The Hit Songwriting Formula

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Songwriting: What You Need to Know About Song Form

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When we talk about form in songwriting, we might be referring to the various sections of a song: verse, chorus, bridge, etc. Or we might be talking about something like the rhyme scheme of the lyrics: ABAB, for example. Or we might be talking about some aspect of the design of the melody… ascending figures contrasting with descending ones, for example.

I’ve always believed that for the best songs out there, the more that happens instinctively the better. But having good musical instincts doesn’t mean you don’t have to actively think about what you’re writing, and make decisions based on those thoughts.

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Song form — something we also call formal design — is one of those aspects of songwriting that does several related things:

  1. It helps an audience make sense of various elements of a song: its melody, chords, lyrics, and the basic formal structures.
  2. It helps make a short (3-4-minute) song sound like a complete musical journey, with an easily-discernible beginning, middle and end.
  3. It helps give a sense of design to each separate section of a song.

In much the same way that an architect considers the structure of a house as it is being designed, a songwriter considers the structure of a song, whether that consideration happens on a conscious or subconscious level.

So what do you need to know about song form? How can you use form to make your songs more enticing?

Here are some ways in which thinking about form helps your songwriting:

  1. Making clear differentiations between the various aspects of a song helps to make it more easily remembered by listeners. That’s why songwriters often use, for example, a minor key for a verse, and then switch to major for a chorus. (Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”; Timberlake’s “Mirrors”)
  2. Using contrast to show differences between a verse and chorus melody. You might have written a catchy chorus hook that predominantly uses upward-moving melodic shapes. If so, you might find that downward-moving shapes will partner nicely for a verse. That’s an aspect of formal design. (McCartney’s “Penny Lane”)
  3. Delegating certain instruments to certain sections of a song. Even just the issue of deciding which instruments are going to represent a “full instrumentation” for your song can be an issue of form. In other words, you’ll likely decide what that should sound like for a chorus, and then you’ll pare it down to some degree for a verse. Listen to “Chandelier” by Sia, and notice how instrumentation changes rather dramatically between intro, verse, pre-chorus and chorus. Those changes help the listeners develop an understanding of the overall shape of a song.
  4. Moving the emotional level of a song’s lyric up and down as the song proceeds. Songs often start in a low emotional ebb, as situations and circumstances are described, and then heighten dramatically for a chorus. The up and down of this aspect of song lyrics is an important part of the formal design of the text.
  5. Deciding how frequently to change chords. Deciding whether you should strum a chord for 4 beats or 8 is called harmonic rhythm, and how frequently you change chords has a direct effect on the energy of a song. In general terms, the quicker you switch, the more the excitement level of the music intensifies. There’s no rule that says you must find one harmonic rhythm and stick to it; many songs will feature a changing pattern as a song progresses. What’s most important is that you consider it, and really think about this. If you’re a chords-first songwriter, the best time to think about this is at the very beginning stages of writing a song. Experiment with several different patterns, and make note of how musical intensity changes.

One final note: the relative length of various song sections will have an impact on musical momentum. In typical 4/4 (or common time) songs, bars and verses will be some multiple of 8. You might get a verse that’s 16 bars, and then follow it with an 8-bar chorus.

If you find that your song seems lopsided, to the extent that you seem to stay too long in one section, or “get to the chorus” a bit too soon, it’s worth thinking about whether one section or another needs to be shortened or lengthened to offer a proper balance between sections.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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