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How to write a Rock Song (Part 4)

Form and Structure

Six articles showing you how to write a song (or instrumental) from scratch, explaining the idea of rhythm and the use of syncopation, melody writing, how to fit words to a melody, how to build appropriate harmonic structures, the use of form, how to devise such common devices as riffs and how to use the instruments you have available to play the music you have written. Month by month the lessons you have learned and the exercises you have written will enable you to write a complete piece of your own.

Form and Structure

In this month's article we will look at the structure of the rock song, the way verses and choruses fit together, how to write introductions and codas and how to maintain a feeling of forward motion.

If we were to define a rock song it would be something like this: a piece of music for voices and instruments that lasts for about three minutes, which sustains interest without demanding total attention for that length of time, usually by being predictable without being boring, is easily memorised and communicates ideas and feelings which are easily related to by the listener. It is necessary to think about the ideas contained in this definition even if it is one with which you might disagree.

The duration of three minutes is one that appears to satisfy both listener and DJ (not an unimportant consideration when thinking in terms of having records played, if they are not to receive the treatment given to such recordings as The Animals House of the Rising Sun for example. It is also worth bearing in mind that DJs have a nasty habit of talking over introductions, however relevant they might be to the satisfactory effect of the song. Maintaining interest for the duration of the song is obviously very important and this is done by dividing the song into different sections which are carefully arranged to this end. These are:

a) Introduction. A few bars at the beginning of the song which attract attention to the fact that the song has started and set the mood of what is to follow. Usually instrumental, establishing tempo and key for the vocalist.

b) Verse. This is usually the part of the song containing the ideas that are to be communicated. This normally appears at least three times (even if one of these uses the words of a previous verse) and uses the same melody each time. (There might be small alterations to accommodate extra syllables). The last verse might be transposed to a different key, usually a higher one, if flagging interest needs maintaining.

c) Chorus. This is the part of the song that usually contains the hook line — the one that people remember. It often consists of a short melody repeated several times, often with the same words or even to la la la etc (a prerequisite for all Eurovision Song Contest entries).

d) Middle Eight. A section that appears once only (although not always) to relieve the regular alternation of verse and chorus. This is not always of eight bars length.

e) Coda. This section appears at the end of the song and is usually the whole or part of a verse or chorus, altered to give a convenient ending.

Instrumental sections such as guitar solos, for example, often occur in place of verses, over the same chord sequence. Again, these can be used to maintain interest.

These sections do not always appear in every song, and it is possible to maintain interest without using the ideas discussed above. Maintaining interest might not even be seen as an important consideration if you were writing a song, for example, reflecting the repetitive aspects of the machine age. However, most songs can be seen in terms of the above structures and it always helps to have a starting point when analysing a song by someone else or when writing one of your own.

Figure 1. The completed sheet music for 'Mary had a Little Lamb'.

Figure 1 shows my completed setting of Mary had a Little Lamb in sheet music form i.e. for voice and keyboard with the melody doubled in the treble part of the accompaniment, with chord symbols. The structure is as follows:

Verse 1 8 bars
Introduction 8 bars
Chorus 1 8 bars
Verse 2 8 bars
Middle eight 16 bars
Verse 3 8 bars
Chorus 2 8 bars
Verse 4 8 bars
Chorus 3 8 bars
Chorus 4 8 bars
Introduction 2 8 bars

It is not necessary to write out separately Verse 3, Chorus 2 and Verse 4 since they use the same music as Verse1, Chorus1 and Verse2 (apart from the words of the verses). By writing the words for both sets of verses under the music, placing a sign at the beginning of verse 1 and a coda sign at the end of verse 2 and by placing the instruction D-a1 after the middle eight, it is possible to save the space and effort needed to write these parts out again. The coda then consists of Choruses 3 & 4 and Introduction 2.

This is a fairly conventional plan for a song and it complies with the earlier discussion. Each is of eight bars length, apart from the middle eight which is sixteen bars long. This could be seen as a weakness which could be prevented by using sections of varying length, but I left the setting in this form for the sake of clarity.

The original nursery rhyme consists of three eight line verses of similar construction. I took half of each original verse for the whole of each of my verses, apart from the second verse of the original, which I used wholly for my middle eight. The chorus in my setting consists of one idea only — 'Mary', manipulated to give the eight bar structure I used. The introduction is based on the same idea as the chorus, using different keys to create more interest and also a sense of unity.

Most of the ideas in this piece come about by the imposition of words on chord sequences which are then manipulated according to a plan to give a complete structure, in accordance with the ideas discussed earlier.


1. Analyse songs that you like and write out the plan to which they are constructed, noting the arrangement of verses and choruses, keys and key changes; which sections are related to each other in the manner of my introduction and chorus in Mary had a Little Lamb.

2. Some of the chords used in my setting are achieved by placing different bass notes under otherwise fairly normal sequences. It is interesting to experiment with the effects produced in this way.

In next month's article we will consider the problems of turning the sheet music into parts for various instruments, giving an arrangement suitable for performance by a small group.

Series - "Writing A Rock Song"

Read the next part in this series:

All parts in this series:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 (Viewing) | Part 5

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Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Jul 1983


Arranging / Songwriting


Writing A Rock Song

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 (Viewing) | Part 5

Feature by Martin Glover

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