Songwriting Part 3 - The Anatomy of a Song

by SaskMusic

July 30, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

1) The Title
Identifiable and memorable. Usually defined by a word or phrase that is used repetitively in the song (often found in the chorus). If your title doesn’t repeat within the song, can it be incorporated elsewhere, such as in the tag out or background vocals?

Titles which never appear in the song are becoming popular. But be aware that it makes it really hard for someone to go and buy your CD or request your song. (I probably heard Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls forty times before finding out the title).

2) Strong Beginnings
Intro & first verse: Entices listener to continue listening: establishes the who, what, where, when, why and how of the songplot (more on this in the next installment).
If you are pitching the song – to a publisher, music director, festival committee or even FACTOR jury, you have about 30 seconds to convince them to keep listening. They EXPECT you to get to the payoff immediately. If you really need a guitar solo to open the song, then do it when you’re playing LIVE.

If possible your melodic "hook" should be part of the intro.

3) The Plot
Things happen in a logical and pleasing sequence. Loose ends are tied up by the end (whether implied or obvious). The emotional substance is fleshed out. There is a beginning, middle and end to the story. Make sure you've told the story. i.e. - you did that, I did this, and now we're doing that and (INSERT YOUR HOOK HERE.)

4) Bridging the Gap
To find a way of getting over a difficulty (Webster’s)

The purpose of a bridge is (generally) to:
(lyrically) draw a conclusion from the information which has been presented in the verses and chorus
to present new information or even a twist crucial to the development of the plot
to cause a diversion in pitch or chord progressions, rhythm, melody, etc. which breaks the monotony of the typical verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure

The bridge often provides the emotional payoff of the song, both lyrically and melodically (the "high note" of the song is often found in the bridge.)

5) Pre-Chorus and Chorus
A pre-chorus comes before the chorus (duh). Helps create a nice dramatic swing just before the satisfaction of the chorus. Can be employed usefully if your verse and chorus are quite different – for example you can’t transit smoothly from the last chord of the verse to the first chord of the chorus and need a couple of extra lines to create a progression.
The chorus usually contains the point of the song. Whereas your verses go about setting up the plot, recounting necessary details, etc., the chorus sums everything up in a neat little package and delivers the hook line. If verses ask the questions "why", "so what", etc., then choruses will give the answer "Because !"

For example, in Wind Beneath My Wings, the verses detail the relationship between the singer and her friend. So what? She’s the wind beneath her wings!

In Aerosmith’s I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing, he sings of what he could do – stay awake, watch her smile, etc. Why would he do these things? Because he doesn’t wanna miss anything!

It’s helpful to balance a "detail" verse with a "big picture" chorus. Once you’re laid out the who, why, where, what, when and how of the story, the chorus can be a generalization of the emotion, the story, etc.

6) A Bernie Taupin/Elton John Blend
The melody supports and enhances the lyric. The correct mood is created. (And this doesn’t mean you can only use all-major chords when you write happy lyrics.)

7) Extros/Outros
Usually are the last thing we think about when writing a song (no pun intended). They’re usually left to the arrangement of who’s performing or recording them. If you are arranging your own ending, keep in mind that this is a good place to repeat your title line, especially if you’ve barely introduced it throughout the song.


Climax: The "high note" of the song usually comes 2/3 way through. Too soon and you don’t have a chance to build suspense. It’s usually placed in the bridge, with secondary high points in the repeat choruses and/or ad libs.

Hook: A hook is the main idea of a song, and usually the song's title. You must guide the listeners through the story and bring them to the hook - completely satisfied. Songs are usually a "conversation" or a narrative. A couple of effective ways to get the most out of your hook (90 percent of the time, your title is the final line or hook) are to:

1. Rhyme the two lines before the hook line, or use internal rhymes

2. Don't rhyme your hook with anything

Varied Rhyme Scheme: Use a different rhyme scheme for the chorus than you did in the verses. For instance, change an A B A B rhyme scheme to A B C B.

The reason is to subtly alert listeners that something important is about to happen. Combined with your melody change, your listeners should be anticipating the hook.


I hate forms. I don’t like the idea of being pigeonholed into a standard form and wouldn't encourage anyone to stifle what you actually feel like writing for the sake of stuffing it in a "form". And don’t get me started on what I think of rhyming schemes.

However, you might want to think about how you commonly structure your songs, because we often write in the same form over and over. Writing in a new form will encourage you to stretch your creative muscles. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t TOTALLY skip this topic in this "series".

So here are some examples of popular forms.

1) Blues
Incorporating - the blues form, blues scales and 12 bar progression…

Form (Verse)
Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand
Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand
I'm going to shoot my old lady
Caught her messing around with another man
(Hey Joe - Jimi Hendrix)

First line – first line again – payoff (each line is 4 bars)

The first two lines are the setup, and the third is the payoff. This form is still pretty common, and making a comeback through Swing.

2) Tin Pan Alley
At one time the broadway song was the most popular genre. Usually 32 bars.
Verse-Verse-Bridge-Verse (each section is 8 bars)

I got rhythm, I got music. I got my guy, Who could ask for anything more?
I got sunshine, I got blue sky. I got my guy, Who could ask for anything more?
Old man trouble, I don't mind him. You won't find him, Hangin' 'round my door.
I got rhythm, I got music. I got my guy, Who could ask for anything more?
(I Got Rhythm – Gershwin).

Often the hook is placed at the end of each verse segment. (Who could ask for anything more?) The hook becomes a kind of punchline, like the third line in the 12 bar blues above. Another famous example is Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

‘50's and early ‘60's rock is largely a hybrid of broadway song forms and black music. Elvis’s All Shook Up, for example, used the Tin Pan Alley form.

3) Beatles variation
An adaptation of the Tin Pan Alley with the title at the end of each A section. (I Want To Hold Your Hand, I Saw Her Standing There - The Beatles, Roll to Me - Del Amitri)

Love, love me do, you know I love you,
I'll always be true
So please, love me do, whoa, love me do
Love, love me do, you know I love you,
I'll always be true
So please, love me do, whoa, love me do

Someone to love, somebody new,
someone to love, someone like you

Love, love me do, you know I love you,
I'll always be true
So please, love me do, whoa, love me do
(Love Me Do – The Beatles)

These songs are very fast paced, about 20 seconds to a section. Often the first minute of a Beatles song contains two verses and two refrains. This even gives the listener a shot at remembering the bridge on the first try.

The Beatles did not limit themselves to 32 bars. And while broadway songs typically shy away from repeating the hook during the bridge, the Beatles bridges often contain multiple repetitions of the hook (All My Lovin’, Eight Days A Week). The essential Beatles formula is just

blah blah blah title
blah blah blah title
blah blah blah title

4) Chorus up
Some songs begin with a chorus. This is difficult to pull off, because the chorus must be entirely self-explanatory. However, this puts the most important part first, and gets you right to the payoff.

Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus

Chorus-ups may have long, self-contained hooks, like Don't Come Around Here No More – Tom Petty. Another example is One of These Nights – the Eagles.

Many of these songs have a little musical break after the second chorus. Some songs follow the third chorus with a coda. There is usually only time for one bridge.

5) Contemporary
Many variations exist (to keep the listener's attention while waiting for the chorus). Many employ a hook of 2 or 4 bars. This hook often becomes part of the chorus.
Once the listener has heard the chorus, the songwriter has some freedom. Later verses may be replaced by solos. The song often ends with repeats of the chorus, or at least some repetition of the hook.

The second chorus is almost never followed immediately by a third verse; this tends to feel monotonous (and makes the song ridiculously long). Songs without a lyrical bridge usually go into a new musical hook or solo.

Form (usually):
Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus

(example: I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing – Aerosmith)

Those who can write well can employ the simplest of forms, such as Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell; Blowin’ in the Wind and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door– Bob Dylan.

Verse – Verse – Verse – Verse

6) Super Build
The moment right before the chorus should be filled with tension. Some songs heighten the tension with a new section of music called the pre-chorus. If you have a pre-chorus, your bridge may be solely instrumental.

Verse – Pre-chorus – Chorus – Verse – Pre-chorus – Chorus 2x

The pre-chorus does not need to have the same lyrics each time.

Go on and hold her till the screaming is gone
Go on believe her when she tells you nothing's wrong

But I'm the only one who'll walk across the fire for you
I'm the only one who'll drown in my desire for you
It's only fear that makes you run
The demons that you're hiding from
When all your promises are gone, I'm the only one
(The Only One - Melissa Etheridge)

7) I have a list
Remaining popular is the "list" form. Alanis Morissette really likes it (One Hand in My Pocket, Thank You, Dear John; If I Had a Million Dollars – Barenaked Ladies).

Verse – Verse – Verse – Verse – etc
(You better have a damn catchy song and/or good lyrics, or this will get boring real fast.)

And if they’re really creative…
Verse – Verse – Verse – Bridge – Verse

More common…
Verse – Bridge or Chorus – Verse – Bridge or Chorus – Verse

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic. Originally published April 1999.

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