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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