Understanding Song Structure w/Out the Theory (And The #1 Way to Master It Quickly).
Just what the heck is song structure!? And why do you need to master it?
Deep down you already know the answers to these questions. Yeah you do!
Ranked as one of the TOP pages on Google for the subject, I KNOW no one just suddenly thinks "oh I wonder what song structure is". No, only a chosen few passionate to learn about songwriting are lead here.
This means one thing: You don't want to write songs just to do it…you want to write songs that don't suck; songs that are amazing!
You want to write songs that other people can love; songs they adore that could be "hits" or classics one day.
You dream of becoming a professional songwriter one day...erm...I mean, it's just a hobby you do for fun! (SHH! Your secret's safe with me.)
My point is, you're not here by accident.
You know you need structure. You know that without steps to follow you'll make mistakes. And because a song is an expression of your personal feelings and creativity, you may be a little self-conscious to put yourself out there without making sure you did your best. Trust me, I've been there.
So you're also here to build your confidence as a songwriter.
In this article you'll learn all of the major parts of any song layout. Learn where each section normally goes in today's songs and learn the #1 way to master structure.
How to Channel an Ocean of Creativity
Imagine you suddenly finding yourself floating neck-deep down a river.
The sound of the rushing water is deafening as waves knock you through its narrow choppy channel; trees speeding by as you're tossed about.
There's little you need to do to keep moving forward. There's little you CAN do to stop your momentum. You realize that wherever you're going you're guaranteed to get there very soon.
Before you know it, you're thrust out into an open ocean. There's silence...nothing but the faint sloshing of your body in the water.
Your movement slows down to a barely noticeable crawl.
The water no longer seems to have a purpose. It's just there, all around you. Stagnant. All momentum is gone. And while you're completely free to swim anywhere you want...
...There's no path to follow anymore.
Which way do you go? What do you do now?
This illustration reveals the reason why structure is SO IMPORTANT for your songs. Your mind is a vast ocean of ideas; RAW creative power. But if it's not channeled, you won't pick up any momentum and you won't go anywhere.
And when that happens your creativity drowns. Don't let yours drown.
You won't be able to channel it into a hit song, much less a song with any meaning, unless you have structure.
A song's structure is a song's blueprint; the sections arranged in such a way that best expresses the songwriter's creativity and feelings. It's also called song form.
There are eight sections in a song: Intro, Verse, Refrain, Chorus, Hook, Bridge, Break and Outro. Each part (except for Intro & Outro) can be swapped and arranged differently in your song.
You're free to take your song in any direction you want. It's an open ocean.
But each genre has a common structure it follows in today's music that channels a songwriter's creative juices into a rushing river...
...building more and more momentum until...
*SPLASH!!* Success; your great song almost writing itself.
All you have to do is master song structure and your creativity will guide you the rest of the way to make a great song that people will fall in love with. But how do you do that? Well keep reading.
The Granddaddy of them all...
The most common song form all of today's layouts grew from is "ABABCB". But I feel it makes more sense to see the pattern this way:
Chorus (or Refrain)
Chorus (or Refrain)
Chorus (or Refrain)
Did you catch it? I just shared the #1 way to master song structure! But if you missed it don't worry, I'll explain.
Most of today's song structures are "grandkids" of this layout, with different lengths, tempos and time signatures spread across sections of the track.
They're structured based on music genre and/or on the special feeling you want to share with your audience. Click the examples below to see what I mean.
See how each layout is different, but seems related to "granddad"? When you first look at these examples there doesn't seem to be a pattern, but there IS one. Trust me.
...And it's exactly why these songs are hits, yes; even the ones in this list you think are pretty crappy. They're still hits. It's all because of how the song is arranged.
And that (by the way) is how you learn song structure: by studying songs in your favorite music genre, and not just by listening to them for entertainment.
But the #1 way to master structure quickly is by *seeing* structure (yeah literally with your eyes) while hearing the song, and then by copying what you see as a blueprint for practice.
Let me show you...
Which makes more sense to you?
Seeing "ABABCB", or seeing this:
Chorus (or Refrain)
Chorus (or Refrain)
Chorus (or Refrain)
It's the same structure, but the second version makes more sense doesn't it? It's not just letters that don't have any real meaning. But let's go a step further...
Now which one makes more sense to you? Seeing something like this:
Or seeing this:
With sections color-coded and adjusted for size you can clearly visualize the patterns; see where sections repeat in the structure. So it's no contest which version helps you to see a song's structure the best.
Traditionally songwriters are taught to recognize song structure just by listening to hundreds of songs and picking each one apart by ear, while studying song form and music theory ("ABABCB", etc.).
But when you can use your EYES to see the sections of a song, while using your EARS to listen to it at the same time, you can grasp song structure much faster.
That's the secret. I'd explain the science behind why it works but it'd just bore you, but the TL;DR version is, "you're combining visual and auditory learning so that your brain can connect the dots faster."
And when you combine this technique with simple explanations and instructions, you're GUARANTEED to master song structure quickly.
How to Structure a Song (5 Steps):
Ok so let's structure your song right now! There's no better way to learn than to do. Follow the steps below to change your lines of poetry into a professional song you can be proud of.
[ IMPORTANT: To follow these steps you need either poetry or lyric you've been writing that you can use to structure into a song.]
Once you master song structure, you won't need to follow these steps since the process will be automatic.
1. Pick a song structure as a guide to focus your songwriting creativity.
Remember the story earlier in this article? Raw creativity is useless
if it's not channeled; not focused. So use an existing song as your template to
write a brand new one.
Shocked by this idea? Don't be. Professionals do it all of the time. They know the first rule of writing a great song is to "go with what works" and then to make the song their own.
But while pros can just listen to a song and immediately recognize its patterns to repeat, new songwriters need a little more help.
So join my Song Structure Vault and get 115 visual song structure examples to choose from (with more added daily), each with all the info you need to setup your new song's template and focus your creativity.
Pick a song structure example to follow based on the song genre you're writing (and also pick the emotion you want to stir up in your audience). You're going to use the song's layout, bar length (of each section), time signature (i.e. beat pattern) and tempo as your starting point.
2. Create your template to organize your song the way the professionals do.
Grab your lyric pad. Now that you picked your song structure example, we can rip it apart to create a template for your song.
There are two parts to your song template: beat pattern that guides your music, and the bar length w/time signature that guides your lines of lyric.
2A) Strip out the melody and use the beat pattern for your music. In other words, freely use the song's tempo and rhythm, fitting your own melody to the example song's beat.
If you're not a musician and/or don't have your own melody it's ok to use the music from your example for now. You're simply using it as inspiration to frame your song.
2B) Copy the song's section and bar length for your lyrical delivery.
In other words, if the example song you're following has 2 verses each 16 bars long, then your song will have the same. And if the example you're using doesn't have a Bridge or Outro then skip the same sections. Get it?
Each song structure example in the Vault shows each section of a song, with total length of each section in bars automatically sized to show how long or short a section compared to the rest. Use this as visual map.
When you play the song you can see how and when one section transitions into another. Your job is to duplicate what you hear using your lyrics.
Now you're ready to assemble your song!
3) Group your lines together to understand how you should sing or rap each section.
Arrange your lines in an order that you feel is the best in telling your story and expressing your target emotion.
it's easiest to group your lines as "beginning", "middle" and "ending". You may not use every line you've written but this helps with organization.
Next, separate each group by your refrain based on your song's template.
If you don't have lyrics to structure into a song, I offer a free 60-page lyric writing starter guide to all members who join my Song Structure Vault.
You'll learn how to brainstorm and build content, and create a refrain as a summary of your story.
4) Rewrite your lines to fit the structure of your template
In the order you set, rewrite your lines to fit your template. Your template should have a separate structure for your refrain, one for your verse, and one for your bridge if applicable.
If your line is too short for the bar length of the verse, add another line from your group. If it's too long for the verse, break it up into a smaller lines to fit.
Follow this process for your remaining verses, refrains, and bridge.
5) Make the song your own
Now that you've copied the structure of your song using the template, unleash your creativity and start making changes. Color outside the lines you set with your template.
- Will your song have any breaks? If so, where?
- Does your refrain have any hooks?
- Will you add an Intro and/or Outro?
- What about music elements? Which instruments will you use for the song?
- Do you have a melody or do you still need to develop it?
So follow these steps and you'll be able to structure a song from any poetry or lyric...and the more you practice the better you'll get.
Need More help?
If you're still having trouble understanding how to structure your song and need even more detailed training, I give free song structure training sessions to members of my Song Structure Vault.
Use the links below to learn more about each song section we'll cover in training.
What is a verse of a song? - The verse is the section of your song that tells your story. Read the history of the song verse and learn how to structure your verses.
Chorus vs. Refrain: What's the difference between them? Know what each element is and how both are important parts of your song.
Bridge Song Structure (Middle 8) - This is the section of your song that gives your audience time to reflect on your story. They usually occur in the middle of songs.
What are breaks? - A break is a brief "pause" for the core melody within a song. It may include a solo or drum interlude or silence.
What is a Hook? - It's a mnemonic tool that catches a listener's attention to help them remember a certain refrain, beat and/or melody.
Intro "How To" - Most of today's songs have an intro in one form or another. And if you're trying to make a hit song there are some rules I suggest you keep in mind.
Outro - This page explains the song Outro and whether or not you should add them to your song's structure. Go with your artistic gut as a songwriter.
Using song structure examples like the one above, I'll show you how to:
- Count in bars
- Blueprint sections of the sample song for your song's template
- Rewrite your lyrics to fit each sections
- Develop your vocal & music melodies
You'll also get any related questions answered.
Don't worry. I give simple instructions with absolutely no music theory (or very little if it can't be helped).
My goals for helping you are to: (1) Find new talent for my business and (2) reinvest money this site makes into those talented songwriters to make great songs.
You've just taken a big step in becoming a better songwriter. Now it's time to master song structure.
All the best,
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