Song structure is a broad term. There are a few chord sequences we hear in just about every song on the radio, and in tons of great songs that have been written over the years. We constantly go back to these sequences because they are familiar, and they really do sound great.
On the other hand, doing the same thing over and over, and doing the same thing as everyone else can get stale! While it isn’t a bad thing to use time-tested song structure in your music, especially as a starting point, don’t be afraid to break out of that and do something unique!
How do we define song structure?
Structure simply organizes music. This organization can be very predictable and easily digested, like in pop music, or it can be more complex and hard to follow, as with classical or contemporary progressive music. Structure is just the arrangement of the different parts of a song — the verse, the chorus, the bridge, etc. Some of these sections repeat, and some of them do not.
All things considered, how a song is structured plays a massive part in whether the listener is engaged or not. Wild ‘progressive’ songs with no repeated sections don’t do as well as straight ahead pop. Historically, people like repetition; especially if there’s a catchy melody and hook. These are typically the guidelines to follow if you want to write a catchy chorus.
The most common song structure is ‘pop’ organization
The longstanding unwritten rule is that a pop song for radio should be 3 minutes and 20 seconds long, or shorter. Within this 3:20 format, generally you want to get to the first chorus within 45 seconds.
Standard pop structure looks like this: verse, chorus, verse, second chorus, bridge, double chorus, and out. It’s time-tested, it works, and it’s spawned hundreds and hundreds of hits.
Obviously this doesn’t mean you have to stick to these guidelines all the time. But if accessibility to the average listener is important to you, writing within a known structure is a good exercise.
If you don’t normally try to write ‘pop’ songs, you can even challenge yourself to write within theses guidelines. Adding that challenge may help you to create an even better song than you intended.
Of course, there really is no right or wrong way to make music. Just keep in mind the requirements of the different platforms your song will be played, what your listeners will respond to, and then challenge yourself to write something amazing within those constructs.
Apart from just where sections of the song are placed, good song structure follows a few simple steps.
- Repetition. This is what ‘hooks’ listeners and keeps them coming back. This is what listeners anticipate — coming out of a new section of the song back into something familiar.
- Transitions. It’s easy to overlook transitions when we’re focused on the macro parts of the song — the verse, the hook, etc. But good song structure includes great transitions between the moving parts. There’s a fine balance between rushing the song with no transition parts, and lingering on transitions a bit too long. Help the song build with appropriate transitions between sections.
- Tension and release. Another hallmark of great structure (and production) is tension and release. Building up the tension during a verse to release it in a massive hook. As in film or literature, you want to tell a story with your song that has ups and downs, highs and lows. This is all part of how you structure and produce it.
Ultimately, song structure and production together make a song great. Try a few of these simple tips to augment your song structure through cool production.
Overlap/double vocals to make the chorus unique from the verses.
This is the simplest thing that many of you are probably already doing. But again, sometimes it’s the simple stuff that gets overlooked! The idea is this: the big chorus comes in and a double vocal comes in with it. Having overlaps keeps it punchy and keeps the energy up!
Your double vocal will sound really cool and unique if you process it differently than the main vocal. One way is to simply tuck it underneath volume-wise, but it’s also a great idea to EQ it differently—gently rolling off lows and some highs will help it sit neatly below the main vocal. You can also get creative with saturation, light modulation, or anything else you want for unique production!
Overlapping the vocal doesn’t really work with a live sounding acoustic vocal, but for a big hip-hop/pop track, a hard-hitting EDM song, or even some metal, it will keep the vocal front and center! The constant energy of a lead vocal that is unrelenting is a very simple but hugely effective effect!
Add more layers!
Doubling/layering is a great way to add excitement and movement to a bland section of your song. You can do this with keys, guitar, or whatever instrumentation you’re working with.
Riffs and melodies alone can be great, but sometimes they feel a little empty. If that’s the case, you can try different ways of filling in the sonic gaps.
It all ties into song structure and tension and release; one verse can be a bit sparse, and the next verse can have some added layers to change things up.
Octaves up or down, depending on where the main riff is played, are one of the easiest ways to add some excitement and ear candy to a sparse rhythm part. You might try following all of the chord changes with octaves, or maybe only sprinkle them in here and there.
If there’s enough space in the arrangement/mix for it, harmonies can be a cool way to bulk up a thin section. Bands like Iron Maiden, for example, immediately come to mind; they rely heavily on melodic guitar harmonies. You may not want to write an entire song around harmonized lead lines, but sneaking them in on a verse or chorus could sound great. Try it!
And finally…forget everything you know about song structure! (sort of…)
Songwriting and structure is production. Modern songwriters are also very much producers!
When we’re doing the pop thing like we talked about earlier, our songs can be hooky immediately because we love how repetitive it is.
However — with so many tracks sharing the same chord sequences — 6-4-1-5, for instance (in C Major that would be A minor, F, C, and G) — we sometimes stick to what works versus what sounds fresh.
Great sound design is one step to unique production, but great song structure will always win! Let yourself break out of the pop mold we’ve grown accustomed to. Throw in a weird dissonant chord, change the song’s structure to keep listeners on their toes, etc.
Anything you can think of to go against the grain is something that will add uniqueness to your songwriting and production!