by John Braheny
Even when your songs come spontaneously, there is a point
at which you need to decide which form to use. Usually writers
will come up with a single verse or chorus idea first. After
that first flash of inspiration and an exploration of what
you want the song to say, you'll need to have an idea of the
type of form you'll want to use to help you say it more effectively.
You may do that unconsciously, as a natural result of having
listened to the radio all your life -- you just feel where
there ought to be a change without really making a conscious
evaluation of the reasons. That approach often works just
fine, but sometimes it doesn't, like a beginning guitar player
who writes monotonous two chord songs because he only knows
two chords instead of learning a few more chords. You have
to remember that what you already know or feel about form
could be limiting.
Another problem in choosing form by "feel" is the songwriting
equivalent of "painting yourself into a corner." You might
lock into a form that, by the time you've said what you wanted
to say, has resulted in a five minute song that you really
wanted to be three minutes. You're now faced with a rewrite
that might include a restructuring of the whole song. It's
much harder to get out of a corner like that than it is to
set it up better in the beginning. Even if you do have to
restructure the song because the form you chose didn't quite
work -- or you had another idea halfway through the song --
the important thing is that you make those decisions on the
basis of knowing your options.
So what do you consider in your choice of form? If you're
starting with the music, tempo is a major factor in dictating
the form. If it's an up-tempo song, you may need a form with
many sections (like an ABCABCDC or AABABCB) to help you sustain
musical interest. If it's a slow or mid-tempo ballad, you
can use either the longer or shorter forms.
If you're starting from a lyric, the mood and subject matter
will dictate the tempo of the music. In other words, "Genie
In A Bottle" wouldn't work very well as a slow ballad, and
the lyric to the Titanic theme "My Heart Will Go On" wouldn't
be as effective in a fast dance song.
Tempo is also determined by the ease with which the lyrics
can be sung. The problem usually arises when there are lots
of words. If the tempo's too fast, you may tie knots in your
tongue trying to get them all in. If you want a rapid-fire
one-syllable-per-8th or 16th note lyric, you have to be extra
careful that the words are easy to pronounce and sing together.
It's a good idea to experiment with a metronome by singing
the lyric against various tempo settings. Fewer words generally
pose fewer problems, but the challenge is to phrase them in
an interesting way against the rhythm. There are other tempo
variables available, due to the fact that you can have a slow
moving lyric and melody over a double-time groove.
Whichever way you choose, once you've set the tempo and determined
how many lyric lines will be in each segment, you've begun
to lock yourself into the form. If it takes one minute to
get through a verse and chorus, and you're looking for a three-minute
song, your options have already shrunk. You should also consider
the amount of lyric needed to tell the story. Though it's
always a good idea to condense, the AAA form gives you the
most room to stretch lyrically, even though, as I mentioned
earlier, it's not a good form from a commercial standpoint.
Any up-tempo three or four-section form can give you plenty
of lyric space with strong musical interest, particularly
if you use pre-choruses for new lyric information each time.
One-section (AAA) and two-section (ABABAB) forms at fast tempos,
though they allow for a maximum of lyric information, can
be melodically boring because the melodies repeat so often.
With a spare, condensed lyric, you have many options. You
can lay them over either an up-tempo track or a slow ballad
and, in either case, have plenty of room to accommodate the
individual phrasing styles of different singers. You can use
any form and insure a maximum amount of both repetition and
musical interest. However, a spare lyric at a slower tempo
has more of an obligation to be interesting. You're making
the listener wait for that lyric to unfold, and it had better
be worth the wait. The same is true of the music.
Eventually, like anything else, once you've worked with these
forms, they'll become second nature to you. You'll also find
that you will get yourself into problematic situations for
which you will find creative solutions. A substantial amount
of innovation in music is initiated by a need to find a graceful
way out of a jam. If you already have a repertoire of solutions,
you're ahead of the game.
Note that the above are generalizations to give you an idea
of the possible variables and options. Ultimately, each song
creates its own individual universe of possibilities.
About the Author:
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 www.johnbraheny.com.