My Thoughts on Songwriting and Pop Song Structure

A pop song is supposed to carry the listener.  It is supposed to instill emotion into him, to take him on a journey.  In my opinion the most important thing is the structure.  Obviously you can say that you shouldn’t stick to rules, and rules are made to be broken which is perfectly true.  Records that make it are usually ones with a difference (interesting chords, new sounds, clever lyrics) but they can’t be completely different they have to comply in some way with what the listener expects.  You shouldn’t try to break rules before you know what they are.  Music is about psychology, about knowing what the listener is expecting and how to manipulate their emotions.

The average successful pop song is 3 minutes 20 seconds, has 120 beats per minute, and has structure intro, verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, breakdown, chorus, chorus, chorus.  You can vary this.  I prefer songs that are slightly faster.  120 bpm is the speed to get girls in white stilettos dancing around handbags.  You can make it faster and people like me or people on ecstasy will like it more, or you can make it slower and people on cannabis will like it more but either way it will probably result in a drop in record sales.

So you have to decide what market you’re going for. My order of priority is

1) It fills me emotion when I hear it

2) Lots of people will like it

3) I can dance to it

4) It is original

English: The Beatles wave to fans after arrivi...

English: The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at Kennedy Airport. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Decide what drug you’re aiming at. If you’re into cannabis the chances are that you’ll like a song that drags on and on and doesn’t actually go anywhere. If you’re into ecstasy you’ll like a song that loops pretty fast and goes on forever as you’ll have forgotten what came before within a few seconds. Both the Beatles and the Jesus and Mary Chain have said that they’ve tried writing and recording songs when under the influence of drugs and when they’ve listened to the songs while sober they think they’re terrible. Both recommend drugs as a form of inspiration but that when you actually write you should be sober.

So let’s discuss the structure of a song.  First we need to define ‘up’ and ‘down’.  Going up raises the listeners emotions and going down lowers them.  The best way to do this is with the music.  The standard chords used in pop songs are I IV V. I know there are others but for the sake of simplicity let’s just talk about these.  For example in the key of C the chords would be C, F and G, the first, fourth and fifth notes in the scale.  A song usually starts on chord I where the listener is comfortable, their position of equilibrium.  Chord V is usually the place where they get excited and feel good.  Chord IV is used to lead them on and to prepare them so they’re ready for when they get to V. Obviously this is just a generalisation but we’re starting from the most traditional place as that’s where pop music itself came from.  So the chords of a 12 bar blues song (which doesn’t have a chorus per se but still fits with what I’m talking about) are I, IV, I, IV, V, IV, I. In other words you start from the position of equilibrium and make a couple of attempts to get to the position of happiness, the fact that it takes a while makes the final achievement even better and then you gradually come back down again only to do it again.  Right that was an explanation of 12 bar blues now let’s get back to modern pop music again.  (An example of pop music chords is that the verse is I IV I IV and then the chorus is V IV V IV.)  As I was saying the best way to control the listener’s emotions is with music but there are other ways.  You can gradually introduce more instruments, often at higher octaves.  Bands such as Primal Scream do this.  They take loop or verse or chorus and nothing else they just play it over and over again introducing and removing instruments to take the listener through the 3 min 20 secs of stages that I’ll describe later and it’s an adequate thing to do but personally I find it unsatisfying in the end.

Manic Street Preachers live in London

Manic Street Preachers live in London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The majority of successful bands, even ‘guitar’ bands like the Manic Street Preachers use the music to carry most of the emotion and then introduce things like strings at the end to sustain the song a little longer, to raise the emotion a little bit more.  Another way to sustain the song a little longer is to raise the key, so instead of playing CFG you start playing DGA or FCD.  This is often done in Bros songs and in ‘My Girl’.

Primal Scream

Primal Scream (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The actual structure of a song should do things to the listeners emotions on a bigger scale but similar to what I described above for chords.  The minimum you need for a song is a verse and a chorus (unless it’s 12 bar blues).  You might say that Primal Scream can get away with just one but they only just get away with it.  A band trying to break through has to be better than that.  You might think you need a middle 8 (a completely different tune in the middle).  You can have that if you want but it hasn’t been used much since the sixties.  The listener isn’t really expecting it and as I’ll explain in a minute even though it’s probably a good middle 8 in itself it actually spoils the song.  If you’ve got a good different tune then save it and build a new song around it don’t waste it.  The chorus is the up bit and the verse is the down bit.  The chorus is what the audience wants to hear and the verse is what you use to make them wait, to introduce desire and to explain the song with some lyrics so they have something to think about so the emotion given by the music means more.  A chorus should have a good hook that the audience can learn quickly and sing along with. By the end of the first hearing of the song they should know the chorus and they should want to hear the song again.  Songs based on a simple loop have the problem that the listener doesn’t feel that he has moved anywhere so although he may have like hearing the song he doesn’t need to hear the song again.

So this is it. This is the structure:

2015-05-06_07-51-27

All of these horizontal lines must be joined together by smooth lines. Their positioning depicts ‘up’ and ‘down’ as described above. This is the most important thing. The order of chorus and verse etc don’t matter, or the order of notes or chords or instrumentation but what does matter is that you take the audience through this journey of emotion. You might argue and say some records don’t do it but 99% of songs in the charts do it and I would expect that 99% of the songs you like do it. If you do something different to what the audience expects they’re just going to say ‘what the hell was that!’. You probably won’t understand why because the song will do exactly what you expect as you’ll know it but if they don’t know what to expect then this is what they’ll expect. You may say that your song is better and that they’ll like it more when they’ve heard it a few times but at the starting point of a band’s career the fact is that they won’t hear it more than once. In fact on tape they won’t listen to the whole song at all. They’ll listen to the first minute and a quarter or so

2015-05-06_07-52-14

and then when it goes to its first repeat they’ll wind it on to breakdown (the most ‘down’ part of the song). If it doesn’t have a repeat (if the chorus goes on too long or if it introduces a third and superfluous tune) then you’ll be starting to lose them. So they’ll listen to the breakdown to see what the rhythm track’s like (just like they’ll listen to the start to see what the singer’s like) and then they’ll listen to a few choruses. If there aren’t enough the listener will feel cheated, if they don’t build up or if there are too many then they’ll feel bored.

So you start with the intro. This is optional. The Jesus and Mary Chain often completely miss out the intro and just leap straight into the song. There are various problems with this. Firstly, when playing live it is very difficult to get all instruments to start playing simultaneously.  Secondly you lose 30 seconds off the length of the record.  You do need the song to be as long as possible as you need the time to get the listener interested in your song and to get it fixed in their head.  Also you get paid by the minute when the song gets played on the radio so the longer the better as long as you keep it interesting. Songs of half an hour are OK if you can keep them interesting but it is hard enough to keep a verse and chorus interesting for 3 minutes 20 sec let alone half an hour.  The intro can be a stripped down instrumental chorus to give them a taster and make them wait but don’t blow it all at once.  Alternatively it can be based on the verse, an instrumental build up to it, but don’t make it too long or they’ll get so used to the music that by the time the singing starts they won’t be listening to it they’ll just be singing the rhythm track and they’ll get very bored.  The music and singing should complement each other. Even if you play a solo over an intro verse which you may think would stop them getting bored with the rhythm track they’ll lose track of where they are in the song and just get disoriented.  They’ll be so into it that they won’t want to settle down and listen to a nice ‘down’ bit of singing.

The next bit is the first verse. This is usually quite simple or held back in the instrumentation for instance the guitar chords won’t ring on or have notes played between them, the drums will not use something e.g. snare or hi-hat so the listener concentrates on the singing.  The music for the verse is not really important in itself although obviously it should be good and have a certain shape to it (usually a IIVI kind of thing).

Next is the second verse.  Establish the tune of the verse, have some more lyrics to give it more intellectual content and let the music go a bit more but still making them wait for the excitement of the chorus.

Next is the chorus. This is the hook. This is what they’ve been waiting for. Don’t try and get any complicated sentences across. The best ones are things like ‘hello, I love you, won’t you tell me your name’. This is really short and yet conveys so much.  Because of the way it scans and the music behind it the listener starts singing along with it long before they understand what it means and yet it is particularly good because it does mean something.  When the listener thinks about it on the 100th hearing they’ll get renewed interest because they’ll realise it has more depth to it than they originally thought and then they’ll go back and listen to all the lyrics again.  The chorus is usually the title.  The title could be something completely different but if someone hears the song on the radio without hearing the title they’ll go to the shop and ask for ‘hello, I love you’, for instance and the shop assistant will say ‘no, we’ve only got ‘made-up name’ and the listener will say ‘I’ve never heard of that’ and go away again.  Similarly if two people are discussing a song one will say ‘what did you think of ‘made-up name’ or even if you just look at the cover and ask yourself the question you won’t be able to remember the song but if you can hear the title in your head with its associated music then you’ll start singing the rest of the song too and you’ll know exactly what it is.  Sometimes people are attracted to a song because of its title because it means something to them already so it won’t take 100 listens to hear the words ‘hello, I love you’ but that still leaves the rest of it to hear.

As I said earlier the chorus should be more up than the verse. So the chords should be higher. If you feel that you’ve used up your quota in the verse then raise the key for the chorus. It should also be more up in that it can have crashing cymbals and may have backing singing (there can be a certain element of backing singing in the verse, but preferably not the first verse, but make sure you don’t use it all up so you have nothing to raise the chorus above the verse).  Backing singing is not only an extra instrument to raise it but it also strengthens the singing making it easier for the listener to latch onto it and get the idea that they’re supposed to sing along.  This should only be one verse long or if you wanted to do it after the first verse then it should only be half a verse.  Musically you may find it necessary to have a bridge between the verse and chorus.  This is perfectly OK as it gives the feeling of building up even more (coming back down shouldn’t take so long though).  The most important thing to remember is that the music is the most important thing.  Don’t add extra song sections to elaborate on the lyrics as the listener won’t hear many of these on first hearing and you want to make sure they do hear it again.

Next a verse again. This can be a go-for-it verse. As much backing singing and guitar riffs as you like as we won’t hear the verse again in the song and due to the music it still won’t be able to compete with the choruses. There’s no harm in repeating the first verse if you’re stuck for lyrics, in fact this may even be better as repetition helps get the listener into it and singing along as soon as possible. While I’m on this subject it’s OK to have a verse that has the same lyrics for the first three lines if the music’s changing underneath it. It’s good for the listener to get a feeling of stability, something to hold onto, while the music is actually progressing. Similarly it is good to keep the music quite monotonic in the verse to give a feeling of tension and wanting to break free and this is OK if the lyrics are changing.

Now we have a chorus again. You should have held back a bit on the earlier chorus so that this is a bit more, but if the music is good enough it won’t matter, but try using a different cymbal or something to give variety.

Now is the breakdown. This is the point where they used to have middle 8’s or guitar solos. Nowadays this is considered to be masturbation, however if it’s a fast song you’re going to need to pad it out a bit more so you could put a guitar solo in before the breakdown.  To strengthen the impact and keep it going without vocals you could double the speed of the hi-hat.  Some people say that a verse is twice the length of a chorus, some say that it’s the same length but the bit before the first chorus should be the length of two verses.  It doesn’t matter but the breakdown should be the length of two choruses.  It is basically just the rhythm track of the verse i.e. just bass and drums.  If it’s simple someone might sample it and then you’ll get loads more money.  You can do other things over it like say a few vocals or make feedback noises but the important thing is that it is ‘down’.  It lets the listener have a rest.  If they’ve been dancing and singing they can calm it down a bit but even if they’ve just been listening you need to get their adrenalin down a bit so that it has more impact when you bring the choruses back in.  The trouble with middle 8’s as opposed to breakdowns is that you don’t let them come down so they don’t feel like they’ve gone on an emotional journey.  The second half of the breakdown can start to build up.

Right now the audience knows the song, you’ve given them enough foreplay and leading on, they’ve had the rest. Now just go for it. Play the chorus over and over so they can sing along, let themselves go, reach their peak, and really drum the hook and title into their head so they’ll ask for it again. First play the chorus just like you did for the previous one. It’ll have more impact than that one did because it’s straight after the breakdown. Then play another with more instruments, and then another with more instruments. Keep going until you’ve filled up the 3 mins 20 secs. You might be getting bored with it and want to stop but it takes the listener that many minutes to get into it no matter how fast the song is. The guitarist might be repeating one simple loop four times for each chorus so it’ll seem like an eternity to him but the singer and listener will just hear a few choruses. You can do other things to make it more interesting like singing new words or the verse or rapping over the music of the chorus.  After that you’ll have built the listener up to such a high that he’ll want to hear it again.  Really all he’ll want is the peak at the end but if he kept hearing that over and over he’d get bored but if he keeps playing the whole emotional journey he’ll carry on wanting to hear it.  So if a band’s songs all sound the same it’s not really a problem as the beginning is still different to the end.

So that’s the structure of a song. It is also the structure of a set.

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1 Response to “My Thoughts on Songwriting and Pop Song Structure”



  1. 1 My Thoughts on Songwriting and Pop Song Structure | Sam Garforth Trackback on May 6, 2015 at 7:20 pm

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