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Song Structure

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Repost of previously posted article (song-stuff)

Song Structure

 

Song writing is an extremely complex activity. There are multiple facets to it. Some people learn to do it by the university of the air. That is they absorb the method organically from hearing songs on the radio and apply that method to their own creations. Some people learn it from books, web forums, or courses. It does not matter how you learn it, what matters is you do, and that you continue to do so. 

 

I am not going to list the immense number of competing and some times conflicting thought processes that go into writing a song, (a) because  it would take up the whole article, and (b) I’l most likely forget a couple and be called out on it. Just believe me there is a hell of a lot going on.

 

So it makes sense to me that where possible when starting out that you break down those thought processes into individual decisions. 

 

I will not discuss song form here there are plenty of articles on that available. However note structure will in some cases determine song form. 

 

What is song structure?

 

It is the way the parts of the song are constructed. How many lines the part has, the length of those lines, the rhyme scheme and rhyme types, and what message goes into each part. etc.

 

Why is song structure important?

 

Communication is something like 70% non verbal. The balance being body language and tone of voice. If you think about that it makes sense to spend 70% of your time thinking about how you are going to say, what is in your song, rather than what you actually say..

 

Communication in a song is everything, and it doesn't matter whether you are communicating a feeling, an emotion or telling a story. If you do not communicate  what is the reason for the song to exist at all.

 

A song has no physical presence so how can it have any sort of communication other than verbal?

 

It can and does, and this is what we are here to discuss. The structure of the parts of the song can communicate feeling and emotions all by themselves. The music, the way the song is harmonised, is it sad? lets use a minor key etc. And how the lyric is set in the music. So there are four different influences on the non verbal communication in the song. To summarise that are:

 

  • Structure of the parts of the song.
  • The setting of the lyric in the music
  • The way the melody line moves
  • The chord structure under the melody 

 

In addition to these there are performance aspects, conveying emotion and I guess how the song is arranged as well. So we now have six aspects. 

 

Now I know that artists hate rules, which has always made me laugh because there are rules of nature and nurture which just like the laws of gravity can not be denied, they exist. So just as yellow will always look brighter next to purple than it will on its own. Doesn't matter how much of a rebel the artist is, its a fact, its a rule, and there is not a dam thing he can do about . For us the inescapable fact of life is prosody. 

 

Prosody is not just the music matching the feeling of the words, it is all aspects of the song pulling in the same direction to convey the message. That means the structure, the melody, the setting, the chords, the lyrics, must all be conveying the same message. If one of them is off message the song will be less than it could have been, it will fail to reach its potential. 

 

Today we are only concerned with one of these combinations that is that the structure of the song and the content of the song. That these work together that these have prosody.

 

However some of the decisions you make here will effect the melody structure and how it moves, quite substantially. If you write your lyric correctly the melody is 70 percent predetermined. The melodist has a lot less to think about than the lyricist, far fewer choices. 

 

What are the song structure decisions, how are they made? When are they made?

 

Stability

 

To explain this first there is a concept that needs to be understood. That is this, everything is in a condition of either stability or instability. Every thought, idea, emotion, story, is either stable or unstable. 

 

Just to clarify that here are some examples of emotions.:

 

  • Happy stable
  • Sad unstable
  • lonely unstable 
  • confident stable

 

Here are some examples of subject matter:

 

  • Death of a loved one unstable
  • Birth of a healthy child stable
  • Falling in love stable
  • loosing love unstable. 

 

Now it’s decision time, before you write a word, currently in my example I have and idea and a hook. The hook is “Everyone gets hurt” the idea is intimate partner violence. Now a decision has to be made before pen goes to paper. Is this a stable or unstable idea. It is of course unstable.

 

Decision one is that it is too be written unstable. 

 

Now here comes the sub decision as a consequence of that. Just like the artist with his yellow and purple looking brighter next to each other, we have the requirement to have tension and release in our songs. What is the opposite of instability, its stability. So for tension and release parts of our song are unstable the contrasting parts are stable. The stable parts will release the tension created in the unstable parts. 

 

But wont the stable part destroy the prosody as well as releasing the tension?

 

No it will not and here is why. It is not all black and white, completely stable or totally unstable, there are degrees. and also different combinations against each other create different effects. 

 

In other words stable against unstable is totally different that stable on its own. 

 

Now all of these decisions are subjective, the only wrong decision is not to make a decision.

 

There are many ways to do a lot of things and I can not cover them all here. Just know that if you say I am going to do this for this reason even if its not the very best choice, that’s ok at least it is a choice. You are working to a plan, and your choices will become better with time. 

 

In my example I now have to choose how am I going to contrast my song. To do this I am thinking about what I want to achieve, what i want to say. What is the main thing. This is called sometimes the angle. In the song “everyone gets hurt” I have decided the angle is real men do not bash up their women and find so called men who do are a disgrace to our gender. Ah thats sounds a bit angry too, that’s an unstable emotion so thats ok. I am thinking if I have a chorus what am I going to say in there, the function of the chorus is to sum up the song or answer the question, I am not writing a song asking why men do this, I am writing a song saying I think they suck. So I decide I have nothing to say in a chorus so I wont have one. It will be AB form. This means that one part of my song will be unstable the other stable. 

 

Which part to choose? 

 

Either will work and have a slightly different effect. If you have a stable verse and an unstable chorus or bridge that will create a feeling of telling facts in the verse and expressing the emotions caused by those facts in the other part. This creates an unspoken connection between verse and chorus. Which is invisible and very powerful.

 

As I have decided on no chorus I am going to go for an unstable verse and a stable bridge for tension and release. Because there can be no release without tension, so the tension has to be first. That is not cast in stone its just my usual decision. 

 

How unstable in suitable for my idea?

 

Here it helps me to write a short paragraph about my song what am I saying and who am I talking too. Here is my paragraph.

 

“I don't want to be a bleeding heart, I want to speak to these guys in a strong voice so that women hearing me speak will draw comfort from the fact that someone knows what goes on they are not alone and that a proper man finds this unacceptable. Who I am speaking too is not the man that I am lyrically speaking its really the victim.”

 

My feeling is only slightly unstable, I need to speak with confidence and edge, contempt, so any more than slightly will weaken that voice. So I decide slightly unstable.

 

What does this mean for my contrasting section, the bridge?

 

It means it has to be very stable to be enough contrast. How is that going to effect the song?

 

The answer is you wont know until you do it. What happened in this instance is it created a sad feeling of resignation, and loss for everyone, caused by what happened in the verses, which is very brief, then it morphed into accusation type feelings.

 

Remember what we are talking about here is how the song feels emotionally not what its saying. 

 

Ok where am I at.

 

  • I have yet to write a word
  • I have a hook
  • I have an angle
  • I have a voice 
  • I know that the form is AB
  • I know the Verse will be slightly unstable and the bridge very stable for good contrast.

 

Now before I begin to write because I know that writing instability in a verse gives as a bi product the opportunity to create areas of emphasis in the song other than the hook. This means I can have secondary words or thoughts, emphasised besides “everyone gets hurt” I decide that this technique could be good in this song because there are so many aspects to what goes on in relationships, and because my intended listener is the woman I have to get across that I understand, she has to say to herself “oh my god its me he's talking about” 

 

I also feel there is so much too say on this subject it is going to be a case of what I leave out and what I put in. So before finalising my structure I feel I have to think about the story line because I need to make sure my structure is the best choice. To do this I have just written down a list of stuff that happens in order of how it usually happens. 

 

  • Isolation from friends
  • Checking her mobile
  • Checking the car odometer 
  • Control
  • Putting her down verbally in public.
  • Etc etc .

 

After I did my list and it was long, man the longest I’ve ever done I think. I culled it down to three main things.

 

  • The verbal abuse
  • The physical abuse
  • The effect on the children of the relationship 

 

The reason the last one was so important is because its everyone, the husband the wife the grandparents and the children. “Everyone gets hurt”

 

At this stage I can feel the possibility that there could be an OK song in this idea. I go back to the technique of creating emphasis idea and think what I can say in there, do I have enough strong statements or words, thoughts to highlight. Looking at the list I just did the answer is definitely yes.

 

How do you write stable and unstable?

 

The first concept is, odd is unstable even is stable. Perfect rhyme is stable imperfect rhyme is unstable. It is pretty intuitive really, that is because it is natural to communication and reflects the real world.

 

  • So an odd number of lines is unstable and an even number is stable
  • Odd line lengths is unstable even line lengths stable.
  • Rhyme scheme the more heavily rhymed the more stable. AABB stable as a rock. XXXX totally unstable.
  • Rhyme types the more perfect Mat/hat rock stable to consonant only rhymes bend/clad very unstable. In between these two extremes there are many different rhyme types. Additive sing/singing which is more stable than subtractive singing/sing. Its a good idea to get across these rhyme options.

 

Now one more thing because my decision was to write slightly unstable for the verse and I mentioned that I could use one further technique that is the emphasis one. This is done by setting up an expectation with the listener that something will happen, then not have it happen, disappoint them. This has the effect of What happened there I wasn't expecting that. Therefore their attention is piqued and whatever you put there will drilling their consciousness. It is basic mind manipulation. 

 

You set up expectation using meter and rhyme. For example you set up an expectation of this:

 

The shouting turns to rage

Violence takes the stage

Now she's getting hurt

You claim it’s not your fault

Your charged with assault

Yea she's getting hurt

 

What you actually do is this 

 

The shouting turns to rage

Violence takes the stage

Now she's getting hurt

You claim it’s not your fault

Your charged with assault, stupidity 

 

When you sing that word stupidity it stands out like a beacon and will drill straight in because its unexpected, it also destabilised the verse big time.

 

I should just make a comment about line length. Line length is determined by the number of naturally stress syllables in a line 

 

Example: The arguments start  has a line length of two not five

 

 

 Now I am refining my structure.

 

I am going to have

 

  • An uneven number of lines
  • Some false expectations
  • Some odd line lengths 

 

But I will have quite a few rhymes and I wont worry too much about having perfect rhyme types. Because what I have is unstable enough to make it slightly unstable. 

 

I am also going to try an instability creating device I have never done before that is to have an uneven number of stanzas in the verse all with an uneven number of lines in relation to each other.

 

Further, that in stanza one I’l do story telling, in stanza two I’l make a statement or ask a question, in stanza three I’l give advice. 

 

  • Thae rhyme scheme in the verse stanza one  is AAXBXX (with a false resolution in line 5)
  • The rhyme scheme for stanza two is AA internal
  • The rhyme scheme for stanza thee is AAX

 

You can see the planned structure is the same for each stanza its just stanzas two and three are shorter. The overall impression is of AAXBXX.

 

Right so I now have my structure I know what I am going to write and how I am going to write it. 

And this is the point at this stage I am 99% confident I have a song and I have done no writing, if for any reason the idea did not pan out along the way I could have dropped it and moved on. This saves a huge amount of time. 

 

Below is the completed lyric in which you can see and feel what the various techniques and structures do. I hope this gives you a bit of an idea as to what song structure is and what it does.

 

 

Verse one

(stanza one)

 

The arguments start

Feelings fall apart

Everyone gets hurt

You say your not to blame

Think that it’s insane jealousy

 

(Stanza two)

 

Is it like that, is that a fact 

 

(Stanza three)

 

Or is it just a case

of nowhere is her place

The place you took her too

 

Verse two

 

The shouting turns to rage

Violence hits the stage

Everyone gets hurt

You claim its not your fault

Your charged with assault stupidity

 

Take a good look Take a long hard look

 

All you say and do 

Is entirely down to you

Stuff you need to own

 

Bridge

(very stable) AABB rhyming couplets with internal rhymes about as stable as can be. 

 

Now there is fear and pain in place of love

Nothing can be the same since push came to shove

You claimed to have changed from dishing the dirt

But because your still the same every on gets hurt

 

Verse three

 

The fallout drives you wild

you cannot see your child

Yes she's getting hurt 

‘cause she thinks she's to blame

your house is not the same as hers

 

Sometimes she cries sometimes she cries

 

You call your self a man

do you even understand 

what it is you’ve done

 

 

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I think you make a reasonable argument and it's one I've heard from Pat Pattison too. I respect his ability to analyse what works in a lyric and his way of explaining things like the importance of stresses.

 

I've never been convinced, however, that the "stable/unstable" thing is something I can often find useful when actually writing. There are too many examples where it doesn't apply, in songs that work.

 

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees


Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh


Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

 

 

 

Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy

Ba da-da da-da da-da, feeling groovy

 

Hello lamppost, what'cha knowing
I've come to watch your flowers growin'
Ain't you got no rhymes for me?

Doo-ait-n-doo-doo, feeling groovy


Ba da-da da-da da-da, feeling groovy
I got no deeds to do, no promises to keep
I'm dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep
Let the morningtime drop all its petals on me

Life, I love you, all is groovy

 

 

It's a useful tool to have in the locker but not a "rule" to follow, in my opinion. There are plenty of ways to skin a cat.

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I now have a clearer idea of what you're referring to with that binary opposition of stable/unstable.

So thank you, Gary, for responding to my plea.

 

It;s certainly a lot to disagree with

But I don't see anything useful in it for me, disappointingly.

 

Double thanks for taking the trouble.

 

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This is all too much for my lil' head. I just write, and if it sounds good to me, fit in a bridge and intro. Done (well not quite but you get my drift). I applaud your scholarly approach though, very interesting, but I personally need to avoid over-analysis or I can't do anything. Yes of course I wish I was a musical genius and I could certainly be better, but innate ability and random bouts of inspiration are my mainstay in terms of songwriting. I'm not sure how I feel about people learning regimented songwriting techniques from books, unless they enjoy it of course, which is their choice. But I doubt many great songs are conceived this way.

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Do you really do this type of analysis every time you write a lyric? 

 

I've taken the Pattinson thing, too.  Like Alistair, I respect the ability to analyze a lyric this way, but it's not how I write, either. 

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21 hours ago, Alistair S said:

I think you make a reasonable argument and it's one I've heard from Pat Pattison too. I respect his ability to analyse what works in a lyric and his way of explaining things like the importance of stresses.

 

I've never been convinced, however, that the "stable/unstable" thing is something I can often find useful when actually writing. There are too many examples where it doesn't apply, in songs that work.

 

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees


Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh


Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

 

 

 

Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy

Ba da-da da-da da-da, feeling groovy

 

Hello lamppost, what'cha knowing
I've come to watch your flowers growin'
Ain't you got no rhymes for me?

Doo-ait-n-doo-doo, feeling groovy


Ba da-da da-da da-da, feeling groovy
I got no deeds to do, no promises to keep
I'm dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep
Let the morningtime drop all its petals on me

Life, I love you, all is groovy

 

 

It's a useful tool to have in the locker but not a "rule" to follow, in my opinion. There are plenty of ways to skin a cat.

Hi Alistair

 

Thanks for commenting.

 

I am not saying that this is the only way to skin cats, the only definitive things I am saying, is if your song has no prosody no feeling then it will probably fail. I am also saying that all art needs contrast, contrast makes both opposites shine brighter. Those are probably the only cast in stone statements. This is merely one method of achieving prosody, and contrast, there are many others. Song writing is an extremely complex activity, there is no one way of doing anything. 

 

Your two examples are useful because they allow for an explanation of some finer points.

 

In the case of "Strange fruit" There is no section to contrast. The fact that it is written stable gives it the feeling of a statement of facts. It had to be written like that because of the content. The actual tone of the feeling/ body language of this song  is created by weak bar and back heavy phrasing. Which in an AA song  is the only option I can think of, however there may be others.

 

Stability/instability has other other uses.

Feeling groovy is interesting because it uses ultra mild instability as a hook emphasis/ contrast of parts technique, basically it's tension and release. In the first stanza you would expect line four to rhyme with cobblestones and when it doesn't the "feeling groovy" feels like it's hanging out there but when it is immediately repeated the tension is resolved. The result being the listeners attention is drawn to the hook.

The middle section is rhyming couplets, very stable.

The bridge is basically two identical rhyming couplets with a tag line also rhyming.

So what you have is very mildly unstable sections contrasting against a rock stable section. . The only unstable elements being an odd number of lines in two sections, and one non rhyming line. All sandwiched in a massively stable AAAAA rhyme scheme. By doing this Paul Simon has created a feeling, that of dreamy wistfulness and it feels exactly right to me.

Like we all know the morning won't last but like him we wish it could. This is something that he is very very good at.

 

What is important to grasp is that stability/instability is not a case of black and white. All stability and instability are not equal. Just as all stable and unstable feelings are not equal.

The amount of instability you put into a lyric is affected by what is around it and how many elements you use. The skill Paul demonstrates here is the level of instability he has used to create the feeling. So you can go from a slightly regretful or wistful feeling to abject misery and the trick is is to match the structure of your lyric to the story, as an aid to communication.

 

Cheers

 

Gary

 

 

 

 

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55 minutes ago, Mike B said:

Do you really do this type of analysis every time you write a lyric? 

 

I've taken the Pattinson thing, too.  Like Alistair, I respect the ability to analyze a lyric this way, but it's not how I write, either. 

Hell no

I write in about four different ways. However all these techniques are natural to me so they would get used subconsciously I guess.

It depends on the circumstances. If as in the case of this article I have to write something for a special purpose on a subject, that has to be done by Monday, then yes because 

I'm under pressure to make a certain specific thing, in a certain time frame so I have to be organised. 

The method described is most useful for me in establishing why something written say, stream of conscious is not working, and being able to fix it, quickly.

 

 

 

Cheers

 

Gary 

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19 hours ago, sumonicky said:

This is all too much for my lil' head. I just write, and if it sounds good to me, fit in a bridge and intro. Done (well not quite but you get my drift). I applaud your scholarly approach though, very interesting, but I personally need to avoid over-analysis or I can't do anything. Yes of course I wish I was a musical genius and I could certainly be better, but innate ability and random bouts of inspiration are my mainstay in terms of songwriting. I'm not sure how I feel about people learning regimented songwriting techniques from books, unless they enjoy it of course, which is their choice. But I doubt many great songs are conceived this way.

Hi

Just to make it clear this was written as an aid to amateurs who don't know what they are doing, other than what they have absorbed from songs they have listened too.

So they may be doing it subconsciously and not know they are.

They would make up 90% of the lyrics posted to the board this was written for. 

And it covers only a tiny aspect of song writing. It is not a be all and end all of writing. 

It is not a thing of this is the way and that isn't. It's a thing of if you are having issues getting your song to come out of the speakers feeling how you imagined it, it may be that one of these things might help. It is not about being regimented, it is about analysing what you have created. If it's not working and knowing if you do this or that it may fix the issue.

It is no more  the only way to write emotion than to wear lime green socks when you write. Fear of knowledge cramping creativity is not a good thing, the problem is that you have to do the work to learn these things, before you can realise it hasn't dampened anything at all. But it really doesn't matter as long as your happy with what you make

 

Cheers

 

Gary

 

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22 hours ago, Lazz said:

I now have a clearer idea of what you're referring to with that binary opposition of stable/unstable.

So thank you, Gary, for responding to my plea.

 

It;s certainly a lot to disagree with

But I don't see anything useful in it for me, disappointingly.

 

Double thanks for taking the trouble.

 

No trouble it was on my hard drive so it was just cut and paste. 

I see from your use of the word binary (relating to or composed of two things) that my explanation was sadly lacking, as stability/instability are the extremes of a scale and there are many many degrees in-between those extremes. So Binary it certainly isn't.

In fact the art of using these techniques is matching the degree to the song story content, to create the appropriate feel.

 

Cheers

 

Gary

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