Like most creative pursuits, the most important rule when it comes to writing music is there are no rules. But, putting total creative freedom aside for just a moment, when it comes to songwriting there are tried and true song structures that can be particularly useful for those just getting started crafting their own music.
Examples of popular song structures include:
- Verse > Chorus > Verse > Chorus > Bridge > Chorus x2
- Verse > Verse > Chorus > Bridge > Chorus x 2
- Verse > Pre – Chorus > Verse > Pre – Chorus > Chorus > Bridge > Chorus
- Verse > Chorus > Verse > Chorus
These are examples of verse > chorus song structures (more on this shortly) and If you are new to songwriting, and more concerned with developing the different parts of your song (see more on the parts of a song below) you could safely use any one of the song structure examples above for at least your first handful of songs without sounding formulaic.
Verse > chorus song structures are common structures used in the majority of pop songs and other genres of popular music today including country, jazz, folk, rock, and rap to name just a few.
In fact, next time you turn on the radio, or your music streaming service and listen to the current top ten, I can almost guarantee you will hear one of the examples above.
Understanding Song Structure
So what exactly is song structure?
A song’s structure is the arrangement of the song e.g. basic song structure dictates how the parts of the song (e.g. verse, chorus, pre-chorus, bridge, etc.) are assembled.
Song structure, like audio engineering, is really about balancing the different parts of the song to make the song more pleasing to the ears of the listener.
A song’s structure is a far more important component of songwriting than most probably realize, especially when writing your first song. A well-structured song keeps the mood of the song progressing, creates interest through the arrangement, builds tension, and emphasizes key components of the song through the use of contrast, all the while attempting to prevent listener fatigue. In many ways, it’s a case of getting to know the rules and then knowing when and how to effectively break them.
If you aren’t familiar with the different parts of a song, I’ve included a brief explanation of each at the bottom of this article.
Types of Song Structures
Verse – Chorus Song Structure
The examples listed at the beginning of this article utilize verse-chorus structure.
Verse-chorus song structure simply means the song revolves around two repeating parts: the verse, and the chorus.
When written in this way, the music for each verse remains the same but the lyrics do not repeat, unlike the chorus which is musically and lyrically the same.
Many verse-chorus songs also include additional sections such as an intro, bridge, solos, pre-chorus (which may feature an additional hook), melody variations, or additional space between sections.
This song structure, utilized by a huge number of hit songwriters, and first heard during the mid-1800s came into its own around the birth of rock and roll and pop music from the 50s to 60s, and can be heard in many 60s rock anthems. It is still easily the most popular song structure in use today.
There are two main categories of verse > chorus song structures.
Simple verse-chorus song structure
This type of verse-chorus song structure is harmonically the same between verse and chorus while the verse lyrics are different for each verse.
An example of a song that utilizes this simple verse-chorus structure is ‘knocking on heaven’s door’ by Bob Dylan.
Intro > Verse > Chorus > Verse > Chorus > Outro
The song consists of a total of four chords (G, D, Am, and C) which repeat the same progression in both the verse and choruses alike.
It can be challenging to write in this way. Much like an effective line drawing using only lead pencil and paper there’s nowhere to hide. Limiting oneself to a single chord progression means the bare elements of the song are put well and truly under the spotlight.
Contrasting verse-chorus structure
When utilizing a contrasting verse-chorus structure the music used for the verses will be different from that used for the chorus.
You will find examples of this everywhere, but sticking with Bob Dylan for a moment, a good example of this type of verse-chorus song structure is ‘Blowin in the wind’ as the chord progression changes subtly from verse to chorus.
Intro > Verse > Chorus > Solo > Verse > Chorus > Solo > Verse > Chorus > Outro Solo
In addition to the two examples above, a common variation of contrasting verse-chorus structure may also include different forms of the chorus or a slight variation on the chorus. For example, an extended chorus or chorus that changes dynamically while still remaining familiar.
Verse > Refrain
Another less common but effective song structure is verse > refrain.
The verse progresses the song forward while the refrain is repeated much like a chorus. However, unlike a typical chorus, a refrain usually spans just one to two lines. An example of this is Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years.
Intro > Verse > Refrain > Verse > Refrain > Refrain > Bridge > Solo > Verse > Refrain
The lyrics first tell the story of meeting an ex-lover on the street. However, the second and third verses are more reflective, and less connected, lyrically to the first. However, the refrain ties the parts together by reverting back to the central motif ‘still crazy after all these years’ which relates to each verse and gives the song a nostalgic, melancholy feel.
Side note. If interested in hearing an unfinished version of ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ click here to see Paul Simon’s appearance on the Dick Cavett show where he plays an unfinished version of the song which went on to inspire a number of influential songwriters.
A variation on this structure would be ‘Man of Constant Sorrow‘ taken from the movie – Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. While the lyrics do not repeat, the last line of each verse is repeated and harmonized giving the song a familiar-sounding home base.
Why Song Structure is so Important
I’ve written hundreds of songs up to this point and one of the biggest challenges I’ve constantly faced (which is addressed by song structure) is preventing listener fatigue e.g. the listener becoming too familiar with the song quickly and growing tired of the main hook.
This comes mostly back to how the chorus is set up and presented. The chorus, in most cases, is the central hook of the song and a song’s structure often serves to build anticipation for the chorus while structuring the song in such a way that the listener doesn’t tire of the song quickly.
In simple terms, the song’s structure will (hopefully) leave the listener wanting more, which is exactly what all famous songs do.
This might include holding off on the chorus until you have passed through the verse twice, or include the introduction of pre-choruses to ease the transition from verse to chorus. Other times this might mean an instrumental break is included around the 2/3 mark to introduce new elements and prevent the song from becoming tired.
While it may sound contradictory, It’s also true, as songwriters and producers focus on creating music for listeners with shorter attention spans that song structure has become less sophisticated with more priority given to simply getting to the chorus (typically the most pleasing aspect of the song for the listener) quickly.
Try listening to the current top ten on Spotify and you will hear exactly what I mean.
Verse > Chorus > Verse > Chorus > Bridge > Chorus x2
A song structure like the one above may have started with additional parts e.g. long intro, two verses before the first chorus, or the addition of a pre-chorus, but catering to today’s market often requires getting to the gold aka the chorus as fast as possible. In fact, a number of modern commercially successful songs go straight to the chorus or a variation of the chorus.
This is understandable, considering the sheer volume of music available nowadays thanks to the internet and streaming services such as Spotify and iTunes which has more or less ended the cyclical nature of music.
How Song Structure Can be Used to Make Your Music Better
A song’s structure is often influenced by the characteristics of the song itself. For example, experimental music can benefit from a well-established recognizable structure to make the song more accessible. A simple song, that might otherwise become old quickly, can benefit from a more complex structure to keep the song interesting.
The length of the song obviously comes into play here also.
Shorter songs tend to have less opportunity to stray far from popular song structures, whereas bands like Led Zeppelin who regularly produced songs over ten minutes in length (Achilles Last Stand, Dazed and Confused to name just a couple) give themselves the freedom to experiment with song structure, keeping their music engaging even after repeat listens, which may be an indicator of why their fans are so passionate so many years after the music has been released.
What does AABA, AABB or ABAB mean?
You may have seen songs described as having AABA musical form or variations such as AABB and ABAB. These are examples of musical form, which also describes a song’s structure. If you are wondering what A or B actually stands for as it doesn’t appear to correspond with the first letter of the different parts of songs we have listed above, the letters represent the order of sections.
For example, a common musical form is AABA.
This means the verse is represented by the letter A as this is the first section of the song. B, therefore, represents the chorus as this is the second major component of the song. So, an AABA song form is Verse > Verse > Chorus > Verse.
The different sections don’t necessarily need to be exactly the same e.g. lyrics change between verses, but each shares a similarity in terms of melody and chord structure.
The Parts of a Song
Of course, to really utilize song structure we also need to be familiar with the various parts of a song which includes:
The first impression a listener will have of your song is the intro. Many artists choose this section to introduce or hint at the central theme or melody of the song. Tommy Emannuel’s ‘Lewis and Clark’ springs to mind here, as the intro gives an impression of what’s to come without giving away the most pleasing aspects of the song completely.
A song’s verse rhymes and is repeated (musically) much like a chorus, but unlike the chorus, the lyrics do not repeat. If telling a story lyrically, this is where the story will mostly progress. While the chorus is perhaps more important structurally, most listeners won’t make it past a non-memorable verse.
Verses are examples of strophic form e.g. the lyrics change but are sung over the same music.
Pre-choruses, surprisingly come right before your chorus (who’d have thought). They are used to add balance and provide a smoother transition from verse to chorus, especially if the verse and chorus are very different dynamically. They are often reserved for songs with simple chord progressions in the verse and tend to build the energy of the song before leading into the chorus.
The chorus is usually the main hook of the song and usually features a repetitive phrase, at least twice but often more. It’s the most memorable part of the song and one that all parts of the song tend to build to or are centered around. Unlike verses, the lyrics are usually repeated but may differ in dynamics and length. E.g. It is common for the last chorus of a song to be doubled.
The bridge (aka middle eight) of the song is typically used to prevent the song from becoming too repetitive. It only occurs once as a rule and is usually found toward the middle to the second half of the song, usually after two choruses. In many cases, the most effective bridges feature some kind of departure either rhythmically, dynamically from the central theme of the song, while fitting like a glove into the song’s structure.
Pretty self-explanatory. The solo section of a song is where one of the instruments takes a solo e.g. guitar solos were very common in the late 80s.
A good outro (aka coda) provides closure. It lets the listener know the song is ending. Often the outro will not feature a new melody or musical idea but may borrow from other parts of the song. Intros can fade out, or in some cases may build to a climax.
*Keep in mind there is potential for some ambiguity when it comes to naming the parts of a song.
When it comes to writing songs, while originality is the name of the game, utilizing successful song structures as per the examples above can be useful when first learning how to write music. When I first started writing music I would often copy the structures of songs that had influenced me, and over time started to recognize common threads or structures within songs, without ever really understanding the terminology, it just felt right.
With this in mind, particularly if you find the terminology around songwriting e.g. Alliteration, Assonance, Strophic Form, and Rhyming Schemes to name just a few uninspiring it’s often best to learn by absorbing the music of great songwriters such as Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young to name just a few and hoping some of the magic rubs off.