by John Braheny
No matter how creative and powerful lyrics or melodies may be
by themselves, they take on a whole new life and a whole new
power and magic when they're together. The song is greater than
the sum of its parts. Whether you're a specialist at one or
the other or a genius at both, an essential aspect of your craft
is the understanding of how to make the parts fit together to
create that magic. In the next few articles I'll cover the elements
of songwriting that relate most to words and music as a whole.
The form, also called the "format" or "structure," is a song's
basic shape or organization. In this and subsequent columns,
I'll examine and explain:
A: how a song's basic components--verses, choruses,
bridges and pre-choruses--work together to keep a listener's
B: a song's basic forms and variations and their
C: how to analyze form so you can keep up with contemporary
In the '50s and early '60s, there were hardly more than three
different chord progressions (formulas) for any kind of popular
music. If a song didn't conform to one of them, the odds were
heavily against its becoming a hit, so the chord progression
formulas perpetuated themselves. The 1-6m-4-5 (eg. C Am F
G) progression spawned hundreds of hits like "26 Miles," "Silhouettes,"
and "Earth Angel." The twelve-bar blues format was also popular
as it laid the foundations for rock and roll (e.g. E- 4 bars/A-2
bars/E-2 bars/B7-1 bar/A-1 bar/E-2 bars).
Those old progressions are familiar enough to make us feel
at home with new songs and new artists. They're predictable--the
chords, the words and the tunes are different, but the basic
shape of the songs is the same, so we can learn them quickly.
Some basic forms and variations will continue as they have
for many, many years for a simple reason--they work.
People have an unconscious desire for symmetry, and the repetition
of rhyme, melody and form satisfies that need. The repetition
of form also sets up a degree of predictability that's reassuring
and comfortable to a listener. It sets up a solid base on
which we can create surprises without losing their attention.
The manipulation of form is a very important game to know.
Classical musicians learn form as a basic part of their training,
and for you, as a popular songwriter, to be able to make conscious
choices about form is to be in control of your art. Once you
understand the elements of form, what they do and why, you'll
be able to challenge yourself to go beyond the familiar as
you write your own songs.
THE COMPONENTS OF FORM:
The verse is the major vehicle for conveying the information
of the song. Its other major function, both lyrically and
musically, is to "set up" (or lead into) the chorus, the bridge,
another verse, or a title/hook line. If it doesn't do one
of those things well, it's not working. Verses have certain
1. The lyric, from verse to verse, is different
or contains substantial new information each time. It may
contain elements of previous verses (such as the title line
if the song has no chorus).
2. The melody is essentially the same each time
we hear it, although there is room for variation and some
flexibility to accommodate the lyric. The reason for keeping
the melody the same is because that familiarity makes it
easier for the listener to focus on the changing lyric.
This excerpt from John Braheny's book,
The Craft and Business of Songwriting (2nd edition, 2002,
Writers Digest Books) has been edited for length. It's available
at bookstores everywhere. For info about John's critiquing
and consulting services, go to