Although structure may vary slightly among different songs, their basic blueprint remains fairly consistent and predictable. Despite popular wisdom, when it comes to structure, being somewhat predictable is NOT a bad thing. Instead, it guides your audience through their musical journey when listening to your compositions.
These are some of the most frequently used structures in popular western music:
Verse #1 – Chorus / Verse #2 – Chorus -> Bridge -> Chorus
Verse #1 – Chorus / Verse #2 – Chorus -> Bridge -> Verse #3 – Chorus
Chorus / Verse #1 - Chorus / Verse #2 -> Bridge -> Chorus
*Notice how the combo ‘Verse – Chorus’ is the basic foundation of any song.
1) The Verse
Lyrics. This is the section where you present a story to your audience. Typically, the story introduces a ‘problem’ in need for resolution (love, breakup, desire, rebellion, confusion etc…). Every time a verse comes along, new lyrical content is to be introduced.
Music. You can choose any chords within the key of your song to present your lyrical content. However, the verse is typically the tensest section of your entire composition and it should lead smoothly to the chorus, where all tension is released. Using chord scale degrees IV to V right before your chorus will certainly create this effect (Ex. If you are in the key of C major, then you may use F and G leading to your chorus, which will begin with the chord Cmaj).
*Each verse will have different lyrics, but the same music.
2) The Chorus
The Chorus is the ‘climax’ of your song as well as the section that your audience will be more likely to remember. It is also known as ‘the hook’. You want your chorus to be big, epic, louder than any other section and very easy to be sung along. When it comes to the chorus, less is more: keep it simple and catchy.
Lyrics. This is the section that will show your listeners how to deal with the problems presented during the verse. You do not necessarily need to resolve ‘the problem’; though you do need to show your audience how to deal with it.
Music. The Chorus typically begins with the first degree of the scale you are using on your song (Ex 1. If you are in the key of ‘C Major’ your chorus’ first chord should be the first degree of the scale, ‘C’. Ex2. If you are in the key of ‘G Major’ your chorus’ first chord should be ‘G’).
*All Chorus sections may have the same lyrics and music.
The Bridge is a reminiscence of what classical composers used to call ‘The Development Section’. Classical composers believed that after presenting the combo ‘verse – chorus’ twice, a composition would became too predictable and uninteresting, if we repeated such a pattern again. They believed it was time for a change; time to bring some fresh musical content to the table. That is, precisely, the function of the bridge. There are two popular ways to approach the bridge:
The ‘What If’ Bridge
Lyrics. Coming from British popular music tradition, the ‘what if’ bridge explores what could have happened, if things had been different. (Ex. In a love song, the ‘what if’ section could explore topics such as ‘What if you had never left me?’ ‘What if you came back to me?’ ‘What if we had never met?’).
Music. Use a new set of chords for this section, and if you want to modulate to a new key, now is the time. Most key changes on the bridge move up to the ascending fourth (Ex. If your song is in the key of ‘C Major’, your bridge could either stay in ‘C Major’ or modulate to ‘F Major’).
B) The Guitar Solo (or any solo, for that matter). It’s time to shine! If you are a skilled soloist, bring on your best licks. If you would rather keep it simple, you can play the melody that the vocalist sang during the chorus (keeping it catchy? That’s always a good idea!).
Now that you have an understanding on the basics of structure, it is time to get some practice. Listen actively to your favorite songs and find out what their structure is, what their topic is, and how their lyrics present and deal with ‘the problem’. After a while, structure will become second nature and so will your songwriting.