What Is Song Structure?
Song structure refers to how a song is organized, using a combination of different sections. Although anything is technically permissible when creating a song, most popular songs are organized in ways that are instantly recognizable to mass audiences.
Hit pop songs typically employ a “verse-and-chorus” approach. A pop song might employ a brief intro, followed by a series of verses and choruses, a bridge, a final chorus, and then a conclusion (often referred to as a coda in music theory).
Some songs, like a 12-bar blues song, or a folk song from early-period Bob Dylan, might only use a single section that repeats many times with different lyrics.
More complex songs, like those by prog-rock outfits like Rush or King Crimson or Dream Theater, might include far more sections that push beyond the verse-chorus territory.
6 Common Parts of a Song
Here is a rundown of the primary sections found in today’s pop songs. These sections are the building blocks of complete compositions.
- Like the beginning of a film or novel, a song introduction should catch the listener’s attention. However, it should do this without overwhelming them. For this reason, song intros are typically slower and more low-key. The goal is to establish the rhythm, tempo, and melody of the song, and introduce the singer or singers’ voices.
- The verse of a song is a chance to tell a story. Lyrically speaking, this is where the story actually develops and advances. In most songs, the chorus and pre-chorus generally use the same lyrics each time, so the verse is your chance to get your message across. It might be helpful to split the story you want to tell in two and think about how the second verse can build on the first. Some songwriters use the second verse as an opportunity to change or subvert the meaning of the chorus, or even the entire song with different lyrics. It’s a chance to be creative and explore the different emotions you’re trying to bring out in your listener.
- Although optional, a pre-chorus helps to heighten the impact of the chorus. A pre-chorus usually contains a chord progression from either the verse or the chorus, building upon that familiarity. It’s another chance to experiment—a pre-chorus can utilize different harmonies, for example, or break the pattern of the song.
- The chorus is the culmination of all the big ideas in your song. This is often why the title of the song also appears in the chorus. It’s a summary of what the entire song is about. The chorus typically also contains the hook—the catchiest part of the song. Choruses should serve as the climax to the song. The verses and pre-chorus both serve to build up to this one moment; therefore the chorus should reflect that release of tension.
- The bridge typically happens only once towards the end of a song, usually between the second and third chorus. It’s a change of pace in the song—it stands out both lyrically and musically. The point is to jolt the listener out of her reverie and remind her that there’s more to this song than just repetition. This can be achieved through something like switching to a relative key in the same key signature (for example, from A-Minor to C-Major) or through something like a guitar solo.
- This is the end of the song. An outro should signal clearly to the listener that the song is coming to an end. This can be done in a number of ways, but typically is achieved by doing the reverse of the intro—in other words, slowing down. More often than not, the outro is usually a repeat of the chorus with a slow fade-out.
Common Song Structures With Examples
These tried and true structures have been the foundation of hit songs for decades.
This musical structure was dominant in American popular songwriting in the first half of the twentieth century, beginning with Tin Pan Alley pop greats like Bing Crosby and Cole Porter. The form consists of:
- two eight-bar A sections
- an eight-bar B section (usually contrasting in harmony to the first two A-sections)
- a final eight-bar A section which retains the core melody of the previous A-sections
The 32-bar form became popular in rock songs in the 1950s and ’60s before being overshadowed by the verse-chorus form. Famous examples of the 32-bar form include:
- “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis (1957)
- “All I Have to Do Is Dream” by The Everly Brothers (1958)
- “Surfer Girl” by The Beach Boys (1963)
In the AABA structure, the A section is often called the chorus and the B section is sometimes called the bridge (although most commonly it’s simply called “the B section.”)
This is one of the most popular song structure forms, used in pop songs, rock music, and the blues. In contrast to the 32-bar form, the chorus plays a key role in the verse-chorus structure since it differs substantially in both rhythm and melody from the rest of the song.
Famous examples of verse-chorus song structure include:
- “That’ll Be the Day” by Buddy Holly (1957)
- “California Girls” by The Beach Boys (1965)
- “Penny Lane” by The Beatles (1967)
- “Foxy Lady” by Jimi Hendrix (1967)
- “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple (1973)
ABABCB. (Or: Verse / Chorus / Verse / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus).
This is a variation on the verse-chorus structure, with the addition of a bridge. Following the bridge, one final chorus drives the song to its conclusion.
- A is the verse
- B is the chorus
- C is the bridge.
Famous examples of ABABCB song structure include:
- “High and Dry” by Radiohead (1995)
- “What’s Love Got To Do With It” by Tina Turner (1984)
- “Hot N Cold” by Katy Perry (2008)
AAA (Verse Only).
Some songs only have one section that repeats over and over again with new lyrics. Occasionally a new chord might be added, but for the most part, these songs simply repeat. This style of song is particularly popular in lyric-focused music, such as folk and hip hop.
Famous examples of AAA song structure include:
- “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” by Bob Dylan (1965)
- “Sweet Home Chicago” by Robert Johnson (1937)
- “Paul Revere” by the Beastie Boys (1986)