In a previous Reverb Lessons blog post, I wrote about the effectiveness of the refrain-line song structure. Other useful song forms that you might be familiar with include:

Verse - Chorus - Verse - Chorus - Bridge - Chorus

Verse - Chorus - Verse - Chorus - Verse - Chorus

Verse - Verse - Verse - Verse

Verse - Prechorus - Chorus - Verse - Prechorus - Chorus

Generally speaking, these song form arrangements are time-tested devices that exist in many of our favorite songs. One of the ways we can use these forms and still give them our personal artistic stamp is by managing the number of lyrical lines per section. As music listeners, our brains are continually counting, measuring, and making predictions about the music’s form as it unfolds. As a result, we can grab a listener’s attention by adhering to predictable forms or by deviating from those expectations.

How does this actually play out in our writing? The clearest way to see this take shape is by setting up the expectation with a certain number of lines (let’s say 4 lines in the first stanza) and fewer lines in the next section (3 lines in the next stanza). The absence of a 4th line in the second stanza will create a sense of forward motion, propelling the song with greater force into the next section.

For example, consider Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”:

Verse 1:

Now that I’ve lost everything to you

You say you want to start something new

And it’s breaking my heart you’re leaving

Baby, I’m grieving

But if you want to leave, take good care

Hope you have a lot of nice things to wear

But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there (only 3 lines, pushes into the chorus)

Alternatively, after a regular pattern has been established in previous verses, we can add extra lines to a verse later in the song. This should have the opposite effect as dropping a line—it makes the verse feel static for a moment, calling attention to the “extra” line that was tagged onto the predicted form. Here’s a great example from Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”:

Verse 1-3 (4-line verses, establishing the form and rhyme scheme), Verse 4, 6-line:

[Verse 1]

I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand

Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain

He was looking for a place called Lee Ho Fook’s

Gonna get a big dish of beef chow mein

[Verse 4]

Well, I saw Lon Chaney walking with the Queen

Doing the Werewolves of London

I saw Lon Chaney Jr. walking with the Queen

Dong the Werewolves of London

(5) I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s

(6) And his hair was perfect

I encourage you to experiment with the number of lines that you use while sticking to some of the time-tested song forms listed above. By using some simple addition and subtraction of lines we can really make those trusted song forms work for us in our own artistic way. Good luck!