Songwriting Part 16 - Framing the House the Muse Built

by Lorena Kelly

July 31, 2018 in Songwriting & Copyright

A well-written song is a small story in and of itself. It has characters, a plot, action, emotion, a beginning and an ending. It can be as detailed or vague as you like (stopping short of leaving your listeners utterly confused!) If you were going to sit down to write a book, chances are you'd have a fairly good storyline in mind before you begin. Not all the details certainly, but a good sense of the mood and style you'd like to convey. When it comes to songwriting, a similar process is involved.

Structure - to me - is an afterthought. I don't sit down thinking "I'm going to write two verses, then a chorus, a third verse, a bridge, and then a final chorus." I prefer to write what I need the song to say, letting it determine its own structure, and then edit as necessary to improve the flow and take out any rough spots. But it can also be helpful to sketch out a plotline, so to speak, especially for beginning songwriters. You may have a fairly complete plot in mind already - for example, boy meets girl and falls in love, boy moves away, boy moves back years later and finds girl. This would fit neatly into a structure of verse (boy meets girl), verse (boy moves away), chorus (boy misses girl), bridge (boy moves back years later and finds girl), chorus (boy still in love with girl and marries her). Having a little plot laid out in advance means you know what is happening where, before you get to the really hard part. Instead of fighting with "where is my plot going," you only have to fight with "clever ways to tell my plot."

Each of the following structures could be used (and have been hits) in all types of genres. Sure, some are more common in country and some more common in blues, but don't rule out any options.

The structure you choose for your song is not as important as making sure you achieve the following goals within:

  1. a consistent (or logical) plot from beginning to end - no inexplicable time or point-of-view jumps
  2. a recognizable hook or melody (something that immediately differentiates it from other songs)
  3. a steady build towards the climax (payoff) of the song

Here's a few often-used structures. I've tried to use well-known songs for illustration so you'll remember them with only prompting of section first-lines.

Rather than naming the sections A, B, C, we'll call v=verse, C=chorus, b=bridge and s=solo/instrumental interlude. Please note that I have named sections based on those having same or similar melody/progressions - not always lyric - and that this is my naming, not necessarily the writer's.

1. v-v-v-v

Some examples:

She Ain't Pretty (recorded by The Northern Pikes).

A popular form of the v-v-v-v where the hook/title is placed at the end of each section. This could arguably be called a v-C-v-C format but each section seems to flow seamlessly, and the only lyric which remains constant is the title ("she ain't pretty, she just looks that way").

I had two jobs, I had dishwater hands...v
We made a date to go for a drink...v
I called her up, her father was home...v
Her ego wrote cheques...v (with a variation)

Mustang Sally (recorded by many artists). A typical blues progression.

2. v-C-v-C

Some examples:

Africa (recorded by Toto).

This song follows the somewhat unusual route of placing the title in the middle of the chorus. However, the entire lyric is so explicitly describing Africa that it isn't difficult to figure out why it was named Africa.

I hear the drums echoing tonight...v
Gonna take a lot to take me away from you...C
The wild dogs cry out in the night...v
Gonna take my life to take me away from you...C
Gonna take my life to take me away from you...C

Werewolves of London (recorded by Warren Zevon)
Change the World (recorded by Eric Clapton and others)

3. C-v-C-v

Some examples:

Uptown Girl (recorded by Billy Joel).

A slightly extended C-C-v-C-s-C-v-C-s-C. Here you are slapped upside the head with the title. Although the chorus lyric changes slightly, the right-at-the-top placement of the title is what you remember.

Uptown Girl...C
Uptown Girl...C
And when she knows what she wants...v
Uptown Girl...C
Shortened instrumental verse...s
Uptown Girl...C
And when she's walking...v
Uptown Girl...C
Shortened instrumental verse...s
Uptown Girl...C

Here Comes the Rain (recorded by The Eurythmics).

An extended, modified structure where we have C-C-v-C-C-v-s-v-C. Listening to this song you'll notice that the lyrical hook "here comes the rain again" is repeated many times and its placement (usually at the beginning of a section) ensures that you'll remember it.

Here comes the rain again...C (This part could also be considered a verse, but as it contains the hook/title, let's call it chorus)
I want to walk in the open wind...C (Same melody and progression, just a different lyric)
Talk to me like lovers do...v (A contrasting feel in this section means it could be considered a bridge instead)
Here comes the rain again...C
I want to breeze in the open wind...C
Talk to me like lovers do...v
Talk to me like lovers do...v
Here comes the rain again...C

4. v-C-v-C-b-C

Some examples:

Dark Horse (recorded by Amanda Marshall)

Indian summer, Abalene...v
My heart is riding on this dark horse, baby...C
Stars are brighter than a desert sky...v
My heart is riding on this dark horse, baby...C
So real, so true...b
My heart is riding on this dark horse, baby...C

Where Have All the Cowboys Gone (recorded by Paula Cole).

An extended structure of v-C-v-C-b-v-C-C. The title/hook falls at the end of each chorus. Even in this "shorthand" version you can see the logical plot progression from verse to verse. Also note the choruses, which have a common theme while using different lyrics.

Oh you get me ready in your '56 Chevy...v
I will do the laundry...c
Why don't you stay the evening...v
I will raise the children...c
I am wearing my new dress tonight...b
We finally sold the Chevy...v
I will wash the dishes...c

Okay, a few thoughts...if you're writing in any type of verse-chorus structure, each section should be identifiably different. That is, have a reasonably different melody and chord progression. Failing to change enough elements between sections will cause your song to lose momentum and simply sound, well, boring. It's great for a listener to get your hook very quickly into the song. It is not great for the listener to have heard the whole song in the first 20 seconds.

The reason the v-v-v-v structure works in its simplicity is due to an interesting melodic line, a great hook, a unique extended chordal progression, or the use of traditional blues patterns. So beware - if you have a mediocre section, it will not get any better if you repeat it over and over again.

Let's try writing a song within a specific structure, that being the v-C-v-C-b-C. Before we begin, make sure you know what the point of the song will be. If you are writing about a relationship ending, are you happy that it's over? regretful? relieved? What exactly are you trying to say? This may seem basic, but it's often overlooked and the cause for a lot of songs not getting finished. If you find yourself stuck in the middle of the piece, it's possible you didn't have a good focus on your goal in the first place. Get that hammered down and all you have to do is write a story leading from point A to point B. You may still find, after you've gotten partway through, that a change of tone would make your song more exciting. Just remember that if you change the entire tone when you hit verse 2, you must go back to verse 1 and tie the overall mood together with proper edits/explanations.

I'll use one of my own songs as an example of this there ís no copyright clearance required!

Crazy for You © Lorena Kelly


b do I still need to tell you, implore you, and plead you
to realize your desire can free you


You'll notice a very simple rhyme scheme (lines 1-2, 3-4, 5-6 in verses). The point of view throughout is intimate (the singer talking one-on-one to the invisible lover).

What ís a pre-chorus? To oversimplify...a pre-chorus is a slight change within a verse which (due to changes in time, melodic progression, or other) makes you anticipate the chorus. Huh? When you hear a pre-chorus, you know something important is coming. It may be that the chord progression is crawling up and must resolve by hitting the chorus. It is often more tense-sounding than the earlier part of the verse. A pre-chorus can also be used if your verse and chorus are radically different and need a short section that eases the two together. Because a pre-chorus is almost like a new section, songs with pre-choruses may not require a bridge.

Having trouble writing a bridge? Look over your song thus far. Have you stated your main emotion or thought yet? If not, the bridge is the ideal place to slap your listener with that little tidbit. The bridge is your last chance to make sure that your listener understands exactly what you're saying. Tie any loose ends together here.

Now back to our exercise on a v-C-v-C-b-C.

Verse 1: Set it up. Situation, mood, characters. Establish the point of view (are you talking to a friend, your lover, talking to people in general, telling someone else's story?)

Do you need a second verse to finish the setup before you go on to the chorus? Put one in. Make sure, though, that you aren't just restating what's already been said. Even if you're using really pretty words, don't restate. Now, how long is the verse? If one verse is very long (say more than 45 seconds), you should be more than able to finish your setup within one verse. Move on.

Chorus 1: What are you really trying to say? "This song is about _________." What's the one thing you want to get across, the main emotion or thought? Is that "thing" found in your title or hook? If not, hmmmm...

Verse 2: Plot development. What's happening to your character, or inside the heart/mind of your character? Describe it in more detail now, but don't restate anything that's already been said. New information! Keep the story moving!

Chorus 2: Repeat Chorus 1. Optionally, just keep the hook/title section and rewrite the lyrics around it.

Bridge: This is the spot for your heartfelt emotion or epiphany. It may contain new information, or answer literal or figurative questions raised earlier in the song. If you were going to shout the moral of the song, what would that be? Put it here. Typically, the bridge contains the climax and the highest note of the song. The bridge generally is the last place you get to offer new information, so make sure your story is now complete.

Your bridge should mentally draw the listener back to the chorus.

What ís the difference between a bridge and just another verse? Well, the bridge is usually a departure in chord progression (the song may be in major key and go to the minor key for the bridge, or vice versa) and is distinctly different from both the verses and chorus. After a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, the bridge comes along and shouts "Pay attention! There's something interesting going on!"

A further element to structure is rhyme scheme, which I'll deal with further in a future article. For now, I would simply recommend that if you set up a specific rhyme pattern in verse 1 (i.e. every second line rhymes), then continue it in subsequent verses. Same goes for choruses, if you're changing lyrics from chorus to chorus.

Again, structure is not always the starting point for a song. The structure may dictate itself naturally as the song flows out. It is a good idea, though, to be able to recognize what structures you gravitate towards in other writers' material, and whether you tend to lean on one particular type of structure in your own writing. Listen to songs that you personally like, and notate their structure. What makes them work? Where is their hook placed? You'll also find that most current hits don't follow any one structure precisely; the insertion of brief instrumental breaks or hooks, solos, tags, etc. makes a song unique, and contributes to its momentum. Forcing yourself to write within a set structure (that you normally wouldn't), however, is a good drill for expanding your writing technique. As you write more and more songs you'll likely find yourself using new and more complex structures without really thinking about it.

Confused? Good. Structure is interesting to study and use as a guide, but it comes under the heading of Things A Songwriter Should Know But Not Be Constricted By. Happy writing!

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic.