Song Structure: Which One Should You Choose?
I understand that by using the word “should,” it sounds like I’ll be telling you what song structure you must use.
I don’t want to do that.
There’s only one rule in songwriting: there are no rules.
So in this post, we’ll go over the different parts of a song you can use, how you can order them, and tips for finding the right structure.
Parts of a Song
Before we dive into how to structure a song, let’s talk about the parts that make up the song structure. The basic parts of a song are:
This is self-explanatory — the intro is the introduction to the song. And it’s one of the most important parts.
According to Music Machinery, about 35% of listeners will skip a song within the first 30 seconds and nearly half of listeners skip a song before it’s over. That’s why your intro has to grab the listener’s ear and hold onto it.
Think of the intro as a first impression — a handshake and a hello. First impressions can stick for a long time and make or break a relationship.
Verses give the listener an idea of what the song is about. They should support the main idea (chorus) while also moving the song forward.
If the chorus is king, then the verses are the bearers of the litter.
The pre-chorus (aka the lift) is kind of like a “get ready for it!” before the chorus. It can help build anticipation, either by increasing the volume or rhythm or by pulling back and creating tension with silence. It, like the chorus, may repeat the same melody or lyrics, often ending with an unresolved melody.
The chorus should convey the main idea of the song with the most memorable melody of the song. It usually repeats itself melodically, musically, and/or lyrically — this method is sometimes called the hook, which some people use synonymously with chorus.
The chorus is what the listener is waiting for — it should be the best part of the song. If you don’t get the listener by the chorus, then you don’t get the listener at all.
A bridge helps break up the repetitiveness of a song and add an element of surprise. It should present a new angle to the main idea. It’s kind of like a rogue verse with different chords, rhythm, and melody.
A break is usually an instrumental break that allows for some breathing room. It can also help build anticipation and transition to a completely new part of the song or into another song.
Like the intro, an outro is self-explanatory — it’s the end of the song. It closes the song out, whether it’s with an instrumental part, a tag, or a brand new part.
The Basic Song Structures
Now we can talk about putting these parts together to structure a song. Writing a song is like digging for dinosaur bones — you find a bone, one after the other, and assemble them together to make a fossil.
So we’re going to look at the most common song structures in modern music.
Keep in mind that the order in which the different parts appear in the structure can vary. For example, you can have a Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus song structure but have the order be Verse-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus. But it still has all of the elements for that structure (Verse, Chorus, and Bridge).
Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus
This is probably the most used song structure today, especially in pop music. If you were to listen to the top 10 songs on the Billboard Top 100, most or all of them would have a VCVC structure or its close cousin, Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus.
So if you’re looking to become a Professional Songwriter, get comfortable writing in this structure.
Examples of songs with a Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus structure:
- “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple
- “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles
- “Foxy Lady” by Jimi Hendrix
Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus
Many popular songs use a Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus structure. The bridge helps add surprise or variance to the repetitiveness of the rest of the song. It can also add a new angle to the theme or lyrics of the song while still supporting the main idea.
Examples of songs with a Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus structure:
- “Happy” by Pharrell
- “Every Breath You Take” by The Police
- “Fix You” by Coldplay
Verse – Pre-Chorus – Chorus – Verse – Pre-Chorus – Chorus
You can seriously change the feel of a song by adding a pre-chorus. It adds a little epicness in the middle of the song, right before the payoff. The pre-chorus — thematically and musically — should hint at what’s coming in the chorus. In that way, it builds the tension right before the release.
You can use this song structure with our without a bridge. If you do include a bridge, it should be on the shorter side, as should the pre-chorus.
Examples of songs with a Verse-Pre Chorus-Chorus-Verse-Pre Chorus-Chorus structure:
- “Don’t Look Back In Anger” by Oasis
- “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana
- “Firework” by Katy Perry
Verse – Verse – Bridge – Verse
This structure is less common, but still prevalent in music. And if you normally write Verse-Chorus songs, you should try the Verse-Verse-Bridge-Verse structure.
Instead of having a chorus, each verse usually ends with something called a refrain. You could also call this a hook. This is basically one or two lines that repeat at the end of each verse — it has the same melody and lyrics or lyrical structure with minor adjustments for each refrain. Most of the time, the title comes from the lyrics of the refrain.
With this type of structure, you’ll want to make the melody interesting, rather than simple since you’ll be repeating it over and over again.
You can use this structure without a bridge (Verse-Verse-Verse), as Bob Dylan did with “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
Examples of songs with a Verse-Verse-Bridge-Verse structure:
- “We Can Work It Out” by The Beatles
- “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” by Billy Joel
- “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” by Hugh Martin
Tips for Finding the Right Song Structure
So now that we’ve covered the different parts of songs and how you can arrange those parts, how do you decide? Which one of these song structures will work best?
Well, that’s subjective of course.
It comes down to just trying the different structures and seeing which one fits. But here are some tips for finding the right structure for your next song.
What’s the Feeling?
The first thing to pay attention to is the feeling of the song. The groove, the emotion, the vibe.
Is it an epic song? Then maybe try a Verse-Chorus structure with a bridge, like Coldplay’s “Fix You.”
Is it a mellow song? Try the Verse-Verse form with an insightful lyric as the refrain.
Do you have a lot of things to say about the main idea? Test out the structure with a verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge.
The point is, note the feel of the song and find a structure that you think fits.
What’s the Idea?
The idea of your song can help you choose the structure, too.
For example, if you’re writing a song with a storyline and characters, you could try the all-verses structure to help move the story along.
Or if you’re writing a break-up song, you could have the main lament in the chorus and then support that in the verses, using angles like “remember how much fun we had together?” and “think of how sad life would be if we’re not together.”
You get the point. Let the structure elevate the story of your song.
What Seems Natural?
Sometimes, it just comes down to what feels right. What feels the most natural to you? Where do you sense the song going?
If you feel like the song should build, build it into a chorus or epic bridge. If you think the next section of your song should mellow out, drop down into a refrain at end of the verse.
In other words, go with your gut. Your gut is usually right.
A Brief History of Song Structure and Terminology
Now for a bit of history. Wait, don’t leave. I’ll keep it short and interesting.
There’s another term we didn’t cover: strophic.
The strophic song structure goes way back: back to ancient Greece (doesn’t everything?). A strophe back then was a section of a song where a chorus of singers chanted something together.
And as time went on, more and more Songwriters started using strophes and its definition got looser and wider. Nowadays, strophe is defined as “a rhythmic system composed of two or more lines repeated as a unit,” according to Merriam-Webster.
So a song with a strophic structure, at least today, means a song built out of sections. In other words, “a song with a defined structure.”
Let’s go back to the Greeks. The ancient Greeks also gave us the term “Greek chorus,” where a handful of Actors [link] would sing or chant together in the middle of a live performance. They would make it easy to sing and remember so the audience could join in.
This would eventually become what we know as the chorus.
And remember that term refrain? That came from the French word “refraindre,” which means “to repeat.”
Today, these terms are used to help us organize our songs, convey a clear idea, and move people with our music. We have the Greeks and French to thank for that.
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