Singing Within A Song Structure & How It Will Help You.
How do the best singers and songwriters do it? Why does a Lennon or a MacCartney song capture a listener’s attention the way they do? What is their secret, what’s the formula? If all of us songwriters had the answers to these
questions, we would all be a lot richer! While there’s no real “formula” to crafting a potential hit, there are methodologies to it. As anyone who has spent time listening to the radio can tell, hit songs come in a few well-defined forms.
This is no accident. These writers, producers, and singers on the radio all know how to put together a song that will probably be a smash. So how do you think the pros do it? They listen to hits of the past and they use them as resources for their ideas.
That’s one of the less well-kept secrets of pop
songwriting. The way they make it their own is by
using some of the skills I’ll mention below to make
The structure of a song will determine what kind of
effect it will have on the listener, whether it will be
a hit or not. One of the most common and possibly
the most effective forms of a hit to write is the
verse/chorus. This song form goes hand in hand
with the dynamics of the audience:
1. The audience usually listens to the story
the verses are telling
2. And then the chorus will come around,
summarizing the story as the audience
Lyrically speaking, the chorus is going to summarize
the main idea of the lyric and is going to be
the emotional high point – the highest intensity
section – of your song. It wouldn’t be a bad idea
to include song title in there too. You want people
to know what your song is called, right? Now how
do you want the music to feel? Want something
happy and upbeat? Make your chorus major key
with a high tempo and maybe use eighth notes.
Want something a bit funkier and maybe a bit
more intimate? Slow the tempo down and use a
mixolydian mode instead.
Once the general feel of the chorus is in place, we
can start to think about emphasis. If you’re featuring
your title in the chorus, the cadence is going to
be your friend. By having the title “straddle” the
cadence – starting at the beginning and then
ending on the I chord – you’re guaranteed to have
it planted in the listener’s head. Let’s not forget
the melodic tools we still have at our disposal.
Long notes will make any lyric, especially the title,
far more dramatic. Ending on the downbeat, on
the first beat of the measure, is a subtle but very
common way to bring out the title too. What do
“Message in a Bottle,” “No Woman No Cry” and
“Born in the USA” all have in common? They were
all massive hits and they all used these melodic
tools I just mentioned. So how many ways can we
use these tools? Well, there are seven standard
types of choruses – choruses that state the title at
one point or another. You can use all of the tools in
standard types of choruses different ways with each
type of chorus. So you do the math.
The chorus alone could have whole lessons written
about it. But it’s not the only part of a song. Any hit
needs to be greater than the sum of its parts and
the section that is going to make up most of those
parts are the verses. As the verse is a supporting
idea, many successful tracks will have verses that
remain melodically, harmonically, and lyrically static.
This ensures that your verses not pull the power
away from other sections. For example, the same
way that we use cadences to ramp up the chorus,
we shouldn’t be using cadences in the verses.
Instead, you could resolve to have your verses end
on chords that aren’t the tonic.
I mentioned before that you’re going to be telling
the story in the verses. If you want to build a
conversational vibe in the verses, make use of
short notes, a limited pitch range, and having the
melody in the low to middle register. All of this
doesn’t mean that the lyrics have to be boring. The
audience is going to be listening during the verses.
That means that the verses can be the perfect time
to bring in some complex, sophisticated melodic
The verse/chorus form we need two more sections
to act as connective tissue for the verses and the
chorus: the bridge and the pre-chorus. These
sections function in similar ways–they connect and
contrast with the material that comes before and
after, and they both build intensity into the next
Lyrically speaking, our bridge will contrast in
content with the verse and the chorus. This can be
as simple as changing the tense, by generalizing
if the lyrics prior were specific, or by focusing on
a new emotion. Musically speaking, you can make
the bridge “move”
with a different chord
the verses or chorus
(and again, avoiding a
cadence), or by having
the bridge modulate
away and back to the
key of the song. Making
the bridge a bar longer
or shorter than the
other sections is a great
way to build tension.
The pre-chorus will
also contrast with the chorus and verse melodically,
harmonically, and formally. However, a pre-chorus
will also break down the intensity at the beginning
of the section only to ratchet it back up toward
the end into the coming chorus. Slowing things
down, lower notes, and longer phrases will break
the intensity down. To build the pre-chorus back
up near the end, an ascending melodic shape and
losing some of the space between the words will
get the audience ready for the chorus.
Within a single type of song form, the verse/
chorus, there are endless possibilities and countless
variations to be made. But there are other forms
and variations to explore. As you continue to hone
your craft and create new material with some of the
tools I’ve shared here, you might just come up with
a smash hit or your own. When that happens would
you mind crediting me as a co-writer?