How to Structure a Song

When thinking about how to structure your song, know that there are no absolutes. There are no wrong ways and right ways. In the popular music culture, there is definitely a predominant structure that is commonly used. But what determines which song structure to use? One important thing to consider when thinking about song structure is the purpose of your song. This will shoot you towards getting a clear idea of how you want to structure your song.

Purpose of your song

What is the purpose of your song? Is it to make money? Is it to get played on the radio? Or maybe you don’t care about the money and the radio play, but you want to make a song that evokes emotion out of its listeners. Maybe your song’s purpose is to stand the test of time and have listeners 40 years from now.

Here’s how the purpose of your song affects your song structure.

If you want to make money with your song by getting it plugged in with pop artists and into the popular radio stations, you want to follow the general song structure that is used. This isn’t true for all cases (example:Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen), but true for most. And what is this general song structure formula? It is along the lines of A-B-A-B-C-B or in other words, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus.

The point of this structure is to have a musical theme set and have it repeat to bring about a sense of familiarity to listeners, then introduce a new section (section C) which gives the listener a sense of freshness. After the new section is introduced, a theme that was introduced before is brought in again which makes the section feel both fresh and familiar. This gives the listener more of a chance to feel hooked in without feeling like the song is boring and repetitive.

This idea of creating a sense of familiarity and variety isn’t constricted to the structure A-B-A-B-C-B. The structure can be expanded to A-B-C-A-B-C-D-B aka verse-prechorus-chorus-verse-prechorus-chorus-bridge-chorus. Another example of an extension is A-B-A-B-A-B-C-B, but be weary of getting the song to sound overly repetitious. You can do this by thinking about varying the instrumentation in each section or even use variations where you might do something a little different in the third verse. Personally, repeating a verse and chorus 3 times before the bridge is too much. I give myself a ‘no more than two’ rule for sections other than the chorus. The chorus is given the ‘no more than three’ rule. You can be creative and add subtle changes to expand A-B-A-B-C-B. Another example is A-B-A-B-C-A-B where you have another verse after the bridge.

If you can’t decide what song structure to use, then start with A-B-A-B-C-B. If this structure doesn’t provide the space you need for all your lyrics, expand it. Maybe you can add a prechorus, or add an extra verse in the beginning where the structure would become A-A-B-A-B-C-B.

A lot of times, people feel a need to add to the song when they actually need to leave the song as it is or even remove some of the content. Don’t add lyrics just because you feel a need to fill in the space of the song structure. Cut your structure down to fit your lyrics. For example, if you decided to write a song with the structure A-B-C-A-B-C-D-A-B-C, and your lyrics are too short for the structure. Don’t add more lyrics for the sake of fulfilling the space. If you feel like your lyrics are done and anything else would be filler, then cut down the structure.

If you are the songwriter that doesn’t write songs in order to get them played on the top 40 list, then you have more freedom than the pop song writers. You can even write a song that’s 30 minutes long if you wanted. Would that mean people will listen to it? My guess is only if you make a song that contains high value.

You can have a song structure that is A – A – A – A. If you use that structure, I advise that you have really really good lyrics, or have an interesting instrumentation or chord progression that gives listeners a sense of variety. You can have a structure of A – B – C – D with no recurring themes.

One cool thing you can do is have a section play a theme that sounds similar to another theme that occurred earlier in the song. You can make it a variation of a theme, or a theme that gives a hint of another theme. There are no limits. This way of songwriting gives you a chance to think outside the box.

You can turn it into an exercise. Here’s an example exercise. Write 3 songs. The first song has to have the structure A – B – C – D – E, the second song has to be A – A – A – A, and the third song has to be A – B – A – B – B'(a variation of B). Doing fun exercises turn songwriting into a fun game. Have fun with it. Go wild.