Songwriting – The Lyric Structure
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Learn the key lyrical structure of modern songs
All art forms have a language and a structure that is used for the communication of ideas within that form.
Whether it is painting, film, poetry, dance, cooking, or music, the language of an art form is a means of both self-expression and communication. For the intended audience, there are expectations that provide the basis for the communication between the artist and audience.
The contemporary pop song structure is tight, focused and consists of sections. Those sections are verse, chorus, bridge, perhaps an intro and usually an ending. They will be dealt with later in an article about structure – but here, I am referring internally to the actual lyric structure.
Once the form (structure and language) is understood and accepted by artists and audience alike, the audience can relax a bit and judge and/or appreciate the artists’ expression and the artists can focus on telling their story.
The verses of your song are where you tell the story and set up your chorus. There are many ways to do that. A couple of basic ways are the story form, the obvious chronological order, or finding another internal sequence that is artistically and emotionally satisfying.
All the elements of linearity, focus, clarity, and a foundational idea should be in place and considered when you get to structuring your verses. The verses should set up your chorus; they should relate directly to it in a poetic way. The verses should also build chronologically, emotionally, or in some other way so there is an actual reason why the first verse is first, the second is second, and so on. Ideally, there should be an internal structure that tells the story and supports the chorus.
If a verse later in the song veers off a bit too much story-wise, or if you sense you are trying to bring in other elements that are not quite in the flow of the other verses but which tell an important aspect of the story, consider making those bits into a bridge.
The chorus is your song’s emotional high point. It is the part people should sing along to, and remember. The chorus is the articulation of the point; it is what the song is about.
A song structure has dynamics that have an internal flow and sensibility; they flow to and from the chorus. As a general rule I have found structurally that having the chorus hit at about the one minute mark of a song feels about right.
Starting the song with the chorus can be effective also. As they say in Nashville, “don’t bore us, get to the chorus”. If you want to hook your audience with the idea, the chorus is the place to do it.
There are many forms for structuring a chorus, but one effective structure is starting and ending the chorus with the title/hook of your song. You want to get the idea cross, but you don’t want to beat the listener up with meaningless repetition. Another form is ending with the title/hook in the last line. This device doesn’t give you the repetition but it does offer the chance to build to your lyrical (and hopefully emotional) climax.
There is a whole section of this book on the title, but here in the lyric chapter I’ll mention that the title ideally should be an integral part of the your chorus. It should be the focus, the idea, the distillation of the song in a phrase. The title should be the bedrock, the bones your chorus is structured on. It should be the centerpiece.
The “hook” can be many things in a song. It can be a catch phrase in the lyric (usually the title), a musical phrase, a melodic phrase, or even something like the “Whooo” in the Beatles “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, or “Yea Yea Yea” in “She Loves You”, the dance in “The Macarena”, or Jimmy Page’s guitar solo in any number of Led Zeppelin songs.
A memorable song has something that sticks with the listener and distinguishes it from every other song. That identity is a key to your song becoming unforgettable.
The bridge lyric serves a slightly different function than the verse or chorus. Ideally a bridge lyric should take a look at the theme and idea of a song and give it a different POV or provide perhaps the “moral” of the story from the perspective of an outsider looking in.
This article is excerpted from “Michael Anderson’s Little Black Book of Songwriting” available at michaelanderson.com
Michael Anderson is a songwriter, artist, producer, and author who has written songs for John Fogerty, Juice Newton, Pam Tillis, Phil Seymour, Rebecca St. James, and others in rock, pop, country, and CCM.
His songs have been featured in films and television, including recent season finales of “American Idol” and “The Voice”.
He has been a staff writer for EMI and BMG Publishing in Nashville, as well as MCA /Universal and Criterion Music in Los Angeles.
He wrote the #1 country single, “Maybe It Was Memphis”, several #1 CCM singles, and won a Dove Award for “Hard Rock Song of the Year.”
As a solo artist he has released seven albums, including two on A&M Records, two on EMI / Forefront, and three independent releases.
At the Musicians Institute in Hollywood he teaches professional songwriting and artist development, and wrote the songwriting curriculum for the Independent Artist and Vocal programs. He also teaches private lessons on professional songwriting at Westwood Music in Los Angeles, Ca.
He is a member of the Greater Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in South Central Los Angeles and sings in the Mens Chorus.