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.
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.
- In pop songs, same as Pre-chorus, Lift or Climb.
- In pop songs, sometimes a term used synonymously (and confusingly) with Middle 8 [definition 1].
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
Same as Lift, or Pre-chorus.
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.
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.
Same as Pre-chorus or Climb.
All the words of the song, including Verse, Chorus, any Refrain, and Bridge.
- 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].
- In AABA, the third section of 8 bars; also called the Bridge [definition 3].
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).
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!)
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.
Same as Middle 8 [definition 1], or sometimes (confusingly) the Bridge [definition 2]
Typically an instrumental section; can take the place of a chorus, middle 8 or 3rd verse
Last part of a chorus that leads back into the verse or bridge
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