rich chords will boost the sound and add intensity and depth.
- Heavy bass notes will do the same.
- Frequency of notes. For example, doubling the amount of notes you play per bar will give the impression of acceleration.
- If using a keyboard, adding effects will do the same thing as adding guitar effects. (Listen to Keane for examples of this).
I’m not going to go through each instrument, as I’m sure you get the idea. Try experimenting and see what works for your particular style, and your particular sound.
Ok, so now we have the basic ingredients, let’s take a look at three well-known songs, break them down, and examine the structure. You’ll see just how easy it is to write a song after this section.
I strongly suggest listening to these songs so you get an understanding of how they’ve applied what they have to them, and get a better understanding of the ideas behind them. You should be able to find the chord progressions online somewhere. Google them and I’m sure you’ll find them.
Song Number One:
Don’t Forget Me by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers
This song is a PERFECT example of how simple it can be to write a song. It only consists of four chords, and always played in the same order
But this song is a MASTERCLASS of using dynamics to create an effect. Listen to how each instrument changes the way it’s played during each section to increase or decrease intensity.
If we look at it in a little more detail then, this is the structure of the song:
Intro – Verse – Bridge – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Verse – Chorus – Solo – Verse
And the chords throughout the whole song are:
Am F C G
Song Number Two:
Give In To Me by Michael Jackson
Another great example of simple song writing, simple structure, and a great use of dynamics. Again, just a few chords used here, but very effective. The chords used are as follows:
Intro and verse: Em – C D
Chorus: Em – C D
Bridge: (From verse into chorus) B5 – A5 – B5 – D5
(Chords with just the root and 5 th. No 3 rd)
Middle 8: Am – G – Em – Em – Am – G – F – B
Outro: Em – C D
So as you can see, pretty straight forward.
I told you composing was easy :-)
Song Number Three:
Space Oddity by David Bowie
Going back a bit here. A lot of you probably won’t remember this song, but it’s definitely worth checking out. We get a little bit more complicated here, and start going out of key, and throwing chords in that SHOULDN’T fit if we followed the rules, but we’re not always going to do that remember.
The chords in this song are as follows:
Intro: C – Em – C – Em – Am – Am7/G (G on the bass) – D7
Verse: C – Em – C – Em – Am – Am7/G (G on the bass) – D7
Chorus: C – E7 – F – Fm – C – F – Fm – C – F
Bridge: FM7 – Em7 – FM7 – Em7 – BbM7 – Am – G – F
Middle 8 : C – F – G – A – A – C – F – G – A – A – FM7 – Em7 – A – C – D – E
This song goes out of key several times, using Fm chords, and Bb Major chords, but it works, and remember that the only rule you really want to follow, is whether or not is sounds good!
So what have we covered in this section?
- The basic elements of a structure
- How to use your instruments to build or decrease intensity
- How simple it can be to create a structure
- How to use a few simple chords to create a song structure
- Using just a few chords, create a VERY BASIC song structure
- Once you’ve successfully completed exercise 1, create a verse, chorus, and bridge/middle 8 using chords from the same key, and put them all together to form a new song.
- Now using technique number 4, break the verses down to create a more varied set of dynamics for your song
- Experiment with using chords that aren’t within the key, to make an even more varied chord progression for your song.
- Decide on the type of dynamics you want to employ within your song to give it colour, variety, and depth.