Have you ever thought about how songs are structured? What makes a chorus feel like a chorus? What makes a good verse?
Knowing how songs are traditionally structured will help your songwriting – whether you like to follow the structures or not.
In this guide, I want to describe all of the sections found in most song structures and what makes them tick.
I’ll then take you through the most common structures found in popular music, and give you examples to listen to.
Why Is Song Structure Important?
Structure is important to all art forms, music included.
It’s tempting to eschew traditional song structure in favor of writing what you feel but this is often a mistake.
Developing a deep understanding of song structure is what allows you to play and experiment with structure.
We’ve all heard common song structures so many times that we intuitively understand where a song is going. This is not a bad thing.
This familiarity with form is what draws a listener in, gives them clues as to what they are listening for, and makes it easy for a listener to come back to the song.
A song with no structure and no repetition will be chaotic. It’s hard for listeners to understand, and it doesn’t give them the opportunity to participate in the music by singing along to repetitive parts.
In this guide, I want to give you a basic understanding of common sections in songs and their roles.
I’ll also go through some common song structures and give examples of how they are used.
Common Sections & Their Role
Songs can be broken down into different parts, like verse, chorus, bridge and so on.
This doesn’t mean that every song has these components. But it’s still good to know what role or function each part plays in a song. Let’s explore these common sections.
Almost every song is going to have a verse or two.
Verses are the meat of the song. Generally, this is where you are introducing ideas, themes and setting the tone for the rest of the song.
Folk songs and songs that tell stories often have long verses centered around plot lines. In these genres, people use verses for wordplay and melodic content.
In many pop songs (and popular songs in many genres) verses are short. They are catchy and simple and introduce the theme to the listener.
A common way to structure a verse would be eight bars of verse, followed by another eight bars of verse that is melodically and rhythmically similar to the first eight bars.
Note: if you’re struggling with a second verse, consider cutting the second verse in half (i.e. half the lyrical content). This is a common production move that allows you to say less in the second verse and do more with the second chorus.
In some genres, the verse is basically looked at as filler that is getting you to the chorus.
This is understandable (everyone loves a great chorus), but if you get lazy with your verses, listeners lose interest. Don’t be lazy!
Verses can drive people to the chorus by having rising melodies, varied rhythms and interesting production moves.
Many writers struggle with second verses, because they feel they need to somehow advance the story of the song. This is not necessarily true.
Some of my favorite second verses just say the same thing as the first verse with different words.
Listeners are just getting used to the song in the first verse – if they’re still listening in the second verse, remind them what the song is about!
Not every song has a pre-chorus, but I am a huge fan of the pre-chorus.
Pre-choruses are short teasers that build into the chorus. A set up, so to speak.
Generally, they will set the chorus up lyrically. Giving the last little bit of detail before revealing the chorus.
Harmonically, they will usually build tension. If the chorus starts on the I chord, the pre-chorus will often avoid that chord just to leave people hanging.
Production wise, this is often where the track will build, maybe there will be a drum break – basically something changes. Get people excited and then smack them over the head with the chorus.
Note: if your verse and chorus don’t sit well together, that’s a perfect setup for a pre-chorus! The pre-chorus can be literally two bars. Think of something simple to say, and get yourself into the chorus nicely.
Arguably the most important part of a pop song is the chorus.
The chorus is generally repeated several times throughout the song, often with very little change.
Sometimes, the lyrics will change, but the melody, rhythm, and chords will be similar.
Generally, the chorus is sonically different from the verses – maybe the verses are quieter and build towards an exciting chorus. Or maybe you could write an “anti-chorus” with loud verses and quiet, intimate choruses.
It is common for the amount of repeats to vary. Maybe the chorus only happens once the first time, twice the second time, and then repeats ad nauseum after that.
Whatever you write, make sure the chorus feels right. It’s the part of the song that people hear the most, make it good.
Note: one of my favorite things to do is slightly twist the last chorus – add in another hook, change a lyric, whatever. Give people a fun twist to look forward to!
Ah, the bridge. Most songwriters I know have a love-hate relationship with the bridge. I’ve heard it called “just a worse version of the chorus”.
Basically, the bridge brings a sense of novelty late in the song. Instead of another verse after the second chorus, songwriters will write a bridge.
The bridge is generally drastically different – a change in mood, a change in groove, lyrical changes, etc.
If the song is major, the bridge will often feel minor. If the song is minor, the bridge will often feel major.
If the rest of the song is loud, the bridge is often quiet. Either that, or the bridge is the climax of the song, to be followed by a quiet chorus.
Either way – the point is to break up the song and give the listener something new to listen to.
In some genres, the bridge is replaced by a solo for four to 16 bars.
Note: instead of writing a bridge, try writing a repeating hook. Repeating hooks that slowly build into the last chorus can be effective, as it gives the listener another opportunity to sing along.
Now we’re getting into some more unique songwriting moves, but the post-chorus is a classic pop and pop-country move.
You hammer out a bangin’ chorus, and instead of going back into a verse right away, you give the listener a short hook that relates to the chorus.
It’s usually repetitive and it’s not long. It’s like getting second dessert. Yum.
Chorus and refrain are often used interchangeably, but I think they are different things.
In popular music, the refrain is a repeated lyrical and melodic idea that occurs at the end of verses. Usually.
A lot of Bob Dylan songs use refrains – for example, “The Times They Are a-Changin'”. The verses just keep running on, but at the end of every verse, he says “The Times They Are a-Changin'”.
You may hear the word “hook” thrown around a lot. A hook is not necessarily a section of a song, it’s just a catchy bit of melody, rhythm or lyric. Anything that is catchy and is repeated is a hook.
You can write instrumental hooks, vocal hooks, synth hooks, whatever. The point is, it hooks the listener and keeps them wanting more of the same!
Most songs have intros – usually short ones.
They’ll introduce the general feel of the song, the key, the instrumentation, but they don’t give it all away.
Basically, intros just set up the song. Songs don’t have to have intros, but most do.
Same thing with outros. There are no rules. Sometimes people just fade out the outro, sometimes it breaks down, sometimes there’s a hard and fast ending.
If I were to list every which way one could end a song, this article would have no ending.
A re-intro is a term for the few bars of instrumental break that often occurs after a chorus. If there was an intro hook this is often where it gets repeated.
These days, re-intros are often cut out of songs to get back to the verse faster.
What Are Some Common Song Structures?
Songs are structured in a variety of ways.
Although you can put together your song however you like, it’s also good to be aware of the most common arrangements.
Here are several:
AB AB CB
Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. This is the most common song structure of all time. You’ve heard it a thousand times before.
Check out the song “Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Khan for an example of this song structure.
Note that even with this song structure choruses are sometimes repeated as the song goes on.
ABC ABC DBC
Verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, chorus. This is a small variation on the AB AB CB form. Adding a pre-chorus is a common move to give the song more variation.
The song “Firework” by Katy Perry is a great example of a boppin’ pre-chorus. It’s just as catchy as the rest of the song and sets up tension for the chorus.
Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus and so on. This is a classic song structure that just alternates between verse and chorus until the song is done.
This song structure is used a lot in folk, slow anthemic songs, and in groovy funk songs – keep things simple, keep people dancing.
Check out Michael Jackson’s “Bad” for an ABAB song structure.
Verse, verse, refrain/bridge, chorus.
This is another classic form used in a lot of older songs. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” is a great example of this structure, “What a Wonderful World” is another.
Led Zeppelin’s “Rock And Roll” is another great example of this form.
Songs like this usually have a refrain – a repeated theme or lyric that song brings itself back to.
‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’” is a classic example, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is also an AAA form.
Variations On Form
The point of learning about song structure is not that every song must follow any of these structures.
In art, rules are learned so that they can be broken artistically.
A song like “Bohemian Rhapsody” does not follow any particular structure and yet it’s obviously an incredible song full of genius ideas.
The point is that these structures are places to start. They teach your things about what makes music feel good, what makes music impactful.
Some things to keep in mind:
- Repetition is good. It gives listeners a chance to sing along. People love to sing.
- A good hook will bring any section to life. If you find a good hook, don’t be afraid to repeat it – people want to hear it again.
- When in doubt, keep things simple.
- Listen. Listen to songs with an analytical ear. What makes them tick? How do they move from one section to another section? Is there something to be learned? Something to steal?