Songs And Their Sections (Part 1)
How to cunningly arrange those three chord tricks we taught you.
You've got your tricks (two, three and four chord, that is) but what order should they go in? This month Jon Lewin explores song structures and sees where the famous put their frills, fills and fade outs. And the chorus at the end.
THEM AS READS Making Music regular, apart from being hipper than the average musician, will already know about our series of songwriting articles: in the third issue, we examined the Three Chord Trick, which is probably the single most common song structure; in Issue Four, we explored the Four Chord Trick, or Turnaround; in Issue Five, we lost count, and ended up expounding the virtues of songs with Two Chords. (Back issues are available...).
Of course, you can pen rock classics with just one of these most basic of musical building blocks, and a good tune. But think how much your songwriting vocabulary would expand if you were given a few hints about tying these different theories together into some sort of 'song'. So this month we're looking at the order in which you stick the various parts of your songs together.
As even the divviest of us knows, these parts are usually described in a set series of ways: the instrumental before the singing starts is the intro (short for, you guessed, introduction), the catchy bits that get repeated most often are known as choruses, the longer bits that tell the story are the verses, and the funny bit in the middle where the song changes key is known as the bridge, or middle eight.
In describing the components that make it up, we already get some idea of the pop song's conventional structure — intro, verse, chorus, different bit in the middle. Our recent Skill Centre with Bruce Watson of Big Country (Issue 4) revealed the structure of 'Look Away' as being intro, verse, verse, chorus, instrumental, verse, chorus, chorus; since the instrumental break in the middle section used the same chords as the intro, things are even simpler. This is a very common format, though none the worse for that.
So what's an intro, apart from being the lump the DJ babbles over? It can be a Chuck Berry lick, a repeated electro bass drum ('Blue Monday'), a chopped up vocal sample ('Is There Something I Should Know?' by Duran Duran), half tempo arpeggios (U2's 'The Unforgettable Fire'), or even an air raid warning ('Two Tribes'). It's there to capture the attention, possibly even to state some of the musical themes that will be explored in the rest of the song. And it comes before the main vocal, if there is one.
And the main vocal goes over the verse. The verse can have lots of chords in it, like 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me'; "...Give me time ...to realise my crime" which uses G Bm7 Em G.
Or it can have very few, like Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Proud Mary', which only has one G chord under its verses, before bursting out into D and Em. The longer you sit on one chord, the more prominent the next change will seem.
After the verse (though not necessarily the first verse — try the Big Country two verses together suggestion) comes the chorus. Pop song choruses have got to be catchy, which is why they're repetitive, and use catchphrases or cliches — taglines that the record buying public can remember even if only half heard over someone else's tranny. Simplicity is usually the key here. And while it can differ totally from what's gone before, the chorus is more often a logical variation on the chord pattern used in the verse.
Let's take Katrina & The Waves' 'Walking On Sunshine' (lots of people did) as our example. On first listen, this sounds like the simplest possible arrangement of a Three Chord Trick: repeated C/F/G/F chords make up the bulk of the song. The intro, all the verses, and even the middle eight use this figure, and it is only in the chorus (the "walking on sunshine" lines) that the chords change. At the end of the verse, instead of changing back to C from the final F, guitar and bass go back up to G. It repeats that F/G three times, before going back to the C/F/G/F of the verse.
Try using a Turnaround for the verse, and the Three Chord Trick for the following chorus; or two chords for the verse and three for the chorus. Experiment, and fear no combination of ideas. How about starting the song with the chorus, but slowed down, and without drums?
But how do you join verses and choruses together? Going into the chorus from the verse is no problem — just do it. But what about coming out of the chorus and going back into the verse? Running the two vocals straight into each other sounds odd — and anyway, the listener needs some respite from your neurotic whinings by now. Katrina et ses amis take the usual easy route out and simply use the same chords as the verse, though with a different vocal refrain — "And don't it feel good", delivered almost as an aside.
Maybe this is the place to think about hooklines, those catchy little melodic bits — vocal or instrumental — which catch the listeners' attention. They're often the first germ of an instrumental idea that starts the song rolling, that tricky guitar riff, or keyboard frill that gave you an inkling that you were doing more than just practising. Perhaps they've wound up in the intro, or you've stretched them out to drape the lead vocal over. Trust to your own judgement here — if it sounds good to you played one particular way in one part of the song, don't try to make the hook do things it's not suited to. But don't be afraid to use it often.
If you choose to repeat the chords to the verse as an introduction to each (and most people do), dropping down to the basic instrumentation for those four or eight bars can help give the verse dynamics.
Dynamics are mucho important to songs, and only too frequently neglected in these days of synthesisers, sequencers and other expensive technology that doesn't have a volume knob. But never fear, you don't have to turn up or down to achieve dynamics — just stop playing. K & The Ws do it for the middle eight of 'Walking On Sunshine', performing the solid rock 'n' roll trick of dropping down to bass and drums before introducing the lead guitar.
Middle eights can be as simple as that — a hole in the centre of the song, designed to alleviate the monotony, and give the bits on either side a chance to appear different. They can be percussion solos, guitar solos, spoken bits, the intro again — anything, so long as it's different in some way. And they don't have to be eight bars long either. Use your imagination.
What happens when you come out of the middle bit, and find that the verses are beginning to sound rather samey? Worrabout changing key? The Who did this in 'My Generation', which keeps going up by a semitone. Simply shift your whole chord progression up by a fixed amount, a tone, semitone, or whatever. It could have the effect of making the whole song shift up a gear. Or down, if you're unlucky.
So much for the various parts of yer song. How are you going to end it? You could just stop at a suitable juncture (usually coincident with the end of a bar). If you do this, please beware of doing that heavyweight blues crash bash ending so beloved of R&B and HM bands. The Beatles used to end songs on sixth and seventh chords; don't resolve the chord to a major unless it sounds good. Try something weird at the end — you'll have nothing to lose by then. Stop a bar short.
If you're thinking in terms of recording your masterwork, it doesn't have to have an ending. Van Morrison's 'The Eternal Kansas City' goes on for a good twenty minutes repeating the same phrase over and over, mainly because no-one knew when to stop. You can always repeat the final chorus and fade at your leisure, with that squiggly guitar solo beefing the whole sound up. Think about the overall sound and length of the song, and judge for yourselves. Personally, I always think the best endings are the ones that catch you completely by su
Feature by Jon Lewin
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