What is a Bridge in songwriting?

I looked up on the web ‘Bridge’ in songwriting, and was disappointed at the lack of good material on this. Much of what I found described – often in vague terms – what it might be musically. There seems to be a general perception that a Bridge serves primarily a musical function, to give musical contrast, ‘to keep the listener interested’. That strikes me as a weak justification – it seems to imply that either the lyric content is irrelevant, the song’s music is too slight or boring, or the listener is shallow and has to be constantly dazzled with a new musical ‘bauble’ in order to remain attentive. Do the main parts of the song lack enough substance or quality? Or does the Bridge itself simply not need to have any great merit, but simply keep us vaguely engaged until the main musical material returns?

The original meaning of ‘Bridge’ in songwriting came from the standard AABA structure in the songs of the Great American Songbook. The composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown has a nice way of explaining the AABA form (or 32-bar form). In ‘A’, the singer presents an idea; an implied listener resists the ‘proposition’. So the singer makes the same point ‘A’ a second time; again, this is met with resistance. So the singer then says, “Well, let me put things another way” (B), and then reiterates their first point (A). This is echoed in the music, which has two basic musical ideas; ‘A’ is presented three times, and ‘B’ is presented once, creating a ‘bridge’ between the 2nd and 3rd statements of the ‘A’ idea. But in contemporary songwriting, the idea of the Bridge has evolved unrecognisably beyond the function it originally had in the AABA song. For many songwriters it appears to be simply a musical ‘diversion’, perhaps partly just to make the song last longer.

But it’s important to understand that a Bridge has lyrics, and that the lyrics in a Bridge need to do some work. They should serve a unique function that is different from what a Verse or a Chorus do. In my view, a Bridge should introduce a contrasting verbal idea/emotion/perspective (camera angle), and help take us deeper, into a richer appreciation of the song’s message / Big Idea; it should provide a new point of view, or a twist. A Bridge can also provide a kind of punchline to what we’ve learned through the whole song, adding something that we didn’t see coming in the Verses; the final Chorus then feels different, when preceded by this revelatory new material of the Bridge. I think a key feature of the lyric content of a Bridge is that it should add insight, an emotional depth or ‘kick’ that we weren’t expecting, and definitely a new dimension.

The more I explore this, I think the term Bridge is unhelpful in contemporary songwriting. It can imply that the section has no real weight of its own, but that its prime function is to get us from one important place to another. And I think some songwriters and teachers treat it as a brief scenic (and mainly musical) detour to just keep the listener distracted just enough so that the songwriter can then get away with repeating the Chorus one more time. Until now, I’ve never thought about what else we could call such a section, but we could say that it is often a ‘foil’ for the song: it may appear to offer a contrasting viewpoint, but actually serves to enhance / highlight the main point (Big Idea), and add depth and clarity to the whole song. So I’m going to experiment with calling it a Foil. (Read what a ‘foil‘ is in literature.)

A bad Bridge has nothing new to say lyrically or wanders into irrelevance. Or, even if it manages to take us into an interesting new (and relevant) space, it fails to signal this musically, and stays in a musical gear that is too similar to the music of either the Verse or Chorus.

  1. So, first, I think a good Bridge/Foil must serve the Big Idea.
  2. Second, the Bridge/Foil should be lyrically necessary: it must have distinctive lyrics that serve a purpose that could not be fulfilled by either a Verse, Refrain or Chorus – or the Bridge/Foil should not be there at all.
  3. Third, the Bridge/Foil must therefore represent a some kind of contrast to the verbal material in the other sections of the song, revealing a new emotion and/or perspective.
  4. Fourth, the musical content should support the message of the lyrics. And, therefore, the points 2 and 3 must be reflected in a significant change of character in one or more musical parameters: rhythm, key, harmony, pitch shapes, pitch range, instrumentation, voicing, articulation, sound engineering decisions, dynamics, speed etc.
  5. Fifth, a Bridge/Foil must be in the right position in the song – some Bridges/Foils need to come early, or more than once, and sometimes just once, before the final Chorus.

Here are examples of songs that I think use the concept of a Bridge/Foil well, both because the lyric clearly takes us into a new space, and because that shift in perspective is echoed in the musical gear shift (i.e. the music of the Bridge/Foil has its own unique character). For each of these songs, read the lyrics first, and get a sense of the new space the Bridge/Foil takes us into, as well as how it still manages to serve the Big Idea reflected in the rest of the lyrics. Then listen to the song (by clicking on the title), to hear how the musical gear change enhances the shift created by the lyrical content.

Sometimes, adding a Bridge can make a good (or bad) song worse. Sometimes, removing a Bridge can turn a struggling song into a better one. And sometimes, adding a Bridge/Foil can transform a good song into a truly great one.

(Thank you to R, a songwriting student of mine, who asked me what a Bridge is, so I really had to think about it!)

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Song Assessment & Feedback Exercise (SAFE)

A 5-step process for songwriter learning groups

Songwriters can often work without much idea of how to develop song ideas, complete songs, or write better songs. They may not have many ideas on how to identify in a song what works and is worth saving (for that song, or a future one), and what might be improved by editing / re-writing. Songwriters may not receive feedback on song material – especially work in progress – very often. What feedback they get may be unclear, inaccurate, uninformed, discouraging, or miss key points that need to be addressed. Co-writers want their partnership to work, but they may feel that the way they assess each other’s contributions or give feedback to each other is putting their songwriting process or their relationship at risk.

At best, a songwriters learning group can provide opportunities for songwriters to swap experiences and ideas, to support each other, to find co-writers, and to learn from and with each other. In particular, such a group could provide a valuable space for songwriters to learn together how to assess song material and give feedback on it, as well as to benefit from assessments and feedback they receive on their own song material.

However, there are challenges to creating a group feedback process for songwriters. Giving feedback and critique, especially on creative work, can be hard to do well. Unskilled, poorly judged, or ill-timed feedback can be confusing, and can hamper the songwriter’s skill development, and do long term damage to a songwriter’s confidence. Moreover, copyright and intellectual property are major issues. Participants would be sharing unpublished ‘work in progress’, which could be, at worst, plagiarised. Participants in a songwriters learning group are not official co-writers – there is no clear ‘split sheet’ (a written agreement of ownership percentages). But group participants would be giving and receiving creative advice and input on each other’s songs. Unclear agreements, or the absence of agreements, on ownership rights on songs or the different elements of songs could lead to interpersonal tensions, or, at worst, to legal disputes.
Read more ›

Songwriting group etiquette, ground rules & ethos

For group meetings, it is good to agree some ground rules so that songwriters can feel confident to experiment, and share ideas, questions and their material in meetings. It is also useful to have values that can inspire our songwriting and our work together. Here are 15 principles to bear in mind: Read more ›

Songwriting group meeting format

A songwriting group should be fun, educational, and a space for mutual support and trust. It’s worth experimenting with different formats to find what works well for you. Nothing has to be set in stone. If the group feels ready to change a format it has used for a while, that’s fine.

Here is one possible framework for a 2.5 hour meeting: Read more ›

Writing better lyrics (notes on Pattison’s book)

This blog entry is a set of notes that I made on the book: Pattison, Pat (2009) Writing better lyrics: the essential guide to powerful songwriting, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati. I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, there is a wealth of great advice, based on solid experience, and despite the significant reservations I am about to voice, I strongly encourage people to read this book because it is packed with wisdom. On the other hand, I emphatically disagree with a number of Pattison’s arguments, notably: his claims about near rhymes (many of which are not rhymes at all in my view, and do not fulfil the basic function or sonic effect of a true rhyme); his definition of prosody, which strikes me as a bizarre deviation from how any academic or dictionary authority might use the term; his attempts to present a theory of how rhyme, stress patterns, line lengths and numbers of lines interact to create different effects (in which he seems either vague, or wildly inconsistent, subjective and unsystematic); and his suggestion that co-writers should never discuss technique, or critique each other’s work or ideas.

The notes I have made here are not a comprehensive executive summary of the book. Rather, they record the ideas that I find useful, sound, and even inspiring. I have also set out those ideas of Pattison’s that I find problematic; in square brackets I have outlined my objections. Also in square brackets, I have included my own thoughts that arose, and theories that I began to formulate, stimulated by reading Pattison’s book. In this regard, I am grateful to Pattison for getting me to think. Read more ›

If You Want To Write (notes on Ueland’s book)

Brenda Ueland (1891-1985) was a journalist, editor, freelance writer and teacher of writing. She seems to have been a highly creative, generous-hearted, free spirit. Amongst her accomplishments, she was knighted by the King of Norway, and set an international swimming record for people over 80 years old. Ueland wrote a book in 1938 that was ‘re-discovered’ in the 1980s, and has since done the rounds of the self help movement, and creative writing courses. In If you want to write: a book about art, independence and spirit (B N Publishing, 1938/2008) she wrote, “Everyone … has something important to say.” Carl Sandburg wrote that it is “the best book ever written on how to write.” It is, undoubtedly, inspiring, but there are also major flaws in it, so read these notes with a critical eye … Read more ›

The Escaped Lyric (Radio 4 series)

5 episodes of 11 minutes each – www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b082bk15/episodes/guide

From teenage alienation to middle-aged loss and regret, lyrics from popular music can escape their song to become an anthem of our youth or a lifeline through loss and solitude. Nick Berkeley speaks to song writers and musicians about how the words of a three minute pop song can come to have such impact on us all. He dissects the craft of the song in a quest to understand the alchemy that converts seemingly simple words into thoughts of great impact and meaning. From Noel Coward to Kylie Minogue, seminal folk songs to outsider hip hop, there are words and phrases that the music fan can cling to, and remember, forever.

Monday 12:04 – Solitude – www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b080r362
Tuesday 12:04 – Family – www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b081b2w3
Wednesday 12:04 – Vulnerability – www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b081b2y1
Thursday 12:04 – Lust – www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b081jm0b
Friday 12:04 – Absence – www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b081b3wx

Melody 01: Melody writing made simple(r)

whistling_smiley7:15-9:30pm, Wednesday 26 October 2016

Sign up here.

In these sessions, we’re rotating a number of core topics on songwriting. This is our first on writing melody. We’ll look at:

  • the musical properties and potential of different scales, intervals and melodic shapes
  • structural and non-structural notes in a melody
  • managing rhythm and phrase lengths
  • tips on vocal range, hooks, riffs, and use of silence in melody writing

As always, it’s an opportunity for:

  • learning some (non-scary) theory & technique
  • doing songwriting exercises
  • learning from analyzing successful songs
  • getting reading lists & detailed handouts
  • meeting other songwriters & potential writing partners

Cost: £12

Sign up here, or get in touch with me through the contact page as quickly as possible.

Our previous meetings covered:

  1. The Songwriting Pentagon and Oxford Songwriting Syllabus, and
  2. Finding a Big Idea to focus your song – working on Big Ideas and Titles.

Finding A ‘Big Idea’ To Focus Your Song

Starting in August 2016, about once a month, I have been leading an evening workshop for Oxford Songwriters Meetup. We are gradually working through some of the main topics in my Oxford Songwriting Syllabus. The meeting on 25 Sept 2016 was called ‘Finding a ‘Big Idea’ to focus your song’. We divided the evening into two sections:

  1. What is a Big Idea? (And how does it effect how you write your song, as well as the impact on the listener?)
  2. What makes a good Title? (And how does it relate to your Big Idea, songwriting process, and impact on the listener?)

These are the teaching notes that I gave out that evening. If you were there, these notes should make complete sense. If you weren’t at the workshop, I hope you still find these notes useful – and you could always come to our next meeting! Read more ›

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Analysis of ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ (Eric Bogle)

Analysing other people’s songs can teach us a lot

This is the second song analysis to be posted on this blog. As I said I have said elsewhere, a song does not have to be good, or one we like, for us to be able to learn a lot from it about the craft of songwriting. This is a set of teaching notes that I created for a songwriting workshop at Wallingford Bunkfest (3 Sept 2016) and the Oxford Songwriters Meetup (25 Sept 2016). For those who came to those workshops, hopefully these notes will make sense straightaway. For those of you reading this song study of ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ for the first time, I’d like to encourage you to work through my notes, with the lyrics open on another page, and stopping and starting the June Tabor video as you go. You need to set aside at least half an hour to do this, but it’s worth it. My analysis is organised according to categories in the Songwriting Pentagon, and the Oxford Songwriting Syllabus. Read more ›