songwriter sessions

sharing a passion for writing songs

A look at the elements of song form

You may think this is really "old school", but once you understand how the different elements of a song work, you begin to see why some songs stand out above others.

Let's take a quick look at the different elements of a song's form. (If my examples look like a walk down Memory Lane, that's because I live near there.)

Introductions help establish the key, tempo and mood of a song. You'll know you've found a strong introduction when everyone recognizes the song after the first few seconds. An introduction can be little more than a few guitar chords (Sweet Home Alabama), a gentle guitar solo (Stairway to Heaven) or simply unaccompanied voice (Heaven is a place on Earth).

Verses contains the story line and help answer the journalistic questions about who, what, when, where and why. They tend to be more or less the same from one verse to the next and yet they help move the listener along in an unfolding story. A classic example is from the Beatles (Fool on the Hill.) “Day after day (when) alone on a hill (where) the man with the foolish grin (who) is standing perfectly still" (what)

Choruses are usually the most memorable element of a song because they deliver the essential messages, the payoff or the knock-out punch. In fact, the title is often found in the chorus. It would be harder here to find an example of when these things AREN'T true.

Refrains (or streamlined chorus) are similar to choruses but they are usually attached by rhyme or meter to the verse before it. That's what we call a refrain. They're usually short, like Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind. However, If the title appears and there are significant additional lyrics to add to the verse it's more likely a chorus.

Bridges are connecting pieces or transitions from one part of a song to another. Bridges tend to break up the pattern of the verse/chorus and offer a “twist” in the story or a change in attitude through the lyrics. They also introduce new chords or progressions and usually only appear once in the song. Lastly, they help refresh the listener's perspective with fresh melody and harmony or chords. When Otis Redding sings “Looks like nothin’s gonna change” in Dock of the Bay, for instance the song temporarily takes on a whole new feel.

Hooks are simply put the most memorable, distinguishable bit of the song. It could be a lyric, a melody line (played or sung) or both. Try this... "I can't get no...." If you didn't complete the line with "satisfaction" you probably don't own a radio.

Breaks are a little relief from the song so far. It's often either an instrumental solo or rhythm section groove. If there are new chords in it, then it is also an instrumental bridge serving as a break. Try the double guitar solos on "Reelin' In the Years."

Codas (or tags) are the special endings for songs. it could be a chorus in a new key or part of the chorus repeated over and over, like "My baby don't care" in Ticket to Ride by the Beatles.

I'm not saying that you need to like the songs listed above but I'll bet if you analyze the songs you do like you'll see that the songwriters are maximizing the elements of song form. Or even better, look at your own songs. You may find ways of making your music even better by tweaking your use of song form.


PS. At some point if it's of interest, we can talk about song form combinations or the ways that these elements are placed together and see how these combinations recognize and respect the expectations of the listening public.

Finally, much of this was adapted from an article in Keyboard Magazine, March 1990. Music has moved on in 16 years, but the principles still stand. I highly recommend reading Keyboard Magazine, even though I'm not a keyboard player because guitar players like me need all the help we can get in analyzing and getting out of the little patterns we gravitate toward.

4 Responses to “A look at the elements of song form”

  1. # Blogger George Vinson

    Great stuff! Old school or new wave, it's all good!


  2. # Blogger ndr

    Some have been having problems posting. I'm just testing the system.  

  3. # Blogger George Vinson

    I'm the guy having problems with the! Durand, this may be old school material you're discussing, but it's all good. Songwriting these days has become more about the technology and the style rather than the craft.

    A good song is a good song and be cast into many different styles and still retain it's integrity.

    There's my two cents worth!  

  4. # Blogger Matt without a K

    Well, I'm another one having problems posting. Wrote half a novel the other day - and good stuff too, in all modesty - and then it got all sucked up in a black hole of cyberspace.
    Anyway second try: Lyrics, music and performance do something TO the listener. The importance of song form is that it does something FOR the listener. When somebody wants to take us somewhere, we all want to know where we are going, don't we. Song form provides the signposts we need to follow the artist. It gives us the clarity we want as listeners. It usually fulfills our expectations, which provides a feeling of familiar ground. You talk of the musical function of each part. There is also the receptional function. The introduction sparks our interest, the verses tell us the where, what, when etc., the pre-chorus tells us that we are getting close to the core message of the song, the chorus/refrain finally reveals the central point of the song. (I'm just asking myself what the bridge does for the listener - give us the variety, the surprise effect we like?).
    I personally think that a great song happens when a passionate performance brings life to interesting music which opens the way for strong lyrics to touch our soul. A good song form can help greatly to achieve this high goal!  

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