I’m certainly not one to try set specifications how art should be created or performed (that kind of defeats the purpose of art). Like many expressions of art, songwriting doesn’t have to follow any hard set rules, but for your music to have broad appeal (if that’s what you’re going for), it’s a good idea to understand basic song structure.
There is no doubt that there are some phenomenally creative and talented artists out there, who take unconventional approaches to their lyric and melody writing. I think it’s safe to say that most music listeners appreciate some kind of direction and organization. This is where song structure transforms your work from chaotic ramblings to purposeful connection.
Study your favorite artists. Think of examples of your favorite songs. Chances are, you will find deliberate song structure, with a clear point and direction. Now creative types typically don’t like the idea of rules or structure, but there’s a lot of creative play within the confines of a well crafted song (and an infinite catalog of popular music proves it).
In popular music, there are four basic components to compose a song: verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge. Depending on what kind of song you’re writing, all, some, or only one of these elements may be all you need.
The verse is where you tell the story and “preview” the central idea of your song (driven home by the chorus). It’s typically your lyrical introduction, revealing the themes layer by layer. This is generally where you have to grasp the listeners attention. The following verses develop the story or expand on the central idea.
The pre-chorus doesn’t appear in every song, but it’s a very effective way of setting up a dynamic transition into the chorus. The lyrics and melody typically go with the flow of the verse, but are distinctly different. A lot of times it’ll be the same lyric line, regardless of the verse, but it can also be a great expansion and new perspective of your verses.
This is where the central idea or theme of your song takes hold, and you drive home your hook (that part of the song that sticks in the listeners head). A lot of times the lyric lines are a little more simple here, with a dynamic melody.
Sometimes you’ll want to insert a bridge, which usually occurs later in the song (typically after the second chorus). The bridge usually has a distinctly different melody, and lyrically it sums up or reveals new insight into the theme of the song. Sometimes it can just be an instrumental solo.
This usually has to do more with arrangement and production, than actual writing. The intro is the first thing a listener hears, so you’ll want to open up strong. A lot of the time it’s only an instrumental, but lyric lines or vocals are many times present depending on the style and arrangement. The outro is the ending of the song. This is where you decide what the listener hears last. Sometimes it’s just the chorus fading out, sometimes an abrupt stop, or any creative arrangement that you feel will have the most impact.
Common Song Structures
How you write, structure, and arrange your song, is completely up to you. Here are some of the more common arrangements:
You have many different arrangements to play with, and you can really let your creativity thrive here. If you want a more complex arrangement, you can try something like:
Long Verse/Pre-Chorus/Chorus/Short Verse/Pre-Chorus/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus
The more you play around and develop you’re arrangements, the better you’ll get at it. The biggest hurdle to jump, is to get out there and start!