Decoding Song StructuresSep 27, 2023
Song Structure Templates: Everything You Need to Know
Writing songs could be a difficult task if you're not into songwriting, but just music production or music arrangement. Songwriting may seem all that intimidating, but it actually isn't.
In this article, we'll answer these questions of yours:
- What is a song structure?
- What constitutes a song structure?
- What are song structure templates?
- Which ones are the best for what genres?
- Do I need to stick to these templates?
Note that we will be citing a lot of examples, and songs with their timestamps to give you as much information as possible. Hence, make sure that you pay attention and listen to those songs mentioned as examples as well, listening and observing is the very first step in learning and applying the knowledge learned - this could really make a difference in your understanding of songwriting.
A song structure is essentially a format, in which a melody is shaped, as simple as that. And structure helps. It helps your music be more recognizable and appealing because the structure would reveal a pattern. And at the end of the day, what is music but a set of patterns and designs of sound?
Pssst…come here: You may assume that structure may restrict the flow of your creativity. But, there are many songs whose arrangement seems to be directionless and confusing, often losing the listener's attention, because they do not follow a basic song structure. Hence, structure helps bind your arrangement and make the listener listen to the whole track.
The most typical song structure out there, and probably the most common one, includes an intro, a verse, a pre-chorus, the chorus/hook section, a bridge, and an outro.
Song Structure Parts
Almost EVERY song out there has these parts:
The intro is the section of the track that comes in the beginning, it’s usually a premise for the vibe and mood of the track. Let’s say the track is R&B/Neo-Soul, then the intro would probably be chill guitars picking through chords or something mellow and chill. Sometimes, the intro would start with the lead melody of the track as well or some other variation of it. The function of the intro is to ease the listener into the track, all while intriguing the listener for more - it has to be catchy and memorable. If your intro is a little bland, a little too long, or too short, it won't sit right with the listener. So getting the intro to the right duration is very important. Remember, not too long, not too short.
Pssst…come here: A great way to know when you should introduce vocals, or end your intro is to make it last 4 bars at first and listen to it from a listener's perspective or make a friend listen to it and give you an honest opinion. 4 bars is always a safe choice, but never end it on an odd bar, the rhythm then becomes a little difficult to catch on to for the listener.
Verses are the parts that tell the story you want to narrate in your track - they vary with each section. The ‘Once upon a time’ for your song is typically the first verse. It basically encapsulates the beginning of your story and plays a vital role in establishing how your lyrical melodies would sound for the rest of the track. These lyrical melodies are, more often than not, shaped in such a way that it complements and pushes the chorus better into the limelight.
Pssst…come here: Each verse is unique. Each verse stands out because the lyrics are different, the only section of repetition is the hook/chorus. You may assume that the hook/chorus becomes more important in order to retain the listener’s attention, but the verse plays an equally important role here. Since these verses are unique, they give more reason to rewind and replay, while the hook may sound too repetitive for the listener. So make sure your verses are as well crafted.
Consider the infamous song Mamma Mia by ABBA. The verse begins at 01:18, with ‘I’ve been cheated by you, and ends at ‘There’s a fire within my soul.’ The idea is to give the song context, introduce, and build the story for the chorus to shine through, but that doesn’t take away from the verse, for this doesn’t repeat again in the track. The second verse starts with ‘I’ve been angry and sad,’ and ends with ‘I’m not that strong,’ which is slightly longer than the first verse because it gives more details and expressions to the story that's being told in the track.
The pre-chorus is used to effectively distinguish between the verse and the hook and add that thrust for the hook to surface through well. This section is usually repeated along with the hook, it is also used as an indication of the hook coming in, creating anticipation amongst the listeners. It is used to build the intensity or tension in the track. In terms of music arrangement, the melody of the pre-chorus is supposed to help make a flawless transition from the verse to the hook. Usually, the pre-chorus will range from 2-4 lines, again, it should end on an even bar (4th or 8th) to make the transition sound smooth rather than jerky.
Take the same song, Mamma Mia. The pre-chorus starts at 00:42, with ‘Just one look…’ and ends at ‘Whoa.’ The melody takes a smooth turn from the verse and brings in the drop for the hook ‘Mamma Mia’.
Pssst…come here: An easy way to know how long your pre-chorus should be, considering your lyricism and songwriting, is that it should be shorter than the length of your verses or hook sections because the role of the pre-chorus is to support the chorus, not overpower it.
This is the hook, the lead melody of your track, the catchy part of the song - that part by which you’d want your listeners to hum and remember the track. This is the melody that is repeated throughout the whole track and makes the track sound more memorable. It is usually a short line or a catchphrase that instantly grabs the listener’s attention. Hooks are extremely important and probably the driving points of songs emerging in the genres of R&B, and Pop music.
Pssst…come here: Hooks are actually a great starting point for your songwriting. Once you get the catchphrase or the line that you’d want to be repeated in a song, you could write a whole song, the verses, and pre-chorus around the hook.
The hook sections are usually 8 bars long, but it doesn’t HAVE to be. A lot of musicians make the hook last 4 bars if it is repeated in the track thrice. This is to not make the listener become bored of the hook or find it too repetitive. Also, the hook is the most rewarding section of the track, so you’d have to be clever in spacing your melodies that lead to the chorus, your intro, and verse cannot be too long or too short because this will directly affect how the listener anticipates or perceives the chorus.
Any song typically lasts 3 or 4 minutes. Now you'd want to retain the listener’s attention throughout the track. You cannot place the same lyrical melodies after your chorus because it will sound predictable and monotonous. What do you need?
A bridge - the section that adds contrast to your melodies, be it vocal or instrumental. It brings in vividity and introduces new layers to the track while still maintaining the context of the story. More often than not, these bridges are instrumental melodies that have no vocals - a great technique to keep the listener going because one, they wouldn't know what happens with the next verse, and two, the instrumental melodies would help alleviate the atmosphere of the track. This change in harmony is important to break the monotony and predictability of the verse and chorus structure.
Pssst…come here: In a song structure, the bridge appears only once. And we'd suggest you keep it that way because you get the golden chance to really make it stand out, and make a point for the listener to rewind as well. It happens once to make a lasting impact, so make sure you use it carefully.
Consider the track, Be My Baby by The Ronettes. The instrumental bridge occurs at 1:39, and it is probably one of the simplest ones ever made because the instrumental melody is the same as the verse melody, only better defined. It adds ambiance and helps shape the melodies better.
The outro of the track is the section that provides a graceful end to a track. It can contain the same sound arrangement as the verses or chorus, or it could also be different. The outro usually comes after the last chorus section of the track. Outros should be shorter than intros and should provide some sort of satisfaction or resolution to the listener. If the outro is not that great, the track would ‘feel’ incomplete to the listener and we don't want that, do we?
Pssst…come here: Some musicians say the first line of the intro, or the chorus, in the outro, without prominent instrumental melodies, making an impactful vocal appearance that usually fades away. An example of this technique can be observed in Let's Fall In Love For The Night by FINNEAS. In the singer/songwriter genre, this is very common, the outro has the same first verse or hook line with slow guitars.
Song Structure Templates
There are originally 3 song structure templates, to which many variations and additions have been made over time.
The conventional and simple one: Intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, second verse, bridge, pre-chorus (if needed), chorus, and outro.
Kiss by Prince is a great example of this template. The instrumental bridge starts at 02:15, after the second verse and he vocalizes a bit as well. It gives enough space for all the elements of a track to get their own limelight. The overall arrangement, thus ends up sounding well knit and together.
This one is rather experimental. The drums are introduced right in the intro and it is usually an instrumental-only intro. It is then followed by the first verse, then a double pre-chorus to the hook. The bridge doesn't occur before or after the second verse, rather it is placed after your second chorus, and this bridge is usually just drums and bass and it runs longer. The outro is not instrumental here, it is the chorus and it usually ends on a high note. The bridge is the highlight of the template rather than the chorus. The template works only if you ADD layers to the basic drum arrangement of snares, throughout the track, especially when your chorus will transition to the bridge.
Removing stronger elements during the second verse/pre-chorus is another technique that helps build tension for the drum section because you'll be introducing a lot more impactful sounds later on.
Pssst…come here: Sometimes there's no section that fully separates the first and second verse and it may sound like poetry. But that's the beauty of the template as well. It's primarily made to make really good groovy tracks because of the emphasis on drum work, but some parts of the template like this, give birth to slow emo songs as well, like Mystery Of Love by Sufjan Stevens.
Consider the song Quicksand by Krista Marina. It’s a groovy afrobeat track that uses this template cleverly. The intro starts off with a very basic drum arrangement and verse. Notice that the pre-chorus is longer here and with the hook, the layers to the drum arrangement become prominent and much more engaging. The only difference here is that she adds the instrumental drum bridge right after the main vocals, and she places the chorus running in the background as well. She also removes the stronger drum base in her second pre-chorus at 01:33, only to introduce many impactful sounds with the chorus. She adds layers and sounds throughout the track, although the melodies become predictable right after the second chorus. That is how you make a groovy track sound more engaging with this template.
This is very similar to the first template but with just two big changes. One, the outro has just the chorus. Two, pre-chorus is optional. This template is used to build in a loop and make the listener stuck in that loop for as long as possible. The choir and tambourine make all the difference in this template because those two elements add contrast to your hook.
The intro usually has piano/guitar and drums. Your first verse, a high note chorus, second verse, a vocal (not instrumental) bridge that gives you a lot of scope for cadenzas and vocalizations.
A great example of this template is Electric Love by BøRNS. The song starts off with a lovely intro of instrumental and background vocals. It proceeds to the first verse at 00:28. Pre-chorus begins at 00:44, building up to the magical hook at 01:04. The second verse begins at 01:28, pre-chorus at 01:42, and the chorus is repeated again at 02:04. Then, there's a bridge at 02:25 which starts off with instrumentals but later transitions to the vocalizations of higher notes. Finally, the chorus at 3:20 and the outro with this song don't fade like the 80s tracks, rather it comes to a smooth but swift ending of the hook halfway.
Genres and templates
The first template is best suited for pop, indie pop, and reggae, mainly because of the emphasis on ensuring the completeness of the arrangement and the hook. The commercial aspect also makes a major factor for this template to work best in such genres.
The second template is mostly used in afrobeat, alternative soul, jazz, and dance music due to its emphasis on drum arrangement and the fast-paced nature of the melodies.
The third one is best used for emo, soft rock, alternative rock, and funk music because of the way the piano and high notes of vocals influence the placement of the chorus and other parts of the song in a song structure.
Pssst…come here: Template 1 is also used to make great neo-soul and emo music as well, such as Where’s My Love by SYML. Template 1, in that sense, could be used for any and every genre because it is the safest one.
What should you use?
While these song structure templates are great and work best in their own way, you need not be limited to these templates alone. Your creative autonomy can work wonders with your desired melody and arrangement. There were many tracks that do not follow any of the three mentioned templates, such as Visions Of Gideon by Sufjan Stevens, and Falling For You by Marylou Villegas and they have worked very well too! You could definitely take some guidelines from one or more of these templates, they are just formats for you in case you don’t find the path your melody wants to follow. You could make your own variations to these templates as per your requirements. So, no we wouldn’t recommend just sticking to one, because we believe you will discover the perfect arrangement for your track eventually. You may just need a kickstart and that is what this article aimed for.
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