Basic Song Structure of Popular Music

Kinobe album coverSong structure forms favored by popular music have been pretty stable for decades. Most music (popular and otherwise) is built off at least two contrasting sections: the initial material (A) and the contrasting material (B). This helps give the music emotional direction, climax, and release. In popular forms, A serves as the verse and B serves as the chorus. The most common form, not surprisingly, is verse–chorus–verse–chorus–verse/interlude/bridge–chorus. After two repetitions of verse–chorus, a number of things can happen. There can be simply an instrumental verse. A bridge can function as additional contrasting material, taking us away from the basic material then returning us back to it. Sometimes there is a breakdown that provides contrasting rhythmic material, the equivalent of a non-lyric bridge. In a variation of this A-B form, there are two verses before the first chorus (A-A-B-A-B…).

Music where the chorus comes first is used less frequently (chorus–verse–chorus–verse etc.), although Hit Songs Deconstructed, which analyzes key songwriting trends reflected in the Billboard Hot 100, found that this structure spiked from just 25% of songs in quarter one of 2015 to 42% in quarter two. The advantage of this structure is that the listener gets much earlier to the part of the song that is designed to be the most memorable, and gets “hooked” more quickly. My guess is that the shorter attention span trend in mass culture has fueled this development, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of it over time.

Songwriters sometimes employ additional mini-sections, such as a pre-chorus (which helps build up and amplify the chorus payoff) or a post-chorus (providing a “double your money” additional hook).

Some styles of music favor a different approach to the verse–chorus alternation. In much R&B, for example, while the verse and chorus differ lyrically and melodically, the underlying music and chord progressions do not change. Instead, the chorus is heightened with additional instruments and a beefed up sound. Alternatively, music coming out of rural and folk traditions often uses a simple A-A-A-A structure with reiterations of the verse. A short melodic hook or tail at the end of each verse, usually the same lyric, takes the place of the chorus. This structure could frequently be heard in music of the 60s and 70s (a good example is Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia”), but is much rarer now.

Although this toolbox seems pretty limited, there are actually a lot of things a songwriter can do to heighten the emotional payoff and mitigate predictability (we like some predictability, but unexpected surprises give even more emotional lift). Verses can be cut short or interrupted. The pre-chorus can be foreshadowed in the song’s introduction. Phrases can be repeated or not-repeated at the close of the chorus. The chorus can be delayed. And many more. My favorite artist who exemplifies the range of how these tools can be deployed is Meshell Ndegeocello.

For a good overview on song structures, check out Jason Blume’s article in BMI’s MusicWorld.

photo: Verse Bridge Chorus album cover, Kinobe

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