Understanding song structures

Whether you are a singer, a lyricist, songwriter or melody writer, it is valuable to understand how songs are put together. Here is a glossary of some of the main elements found in songs, whether they are pop, rock, music theatre, classical, jazz or folk. At the end, I have described the formulae / recipes for some of the most common ways to put these elements together into song structures.

AABA

Also called 32-bar form; common in jazz standards and Tin Pan Alley songs; each section is 8 bars; the ‘B’ section is often called the Bridge [definition 3] or Middle 8 [definition 2]. The Verse is usually 16 bars. Terminology for AABA form sounds the same as for pop songs, but often has different technical meanings.

Bridge
  1. In pop songs, same as Pre-chorus, Lift or Climb.
  2. In pop songs, sometimes a term used synonymously (and confusingly) with Middle 8 [definition 1].
  3. In AABA, it is the ‘B’ section, occurring as the third 8 bar section of the Chorus; usually has contrasting melodic material and/or contrasting harmony, perhaps moving into minor (chord VI) if major originally, major (chord if minor (chord III) or subdominant (chord IV).

General note: There is no commonly agreed way to use the term Bridge and therefore use of this term often leads to confusion. For this reason, I prefer to avoid use of the term at all. Instead, identify musical sections as either a) Pre-chorus, Lift or Climb, b) Middle 8, c) ‘B’ section of an AABA form.

Chorus
  1. In pop songs, a chorus has fewer lyric ideas than a verse. It is usually the emotional message or core of the song. The Chorus will often contain a Hook in it. Commercially it is a very good idea to include the song title in the Chorus.
  2. In AABA, often the main material of the song, and in jazz standards, Tin Pan Alley songs etc, often the only part performed (leaving out the Verse).
Climb

Same as Lift, or Pre-chorus.

Hook

Any musical idea that people typically instantly remember from a song, even after just one hearing. It could be a single cymbal crash in a silence between two melodic phrases, or might be a phrase of a few words with memorable melody, a noticeable jump ‘spike’) in the melody, a catchy rhythmic motif, a musical fragment (and word/phrase) repeated immediately several times, and so on. A Hook can appear in the Verse or Chorus; it may or may not be the song title. There may be more than one hook in a song.

Intro

Sets the scene and brings the listener into the specific emotional world of the song’s opening lyric idea; could be a single chord, 2, 4 or 8 bars. An intro needs to catch the listener’s interest; this opening moment is often the ‘signature sound’ of a song, and can become iconic (e.g. the guitar chord riff of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water‘), making it sometimes also a Hook.

Lift

Same as Pre-chorus or Climb.

Lyric

All the words of the song, including Verse, Chorus, any Refrain, and Bridge.

Middle 8
  1. In pop songs, an 8 bar section that has melodic and harmonic material distinctly different from the Verse or Chorus, though it may use a lyric line or melodic motif from these; takes the song into new emotional and verbal territory; gives musical relief from repetitions of just Verse and Chorus; also called Release and sometimes called (confusingly) the Bridge [definition 2].
  2. In AABA, the third section of 8 bars; also called the Bridge [definition 3].
Outro

Instrumental material at the end of the song, after the voice has finished; may have material reminiscent of the Intro, or from Verse or Chorus, or have something new, to leave the listener with a final surprise; may be a fade-out, or end on a chord other than the tonic (‘home’ note).

Pre-chorus

Can be the last 2 or 4 bars of the Verse, or can be 2-4 bars of transitional bars between the end of the Verse and start of the Chorus; also called the Lift, Climb or Bridge [definition 1]. (The lyricist Ira Gershwin called this the ‘vest’ – I don’t know why!)

Refrain

Sometimes used synonymously with Chorus. In purist terms, more likely to be a single verbal-musical phrase that is not a full Chorus section in itself, but recurs frequently in the song, and may even be one element in a Chorus; tends to get the audience joining in.

Release

Same as Middle 8 [definition 1], or sometimes (confusingly) the Bridge [definition 2]

Solo

Typically an instrumental section; can take the place of a chorus, middle 8 or 3rd verse

Turnaround

Last part of a chorus that leads back into the verse or bridge

Verse

Typically 8, 16 or 32 bars; the music stays the same each time, but the words are new for each successive Verse; sometimes the new words invite some rhythmic or melodic variation or improvisation to the main tune; each new Verse carries the narrative forward with new information.

Sample Song Structures

Folk song 1

verse 1 – verse 2 – verse 3

Folk song 2

verse 1 – chorus / refrain – verse 2 – chorus / refrain – verse 3 – chorus / refrain

Classical song I

intro – verse 1 – verse 2 – verse 3 – outro

Classical song 2

intro – long ‘A’ section – contrasting, shorter ‘B section – repeated ‘A’ section with embellishments – outro [e.g. da capo aria]

Tin Pan Alley / AABA / 32-bar form

4 bar intro – 16 bar verse – 32 bar chorus – second verse – chorus

[The chorus is usually AABA (each section being 8 bars), giving this song form its designation. However, the verse may also be AABA (each section being 4 bars).]

Classic pop song

Intro – Verse 1 with pre-chorus/lift/bridge – Verse 2 with pre-chorus/lift/bridge – Chorus with turnaround – Middle 8 – EITHER chorus + chorus – OR verse 3 with pre-chorus/lift/bridge + chorus – Outro

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