Strategies

The Death of the Bridge

Many of my all-time favorite songs are “growers” – album tracks that don’t really grab you the first few spins, but eventually dig their hooks in and don’t let go. Few artists these days have the luxury of writing growers, because listeners aren’t willing to invest that kind of time. Unless the artist is proven to deliver, the listener will tune out and move on. While I’m a huge fan of the album format, it’s hard to deny the shifting focus from albums to individual songs. Every one of those songs needs to grab the listener’s attention and hold it until the last note – preferably longer! In order for your songs to be grabbers rather than growers, they must have clear and familiar structures.

The textbook pop song structure is verse – chorus – verse – chorus – bridge (also known as the “middle eight”) – chorus. At its most basic level, structure is repetition. If no element of the song repeats, it has no structure. Every repetition of the verse and chorus is another chance for the listener to fall in love with the song. The one section of the song that doesn’t repeat, the bridge, has been phased out in favor of a short break or instrumental solo. Don’t get me wrong – plenty of popular songs still have bridges, but it’s not the staple it once was. As much as I hate to dumb down my songs, I recognize the wisdom in simplicity. Until you’ve got a substantial following, two sections – a verse and a chorus – is plenty.

The Death of the Bridge

Not to say you have to follow the traditional form to the letter! There’s plenty of room for variation. You could:

  • Start with the chorus
  • Throw in an extra verse before the first chorus to allow further exposition
  • Substitute a third verse for the break for the same reason
  • Cut the first chorus in half, in which case you’ll probably want to…
  • Add an extra chorus at the end

To extend the structure a bit further, you could insert a prechorus (also known as the “build”) between the verse and chorus. While the prechorus ups the complexity by adding a third section, the crucial difference between the prechorus and bridge is that the former repeats. Should you choose to go this route, I suggest eliminating the break in favor of a third prechorus (V-PC-C-V-PC-C-PC-C).

OK, so you’ve got a catchy verse and an explosive chorus. You’ve got lyrics laced with concrete imagery that tell a universal story in a fresh and imaginative way. Too much repetition can be annoying, but it takes more than most songwriters are willing to dare. How do you arrange the song to include just the right amount, so that it repeats without sounding repetitive? Here are some ideas (I’d love to hear yours in the comments!):

  1. Break up the groove. Start the song with sparse instrumentation and stagger the introduction of rhythmic elements over course of the first verse. Or, drop the drums and bass at the end of the verse to explode into the chorus. Solo the vocals for a few beats. If you’re ending with a double chorus, thin the arrangement for the penultimate chorus to make the ending seem huge. Filter the whole mix and automate the cutoff frequency. Drop to a half time feel, or bump it up to double time. The possibilities are endless.
  2. Add a new element. A new guitar line or synth arpeggio can make a verse feel fresh, even when everything else is the same. Maybe it’s as simple as playing eighth notes on the hi-hat instead of quarter notes, or dropping the bass down an octave. Be careful not to clutter the midrange, or you’ll compete with the lead vocal.
  3. Layer the vocals. Highlight important words or phrases with harmonies, yells, or whispers. Double the chorus lead vocal, and gradually stack harmonies over the course of the song. Ad lib over the final chorus, R&B style, or superimpose lines from the verse.
  4. Vary the lead vocal treatment. Automate the reverb to swell on a long note, add a delay to the last word of each phrase, use a bandpass EQ for “radio voice,” or if you’re not afraid to jump on the bandwagon, do the autotune thing.

While there’s more to a great song than clear structure, a song without obvious repetition is destined to fail. Don’t equate sophistication with quality. Win listeners over with simple strong structures. Write songs that can be easily appreciated, and they might just promote themselves.

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40 Comments

  • Reply
    Breye 7x
    April 22, 2010 at 7:18 am

    I don’t feel the Bridge is dead. We still incorporate them into our works. However, ours are very short sometimes; and more like a Fill in my opinion.

    I really love a Dedicated Ending or Outro. Examples include our songs Cruxified and Fade. But it’s not something that we do a lot as we don’t want it to be overdone, and it simply takes the right song to pull it off in my opinion.

    This Example you listed:
    “Substitute a third verse for the break for the same reason”
    seems to be very popular with Assemblage 23. Tom Shear loves to
    use a 3rd verse instead of a solo or bridge. There are others who do it that I know of, but he is a great example of it.

    Breye 7x / Provision

  • Reply
    Helen Austin
    April 22, 2010 at 7:42 am

    Great article.

    My old songs used to be over 4 minutes and full of interesting bridges – or middle 8’s – thanks for that acknowledgement…. it took me a while to be able to call it a bridge. In the UK the bridge is the section that leads you from the verse to the chorus, but these seem to be dying away too!

    I digress.

    So now mostly my bridges and my ‘bridges’ are all but gone. Have we no attention span anymore? Remember the oldies that had an introductory melody before even getting into the song.

    And when was the last time you watched an old movie with your kids… they move too slowly and are too long for their attention span.

    Oh no… you got me started on something here!

    I agree on the outros… I’m a big fan!

  • Reply
    Randall Erkelens
    April 22, 2010 at 8:08 am

    Lady Gaga and all the pop music on the radio has killed the entire song. I feel all we listen to is chorus now. These artists and producers add verses in just as filler to get to the creamy center. If we train the public to expect more, they’ll want it.. Instead, we force feed straight chorus right into their veins. And then repeat it so many times, we have to love the song… at least until their next hit makes it on the radio waves two weeks later.

  • Reply
    Brian Hazard
    April 22, 2010 at 8:46 am

    The bridge isn’t dead to me either, but then again, neither is the album. I’ll reserve bridges for my album tracks, because those are the tracks I enjoy most as a listener over the long term. That said, they clearly aren’t the tracks that win over new listeners.

    I do the 3rd verse thing all the time too. Most of my songs have three verses, because I’ve usually got a story to tell and I can’t accomplish that in less. Yeah, I love outros too! I made several notes to incorporate them, but so far haven’t done any for my new album.

    Helen, it sounds like the UK bridge is my prechorus? I guess both are serving to “bridge” one section to the next.

    I’m with you Randall, but surprisingly, Lady Gaga has bridges. In researching this article (believe it or not), I listened through the first half of her album, and here’s what I got:

    Just Dance
    v pc c v pc c v(rap) pc(rap) c(quiet start) c(improv) b c(improv)

    LoveGame
    v pc c v pc c b c c

    Paparazzi
    v c v c b c(quiet start),

    Poker Face
    v pc c v pc c b c(quiet start-vamp 8x)

    Eh, Eh
    v pc c v pc c pc c(quiet) c(improv)

    She (or her producers) seem to be big fans of the quiet chorus after the bridge, exploding into a big final chorus. She also does the R&B improv over the chorus thing quite a bit.

    I also listened to the two Ke$ha songs she performed on SNL, and they both have outros! It seems these electronic pop divas are full of surprises.

  • Reply
    dav3punk
    April 22, 2010 at 10:46 am

    This is really interesting. I like how you deconstructed the song, although I knew a lot of it- I never really learned it from anywhere. It was merely figured out by listening. So its good that you confirmed that I almost know what Im talking about. πŸ˜› As an artist though, the parallel is in the mechanics. Art and Music basically comes down to a set of rules. Follow the rules, and you can “make art” however that doesnt have anything to do with quality or what is considered “good.”

    Personally I like bridges. It adds contrast to any song., I just have trouble writing them. πŸ˜›

  • Reply
    Micol Cazzell
    April 22, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    Why should we bend to the rules of pop music and what’s in vogue? I feel we all ought to write how we want to write and if our fans don’t like it then it looks like we need some new fans who really appreciate music for the art of it and not for the formulated, pre-determined, marketable slop. I mean if your music just so happens to fall into that formula that’s all fine and dandy, but I think it’s exceedingly non-creative to write to a formula. What is this algebra? No it’s art! I mean it’s a great observation from the sales side of things, but really, I feel the sales side of things is what makes music shitty, unoriginal, and uninspired. I mean if you were, say, looking for a label deal you should stick to the formula, but aren’t you trying to cater to indie (indie in the “I’m not on a label” sense of the word) artists here? Many of them (myself included) are looking for a way to promote music that is outside of the teeny tiny pop music box. If we wanted to sell pop music we’d just look for a record deal.

  • Reply
    Jeff Shattuck
    April 22, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Great post. For me, the bridge has always been the middle 8, while the whole pre-chorus/bridge thing is a little confusing.

    Anyway, bridges/M8’s repeat often in Beatles songs, so I don’t think there’s a rule that they can’t repeat.

    For me, my favorite bit of advice is from Tom Petty, which basically goes like this:

    every part of the song needs to be as good as every other part, if it’s not, KILL IT.

    Jeff

  • Reply
    907Britt
    April 22, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Brian, I am finally learning that predictable song structures can be incredibly rich even in their simplicity. Our job as songwriters is not to outsmart people with ornate prose and complicated movements. That might work in some dimly lit house concerts, but to write music that’s compelling to the broad base of humanity, I’m going more and more back to the kindergarten classroom.

    You presented a great set of tips for mixing up arrangements. I have only a couple to add:

    -Lyrics: have a part of the chorus that changes each time through. Of course you could overdo this and have a chorus that changes too much.

    -Structure: adapt a traditional melody or progression from the archives! They are memorable and loveable from the get-go, and if you are a live performer, any other instrumentalist will be able to hit the ground running with you and the audience will nod and sway with familiar warm fuzzies without knowing why.

    -Bridges: lately I’ve been using the chorus progression as a bridge, and either humming parts of the chorus melody, or just singing only the last line of the chorus at the end of the bridge.

    And I know exactly what you mean about needing a 3rd verse. I almost always need a 3rd verse to tell my whole story. When my 3rd verse comes in after a bridge, I like it to come in quiet. And you know I love a big finish. Ahh, dynamics.

  • Reply
    Brian Hazard
    April 22, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    @Micol – I understand your frustration with applying formulas to art. My songs don’t always follow the rules, but I’ve noticed that people gravitate to the ones that come closest. I know “indie” is a broad term, but most of the stuff I consider indie uses these same structures most of the time. Of course, how indie can it be if I’ve heard it? πŸ˜‰

    @Jeff – Good advice! I appreciate Tom Petty’s wisdom more than his music. πŸ™‚

    @Britt – Thanks for the additions! Using a tradional melody is a great way to get your foot in the door with listeners. It’s like a cover, but without all those nasty royalties to pay!

  • Reply
    Andrew Sega
    April 22, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    I generally agree with your observations, but this once I’ll have to object — keep the bridge!

    Sophistication (well, I’d term it “complexity”) doesn’t always equal quality, but then again those 4 items you mentioned all are intended to add.. well.. sophistication. A “bridge” is just the next step above, say, a quiet 3rd verse, or a big instrumental change, or a half-tempo section, etc etc. If done right, a bridge can be that big chord change that gives the track a brief detour only to end up serving as a the lead-in for a big last verse/chorus.

    As a more “indie” musician, why pander to the base songwriting instincts of LA? Almost every single indie rock band of note these days has interesting, complex writing — Grizzly Bear, Beach House, Animal Collective, Imogen Heap, Joanna Newsom, Phoenix, etc etc. And these are bands playing Coachella and selling boatloads of records, so why chase the Lady Gaga stereotype?

  • Reply
    Brian Hazard
    April 22, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Good to hear from you Andrew!

    I would argue that Imogen Heap broke with Frou Frou’s “Let Go” being on the Garden State soundtrack. The biggest hit off her breakthrough solo album is “Goodnight and Go.” Both are traditionally structured pop songs. Once you hit the stratosphere, all bets are off, but for what it’s worth, I listened to Ellipse once and nothing grabbed me. In fact, I’ve heard most of the bands you’ve listed, and even mastered compilations with some of them, but only Phoenix really caught my attention.

    If I had to pick an example closer to home, doesn’t “Annie, Would I Lie to You?” follow the V-C-V-C-B-C structure exactly? πŸ™‚ It’s been a few years since I heard it, but it grabbed me the very first time, as it did thousands of others. It’s an amazing song, and I’ve never looked down on it for being formulaic. Depeche Mode’s biggest hit, “Enjoy the Silence,” is the same structure. So is their comeback and perhaps last hit song “Precious.”

    I’m convinced that people gravitate towards my songs with traditional structures. Do with that what you will, but don’t pick on Lady Gaga – her songs have bridges!

  • Reply
    Andrew Sega
    April 22, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    Ok, touche on that AWILTY reference, even though I technically had nothing to do with that song πŸ™‚ However, it certainly does the usual VCVCBC thing, bridge goes to the VI chord, etc etc, sure. RJ is a traditionalist, and I certainly fall into unconscious patterns myself. Btw, I never thought of Enjoy The Silence having a bridge per se, the middle 8 is just an instrumental chorus in my eyes.. the complication in that song is the fugue-like outro, and perhaps that weird minor 3rd chord that Martin always shoves into DM songs.

    That being said, I just think there’s a fine line between making things seem familiar and trying to “reverse-engineer” a pop hit. It’s a tricky biz these days, walking that tightrope between art and commercialism. And unfortunately, even commercialism doesn’t pay very well these days. (I’ve seen your pie charts, and ours are similar!)

    It’s a weird world out there, and I do agree that much of the battle is about creating “sticky” songs, that persist in the listener’s brain. But perhaps one could expand that to include other sorts of “stickiness”, whether it’s unique lyrics, memorable chord progressions, interesting instrumentation, etc — not just pure repetition.

    Anyhow, not trying to be argumentative — I love thoughtful music discussions! πŸ˜€

  • Reply
    Brian Hazard
    April 22, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    I couldn’t be argumentative if I tried, because I agree with everything you’ve just said :).

    I’m definitely not trying to preach the gospel of “song science,” but on the other hand, I master a lot of potentially great music that’s a little too sophisticated for its own good. Since I’m kind of required to listen carefully, I usually start to appreciate the songs by the end of the process. The problem is, it takes more exposure to the songs than anyone else but the band members is likely to get.

    Even successful authors benefit from skilled editing! Too bad there isn’t a musical equivalent for most indie bands. (don’t bore us – get to the chorus!)

  • Reply
    Micol Cazzell
    April 22, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    You know, looking back at my previous post, I must apologize for being so angry about it. Also, I guess I should have said Independent as opposed to “Indie.” Really what I was trying to communicate is just about what Andrew Sega had to say there…Since you agree, I suppose we’re all in agreement here. I suppose what my point boils down to is: It really sucks that your average listener is so prone to liking the formula. I mean I’m not trying to write the artsy, inaccessible brand of slop either, because I don’t really care for that anymore than I like the song that sounds like every other song, but I think everyone should just really try to write what satisfies them, and shit, hopefully there are some folks out there who want to come along for the ride. The development of interesting ideas is inevitably going to alienate at least a few people. I think sometimes if no one likes an artists music it means they’re on to something really cool or maybe they’re before or after their rightful time, but it doesn’t mean it’s not great art. Whether or not people like it doesn’t equal a successful endeavor or not.

  • Reply
    Brian Hazard
    April 23, 2010 at 7:20 am

    I do know where you’re coming from. We’re independent, beholden to no one, and therefore should have the freedom to do whatever moves us. And I’ve done that, for 7 full-length albums and a few other miscellaneous releases now. It’s clear to me that the “gateway” songs that people discover me through have simple structures. I don’t look down on my fans for that, because it’s the same for me as a listener. Reflecting on the bands I like, my path to discovery was in most cases a “pop” song.

    These kinds of forms have been around forever. Mozart and Beethoven weren’t forced to write sonatas, but something about that particular structure resonated with their audience. It’s much more rigid than V-C-V-C-B-C, so maybe we’ve got it good! With literature and film, aren’t there only seven basic plots? You get the idea.

    It’s not like somebody declared “these are the rules and you must follow them.” Rather, the “rules” are merely observations of what works and what doesn’t. Bend or break them as you see fit.

  • Reply
    Keith Milo
    April 23, 2010 at 8:48 am

    Interesting comments by all here..

    My personal thought is that these things shouldn’t even really be considered in the songwriting and creation process. I think that going with what “feels right” and not what is “technically” or “traditionally” right is going to create the most engaging song for the listener in the end.. How many notes, chords, or changes used doesn’t really matter to the listener, what matters is the emotional response that the song provokes. Just because an artist uses 20 chords, with 7 different progressions and multiple time signatures doesn’t mean it’s going to create a better song than the artist who puts a simple melody over three basic chords.. There should be no rules, sometimes complexity wins and sometimes simplicity really is best.. Take John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” for example: The entire song is 2 chords with no changes throughout, yet, it grabs me every time I hear it.. It’s powerful, emotional, and It’s a classic.. I certainly don’t feel as if ‘Working Class Hero” is any less viable than some of Lennon’s more complex arrangements such as “Happiness is a warm gun.”

    Forget the rules, If a bridge works in a song, great, use it! If not, that’s fine too! Music is not a science, it’s an art..

    -My two cents
    K:)

  • Reply
    Micol Cazzell
    April 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    Cheers Keith. This is absolutely where I’m coming from. I was having a little trouble articulating that point, but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  • Reply
    razielpanic
    April 23, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    You can’t fault the form. We’re all just appealing to (and toying with) ancient & practically unchanging human behavior and genetically advantageous sensory biases. The concept of art has less to do with it than does experimental or intuitive understanding of our nature. If you don’t discover and own a lot of the rules, you’re probably not originating very broadly interesting and engaging art, anyhow. That’s fine. There’s room for everyone. As long as we continue in the direction of exploring and exploiting man’s unique ability to entrain, and to empathetically experience emotion through these fundamental components of language, we’ll continue to discover marvels like the 12-tone scale, and mathematic eventualities like the harmonic progressions built thereupon.

  • Reply
    d. bene tleilax
    April 23, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    I think that as soon as monetary return or the tastes of large amounts of people come into play, then pure creativity itself suffers, and those who are predominantly into creative music will not be among your (using general “you” here) fan base–at the very least, not for long. And like most other artists who have edited their output for the sake of the lowest common denominator, your music will inevitably fade in importance, because it actually is less relevant to humankind even though more people may have liked it at one point than something contemporary which possessed higher ultimate value.

    For example, not many have heard of the extremely creative and innovative 20th century musician Harry Partch–he invented multiple intelligent, unique instruments and wrote most of his music outside of the standard tonal system, instead using a microtonal “just intonation” system, which has 43 notes to the scale (whereas “equal temperament” tuning has only 12).

    Obviously he was not pandering to the masses. Yet even though hardly anyone has heard of him, he will be forever known by people that are into really artistic and experimental music because he dug himself a niche in musical history that only he sits in. The same has gone for artists of all sorts. Van Gogh, whose works are now known by nearly everyone in the world, was not successful in his lifetime. How many popular artists of their day have faded into well-deserved modern obscurity? Countless, for they had little actual contribution to art in general.

    I know the point of this blog in general seems about making money from your music, so what I’m saying is probably beside the point. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with taking that approach either. But it’s hard to maintain real artistic integrity when considerations of that sort are regularly affecting your creative decisions, and I think any sort of masquerading is just that–trying to hide the reality that what lies beneath is actually simply being dumbed down.

    Additionally, there actually is a huge amount of people who make fully independent music and make money from it while throwing all rules and techniques like these out the door. Modern times have affected many people–while “get to the chorus” and “repetition” may be still applicable to a large segment of music consumers, it’s actually spurned by many others who want more diversity. For example, I listen to a huge amount of technical, instrumental electronic music which thrives on an intellectual approach that does away with simple things like the basic techniques espoused here. Many of the artists are now world famous for letting their creativity run wild. Look up some of the artists in the genres “IDM” or “breakcore” and applying your techniques you might never think this would be popular music, but now orchestras are performing works by Aphex Twin (or at least trying), for example. Venetian Snares sells out shows all the time all over the place. These people are still in their 30s.

    I agree with many people who have posted here about simplicity versus complexity–great and successful (and poor and boring) creations come from all realms of that spectrum. Times have changed and there are multiple groups of people who like different things, since so much variety is accessible. When you don’t pander to one group, you receive the support of another. Perhaps if you don’t try to please a specific target market you sacrifice short term financial return–though not at all necessarily–but ultimately I feel like you gain long term validity for expressing yourself and your unique position in life in a more pure form. In the end, that’s what people tend to appreciate. But that’s just my thoughts on the matter, so carry on being yourselves my friends…..

  • Reply
    Brian Hazard
    April 23, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Thanks for your input! I agree that financial success and artistic integrity are often at odds, but for me at least, these types of considerations rarely influence my creative decisions because I’m not in it for the money.

    You mentioned Van Gogh, but I don’t know enough about art to comment intelligently on his work, so I’ll cite another example: Bach. He too failed to achieve any popular success in his lifetime, but eventually the world came to appreciate his genius. Yet his music is almost entirely formulaic. He could improvise fugues on the spot. We composed inventions and fugues in college, and they not surprisingly sounded a lot like Bach. The fact that Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven used the compositional structures of their time does not make their output any less extraordinary.

    Over the course of earning my music degree, I was subjected to stuff like Harry Partch, and as much as I learned to appreciate it intellectually, it never resonated with me emotionally. I write what moves me, and hope it will move others. I’ve seen time and time again that certain structures, with just the right amount of repetition, can be magical. Pushing the envelope a little bit can be a good thing, but beyond that it tends to be self-indulgent. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the stuff I master is too sophisticated for its own good. It could be great if an experienced producer were there to trim the fat. Hmm, that describes a lot of my early output as well… πŸ˜‰

  • Reply
    Cosmicity C. Cosmicity
    April 23, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    I find it hard to write a song without a bridge. Never mind what the smart thing to do is… you’re probably right on that count. But I’ve found that songs only fit together one way in my head, and most of the time, after the 2nd chorus, I absolutely have to go to a bridge.

    Often for lyric reasons as well. I tend to reserve the details and the true humanity of the story I’m telling for that section, and without it, the greater meaning of what I’m trying to say would surely fall away. (Yes, I realize part of your point is that putting greater meaning in there potentially prevents listener connection with the song on a first listen… hell, who even listens to the lyrics at all anymore, really?… but then again, I’m just not sure I agree with that. After two choruses (which sometimes amounts to 4 choruses/repetitions in my songs because I occasionally double ’em up), I think you’re hooked if you’re ever going to be, and you could almost care less what the bridge is ’cause you’ll wait through 8-16 bars of anything to hear the chorus again.

    Also, arguably my two biggest gateway songs over the years (“Awake”, and “I Want You”) have substantial bridges… not that I’ve got that many people passing through the gate! Maybe they don’t want to walk over that long-ass bridge, thereby proving your point! Forget everything I just said. πŸ˜‰

  • Reply
    Brian Hazard
    April 24, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    The bridge is my favorite part of lots of your songs! Looking back, I suppose my gateway Cosmicity song was “Egypt,” and I can’t remember if that one has a bridge or not. The bridge performs the same kind of function in many of my songs as well – kind of summing up the story from a different perspective, or introducing a twist.

    Since that time, I’ve noticed bridges disappearing from many of my favorite artists’ songs. Depeche Mode dumped them for the most part on Music for the Masses. Even Sting dumped them on Ten Summoner’s Tales. Most of the current indie electronica stuff I’ve been checking out doesn’t have them. Is it a brilliant marketing strategy or artistic laziness? Maybe in a few years they’ll be back in style.

  • Reply
    cinderkeys
    April 25, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    I didn’t do bridges until my fifth song, Quicksand. Did I lack confidence in my abilities when writing songs one through four? Was I trying for a more hooky simplicity?

    Neither. My first four songs didn’t need a bridge. The fifth one did.

    Do what serves the song and create what pleases you. Otherwise, what’s the point? It’s not like there aren’t easier ways to make a living.

  • Reply
    Philip Clark
    April 28, 2010 at 10:52 am

    I have so many issues with this article, but I’ll single out the most heinous advice contained therein:

    “Until you’ve got a substantial following, two sections – a verse and a chorus – is plenty.”

    Why the devil would you use the amount of fans you have as a basis for any kind of influence on your songwriting?

    Any choices you make as a songwriter should SERVE THE SONG and not anything else β€” especially not what one perceives to be commercial success.

    This whole article panders to commerciality and mainstream success. And I guess that’s ok to a certain extent. But all of these points just encourage lazy songwriting. What ever happened to following the voice inside your head and thinking of outside-of-the-box ways to make your music more compelling? To say you need more people buying your music or on your mailing list to justify taking musical risks is utter crap.

    There are cases where originality and serving the song have actually benefited the artist. John Mayer instantly comes to mind as someone who broke out by not following A B A B A B form. Repetition may make songs more easily accessible to the masses, but they also cater to the Lowest Common Denominator and become disposable art. Once the songwriter has put commerce before musicality, the art suffers. And that’s why there’s so much repetitive, gimicky garbage littering the airwaves.

    Every song should be a “grower” and a “grabber” at the same time. Each song should be timeless moment, something that hooks you and wants to hit the repeat button. It should latch onto your soul and plague the radio inside your head. It should remind you of a person or place that strikes a chord inside of you that nothing else can. None of these things are discussed in articles like this. Just jargon about forms and recording techniques and buzzwords to create some kind of buzz that may hit some kind of commercial target. It’s really sad and a testimony to why there’s so much disposable art out there and artists addicted to instant gratification.

    There are a few tips here that make sense on a production level, but production is not songwriting and shouldn’t be used as a crutch to bolster weak composition.

    Every choice you make as a songwriter should server the song and nothing else. Your fanlist has no bearing on it and never should.

    Worst. advice. ever. The bridge is not dead. There are just too many lazy songwriters.

  • Reply
    C. E. Nelson
    April 28, 2010 at 11:04 am

    Kudos, Mr. Clark. You hit the nail directly on the head, sir.

  • Reply
    Brian Hazard
    April 28, 2010 at 11:55 am

    I appreciate your thoughts Philip! Obviously if you feel that writing in simple accessible structures is a sacrifice to your artistic integrity, you shouldn’t do it.

    I’ll just reiterate that for me personally, over 15 years and 10 albums worth of material, the songs that tend to catch peoples’ attention are the ones with simple forms. It’s easy to tell these days by looking at Last.fm and seeing which tracks people actually listen to. For example, my John Lennon Songwriting Contest winner has no bridge. That wasn’t some sort of sellout or compromise on my part. Writing with clear and simple structures CAN serve the song.

    As for basing your songwriting decisions on your fanbase, I guess it seems rather obvious to me. If Radiohead launched their career with Kid A instead of “Creep,” we’d probably have never heard of them.

    Please keep reading! I could use more dissenting views around here.

  • Reply
    Philip Clark
    April 28, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Thanks for responding, Brian. And I don’t mean to dis you or seem like I’m picking a fight. I’m all for taking the end-user/consumer into consideration. I care about and wish to make my audience and fanbase happy as well. And yeah, blah blah blah, I’ve gotten awards and won contests, blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda. My music plays all over the world and I get royalties and sell CDs and…

    …none of that stuff influences my songwriting. I’m more concerned with fueling my muse than catering to the masses. I’m just lucky (or at least that’s what I want you to think) that by doing so I remain accessible. And I agree with you that making a song too complex can lose you certain listeners. I just know that, for me personally, as soon as I actively say to myself “Self, I’m going to write a hit” it always ends up a contrived, pale shadow of what it’s intended to be.

    (…which makes it great for commercial radio at this point.)

    I’m listening to Color Theory, and I’m really enjoying it. I can see that you’ve got a viewpoint and a signature sound. And yes, I hear that a lot of your structure is simple. But if I were to hear your music first and then read this article, I’d be surprised. It doesn’t sound like you’d be preaching the benefits of following formula as much as you are.

    I think ultimately we come from the same place as songwriters. You have originality and variety in your work. There is a danger when you post something like this as advice to songwriters and use sensational language like “the bridge is dead” that your sleeping with the enemy (read: corporate radio) and not really advocating being a true artist and visionary.

    This article is good for people that are having trouble with form. I think if you’d said “until you’ve written XX number of songs” as opposed to “until you’ve got a substantial following,” I’d have a lot less issue with this article. My issue was with you equating fan quantity to risk-taking.

    It’s funny that you site “Creep” as a grabber and not a grower. As much as that song seems simple, there is a build and a departure from form. I don’t think the simplicity of “Creep” put Radiohead on the map, I think it was that it stood out somehow from everything else that was coming out at the time.

    Anyway, formula is bad. Originality is good. Play on.

  • Reply
    Brian Hazard
    April 28, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    I think we’re pretty much on the same page Philip! We’re not going to resolve the art vs commercialism debate anytime soon, but perhaps we’re closer on the spectrum than we originally thought. I agree that “I’m going to write a hit” doesn’t work, because the focus is outward rather than inward. Still, songwriting isn’t exactly divine inspiration. To the degree that craft is involved, I think it can be helpful to consider how a listener would experience the song for the first time.

    I want to be clear that I’m not preaching one particular formula. A good chunk of the article is devoted to ways to deviate from the standard pop form. I’m just advocating the use of clear structures so that the message of the song doesn’t get lost in a convoluted arrangement.

    “Ditch the bridge until you’ve written your first hundred songs” is probably good advice. I understand why the focus on fan quantity rubs you the wrong way, but after all, it is a promotion blog. πŸ™‚

    Thanks for your kind words on my music!

  • Reply
    907Britt
    April 29, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Brian, I love this discussion. It’s been germinating in my head for, what, a whole week now? I am blessed to get to work with some talented musicians here on San Juan Island and their solos liven up my bridges/breaks to the point where I even lengthen them or add new ones when we play live, but it’s tough to get a recorded performance of a break that will keep attention.

    Would you call your piano solo in Continental Divide a bridge or an instrumental break? I am confused about the difference and I think I’ve been misusing the word sometimes. Wikipedia is little help. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridge_%28music%29
    I used to think a bridge had to have words, but I suppose it doesn’t. My older songs almost always had lyrical bridges, but I haven’t written one in a while.

    Is it a bridge when the chord sequence is different than the chorus and just an instrumental break when you use the same progression as the chorus? If so, then 90% of my songs don’t have a bridge, but I am a big fan of instrumental breaks over the chorus progression (and sometimes singing only a line or two of the chorus). Just to respond to this post, I think I’ll try writing something that is nothing but a bridge. Just kidding, that would be silly. But thanks for getting us all thinking and talking.

  • Reply
    Brian Hazard
    April 29, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Good to hear from you Britt!

    The bridge as I discuss it here has a different chord progression and lyrics than the rest of the song. The instrumental break over the verse or chorus progression is one of the substitutions I suggest for a bridge.

    Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any of your songs that have bridges. Maybe the “then I lost the baby” section of Sing It Away. You tend to use a whole bunch of verses to facilitate all the exposition in your songs, which usually tell a story.

  • Reply
    Brian Hazard
    May 7, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Just for kicks, I analyzed the chord progressions of three Hall & Oates classics, and only one had a bridge. For what it’s worth (not much).

    http://colortheory.com/hall-oates

  • Reply
    Curt Siffert
    July 7, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    One guy who has surprisingly interesting song structures is Billy Joel. I haven’t tried to nail it down for a while, but a couple of his songs had song structures that were completely unfamiliar to me. I guess Scenes From An Italian Restaurant would be the obvious example, but I think I remember being stuck on how to chart Innocent Man and My Life. I’ll have to write a post about him soon.

    Songs with recurring bridges tend to confuse me – didn’t Genesis’ That’s All have three distinct sections that all occurred multiple times?

  • Reply
    Lance Vaughn
    July 8, 2010 at 10:41 am

    I love bridge.

  • Reply
    Jack Olchawski
    October 15, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Fantastic post, I love looking into great songs and solving just what it is that has made the song work as a whole. I recently fell in love with the songwriting process and enjoy digging out little refrains and hooks.

    Another form of songwriting that is not as uncommon as it may sound is the of the No Chorus. I know it sounds unlikely but many songs do take this formula.

    A fantastic example is Death Cab For Cutie’s ‘No Sunlight’; the song has a catchy verse which always leads to a repeated refrain which is far too brief or lightweight to be thought of as a chorus, rather just an extenstion of the verse.

    The song continues into a middle8 section which after returning to instrumental verse passage, is repeated before finally ending on the verse extension I mentioned earlier. This form of structure allows for wonderful layering, as so much of it built around the same chords. It is very popular with bands such as DCFC who are not necessarily making pop music but are keen on strong songwriting.

    Just something I found interesting that I thought I’d share.

    Great article!

    Jack

    • Reply
      Brian Hazard
      October 15, 2010 at 3:35 pm

      Great to hear from you Jack! It sounds like you’re describing AABA form, where the emphasis is on the refrain at the end of each verse (A section). A classic example is “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle. I’ve tried it every now and again, for example in my song “Covering Up Your Tracks.”

  • Reply
    docweasel
    April 28, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    Something I think is a shame is the demise of the intro verse (I forget what they used to call it on the old sheet music) which George Burns used to use in his monologues, lost parts of songs, like the intro to White Christmas:
    The sun is shining, the grass is green. The orange and palm trees sway
    There’s never been such a day. In Beverly Hills, LA
    But, it’s December the 24th. And I am longing to be up north.

    or The Christmas Song:
    All through the year we waited
    Waited through spring and fall
    To hear silver bells ringing, see wintertime bringing
    The happiest season of all

    All the classic Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and the Gershwins had these type of intros. Some I guess seemed tacked on, but I think it was an interesting form and it would be cool to see some songwriters toy with the idea on modern music.

    • Reply
      Brian Hazard
      April 29, 2016 at 7:05 pm

      Ah, the intro verse sounds magical. But yes, it’s long gone, just like its friend the bridge.

  • Reply
    ry
    June 2, 2017 at 6:09 am

    Ive been writing and recording for 2/3 years now and like to miss the bridge out on most of my tracks and create an outro for the end,this is my grand finale of the song,Always end the song on a high if you want people to remember you,if you listen to any Guns N Roses track you will know what I mean,was debating whether to stick a bride in a tune ive been writing recently but sacked it off,if its a short song just dont bother

    • Reply
      Brian Hazard
      June 2, 2017 at 9:26 am

      I agree β€” a strong outro can end the song with a bang! The trick is keeping them interested past the second chorus so they make it that far.

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