Song form is two remarkable studies: First, it gives you a very simple set of analytic tools (terminology) so you can listen to any song and get a better understanding of what it does and why it works and second, by using these options in your own writing it is a great starting point for your own song and then follow it with many iterations, each time pushing you to edit elements as listed further down in this article.
There is an entire industry standard terminology and functions list by clicking on the Read More button. Enjoy
- Melodic Cadence (aka phrasing)
- Lyric Prosody (Rhyme plates, alliterations, open or closed structures, metaphors, et al)
- Harmonic Structures
- Production Techniques
If pressed to describe the overall structure of a song's elements, it could be boiled down to:
- Complete / Moving Forward
- Tension / Resolve
- Closed / Open
Lets look at the popular form elements (and terminology) in 20th century songwriting and describe their basic function / purpose:
Note: Below are the "text book" definitions and usage descriptions of these elements. Click here to go to example of analysis of many of these terms in lyric sheets and audio
Verse: The section where the nuts and bolts of your story is related. A verse should (one or several of the following)
- Describe the situation
- Pose a question
- Stand alone (be self contained)
- Have a main melodic, lyric and harmonic cadence that repeats. Longer phrases with a rhyme plate that closes the section (AABB, ABAB, ABAC) are typical line structures
Stanza: (related) a stanza, or verse, is a section with a recurring pattern of both rhyme and meter. A "strophic" song (as opposed to a "through-composed" song) has several stanzas or verses set to music that remains the same or similar with each stanza.
Climb: (aka pre-chorus) I prefer the term "climb" because it defines the section by how it functions not just it's position in the song (reference Sheila Davis "The Craft of Lyric Writing") The most important function: A climb remains open (lyrically, melodically, harmonically) so it "drops" the listener right into the chorus!
- Accelerates the situation presented in the verse to the resolve of the chorus
- Lyrically: Does not close the lyric with a rhyme. It leaves the rhyme plate open.
- Melodically / Pitch: The last note should be a tension note (that wants to resolve) in the key.
- Melodically / Phrasing: Creating opposite motion than what is in the verse. If your verse has mostly longer phrases, then create shorter, choppier phrases in the climb (or vise versa)
- Harmonically: This will be dictated by the melody, but again, keep it open!
Chorus: The section of a song that contains the hook. This section closes the story, answers the question or at least creates some type of closure
- The hook can be anywhere in the chorus
- The hook should be repeated
- The hook can be at the end only, where it acts more like a refrain
- Gimmicks like "Millennial Whoops" or action based hooks ("everybody say yay yay, yay eh") are common
- The hook can reside outside of the chorus at the end
- Rhyme plate should be strong and predictable. Internal rhymes work well.
Bridge: The bridge of a song is the "test". The "distance makes the hear grow fonder" section. It's use takes the listener away from the cyclical structure of the verse / chorus. If these 2 main sections have been constructed correctly, then the bridge takes the listener to a completely unfamiliar place. When you drop them back into a chorus or a verse / chorus, it reinforces the focus on this being the main message.
This section is typically after 2 cycles of verse / climb / chorus. It should build in a similar way as a climb if it's created to lead into the final chorus. Verse / Climb / Chorus (repeat) Bridge / Chorus / End
- It should present an action OR alternative to the story. A section that is resolute
- The melodic phrasing, harmony and lyric structure (and rhyme plate) should be a change from the rest of the song
- It should be different enough so when you come back into either a verse or a chorus, it feels very familiar
Introductory Verse: This is more of a technique used in Broadway style writing, made popular by the Tin Pan Alley writers. It sets up the songs story.
- It's typically rubato
- Has it's own internal form
- It typically ends open...leading into the verse, chorus or refrain of the song
Refrain: This term has been described in different ways. As opposed to other terminology which has clear definitions, a refrain, it's mean and use are a bit ambiguous. Here goes:
- Choruses and refrains are not the same, but are related. Now the best way to understand the relationship between the two is to remember these two important points:
- ALL Choruses are refrains...but NOT ALL refrains are choruses.
- The word "refrain" applies to your song lyric, while the word "chorus" applies to your song’s music.
- A Refrain is any line or group of lines that repeat several times in your song lyric.
- A refrain is also when you take the chorus and lead up to the last line (hook) at the end of the chorus
- The refrain or chorus often sharply contrasts the verse melodically, rhythmically, and harmonically, and assumes a higher level of dynamics and activity, often with added instrumentation. Chorus form, or strophic form, is a sectional and/or additive way of structuring a piece of music based on the repetition of one formal section or block played repeatedly.
- While most people will use the words chorus and refrain interchangeably, the terms can have slightly different connotations. A refrain can refer to the end phrase of the chorus. It is also common for the chorus of a song to be sung by many people, while a refrain is typically sung by a soloist.
- Many songs include two essential structures -- the verse and the refrain, most often called the chorus. The form follows a pattern of verse-chorus-verse-chorus, or ABAB form. The refrain is unchanging, both in melody and words. The repetition of the refrain gives listeners a sense of stability and comfort in recognizing something they have heard before.
- The Difference Between a CHORUS and a REFRAIN. A chorus usually has different lyric and music content to the verse and bridge. Whereas a refrain is usually a repeated line or phrase incorporated lyrically and musically within the verse itself.
Common Terms and Definitions:
- Mechanics: A general-use term that refers to any of the elements that go into form and lyrics. Example: "In the verse, the mechanics that are used to make it accelerate at the end of the section are: shorter melodic phrases, internal rhymes, a call to action, lack of rhyme at the end of the last line so the verse is "open"."
- Simple: Any song element or "section" that is constructed internally with similar melodic phrasing, simple rhyme plates that close the section
- Complex: Any song element or "section" that contain two distinctly different pieces. Example: A verse that internally has an AABA structure
- Rhyme Plate: The overall use of rhymes with in the song. Does the rhyme "close" a section or leave it open. Does the rhyme link the end of a line to a word in the middle of the next line? If it's a rhyme between the ends of two lines, then it is typically considered "closed" or not creating forward motion. If a word at the end of a line rhymes to a word somewhere near the beginning of the next line, it's internal and creates an open, accelerating effect.
- Feminine Rhyme: Also called double rhyme, in lyrics, a rhyme involving two syllables (as in motion and ocean or willow and billow). The term feminine rhyme is also sometimes applied to triple rhymes, or rhymes involving three syllables (such as exciting and inviting). Note: A single syllable word can rhyme with a single syllable is a multi-syllable word and it is considered a feminine rhyme. Ex. me and believe.
- Aural Rhyme: (aka "soft rhyme") When two words can be sung to make them sound like a rhyme. Ex. mind, denied, defined. Making the sound of the "i" in "mind" lighter and up in the top of the mouth (resonating chamber) helps it to soft rhyme to the -ied and -ined
- Masculine Rhyme: A simple rhyming structure that rhymes a single syllable word with another single syllable word. The cat in the hat style of rhyme.
- Alliteration: Using words (typically 3 or more) in close proximity that start with the same sound: friendly fellow in fur-lined gloves
- Positional Words: (usually used as antonyms) are words that describe a physical place: Examples: in, out, down, up, here, there, under, above, left, right, et al...
- Antonyms: Words that have opposite meaning. Love / hate, good / bad, pretty / ugly, et al (also see positional words)
- Synonyms: Words that have the same or similar meaning. Love, care. Mean, bad, hurtful, bully.
- Block: Term we use when a section (verse, chorus, climb, bridge, et al) have more than one distinct section within it's structure. The term is used like Block 1, Block 2...
- Open: Any section of a song that does not close the rhyme. It holds on a tension melodic note or related harmony. Wants to move forward. Requires resolution
- Closed: A section that does not create the need to move forward. The rhyme plate closes the last line by rhyming with one of the previous lines. the melody cadences to a resolve note (tonic note) and harmonically will sit on the 1 chord in the key
- Prosody: (Song) As relating to the overall structure and consistency developed in a song: The rhythmic and intonational aspect of language; the systematic study of metrical structure. Prosody can be described as the following:
- Intonation (not relating to musically "in tune" but the use of vertical motion)
- Stress: From the perceptual point of view, stress functions as the means of making a syllable prominent. Pitch prominence, that is, a pitch level that is different from that of neighboring syllables, or a pitch movement. Increased length (duration), increased loudness (dynamics) differences in timbre.
- Tempo: The length (short or long) of syllables and phrases that create a contrast to each other
- Rhythm: Although rhythm is not a prosodic variable in the way that pitch or loudness are, it is usual to treat a language's characteristic rhythm as a part of its prosodic phonology.
- Cadence: May be subjectively experienced by the listener (an auditory, not acoustic measurement) by lyrics that shifts back-and-forth between words perceived as being grouped together, and words perceived as isolated or not grouped.
- Pause: Pausing (in a musical composition) is creating a slight space before a word carrying a high information content. Pausing or its lack is a factor in creating the perception of words being grouped together into a phrase, phraseme, constituent or other multi-word grouping