And other stuff

Song structure (lyrics)

In an earlier post I addressed the opportunities for finding inspiration for a song. So, let’s say you’ve found a story you want to tell in a song, where do you go from here?

Songs consist of verses and choruses. Verses tell the story; the chorus stands in the wings and reminds us from time to time what’s going on. The difference lyrically is that each verse is unique whereas each chorus is a repetition of the previous chorus.

A chorus summarises the story, it says “listen, this is what’s going on, this is what these verses are telling you.” The chorus, typically, doesn’t change, it is slotted in between verses to remind you what the hell the song is about.

The verses set the scene, begin the story and carry it to a conclusion, a story arc. Typically, verses have the same structure as each other in terms of syllable count and rhyming scheme, but are different in lyrical content. They move the story along.

If the chorus is fitted between each verse of a 4-verse song you have: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus. Or, A, B, A, B, A, B, A, B. in songwriter lingo.

(Note that each different form is allocated a letter. In this case the verse is A, the chorus is B. If you added, say, a bridge, it would be C in this format. This causes confusion because people can’t understand why B isn’t for bridge and C isn’t for chorus. A numbering system may have served us better, but there you go).

A typical popular song would probably go two verses before the first chorus simply because in the first verse you haven’t said enough to summarise in a chorus, so the structure would be A, A, B, A, B, A, B. Such a structure gives you time to get the song underway before interrupting it with a chorus.

So, you’re going to tell a story in four chapters and you have to summarise it periodically – after two chapters and each subsequent chapter. You have a structure to work to, a skeleton upon which you can hang your words.

Here’s an example:

It’s Later Than You Think  

2020© John Schofield

Verse 1

On a restroom wall in Baltimore

Above a broken sink

Someone scratched this message:

It’s later than you think

Verse 2

I took this simple line to heart

I knew that it was true

I built myself a little boat

And sailed the ocean blue

So, this guy is telling you he’s seen a piece of graffiti on a restroom wall and it has inspired him to build a boat and head off on an adventure before it’s too late. The chorus sums up this concept – you’ll regret not having an adventure before you are too old and, perhaps, infirm, so go now. And he adds that you don’t need anyone’s permission to do it. Here it is:

Chorus:

You are the captain of your fate, your only master’s you

Don’t ever let yourself regret the things you didn’t do

He continues with his advice:

Verse 3

Go and see the Northern Lights

Or visit Timbuktu

But better do it now, my friend,

Time catches up with you.

And summarises again:

Chorus:

You are the captain of your fate, your only master’s you

Don’t ever let yourself regret the things you didn’t do

Originally this song didn’t have a fourth verse and it probably didn’t need it, but if it did it would probably go like this:

Verse 4

I won’t forget that simple line

Scratched above a broken sink

That changed my life forever

It’s later than you think

Neatly completing the story, then finishing off with the chorus:

Chorus:

You are the captain of your fate, your only master’s you

Don’t ever let yourself regret the things you didn’t do

It is so much easier to write lyrics when you have a plan to work to. You know you need to write four verses that form a story arc and you need a summarising chorus to interrupt the verses now and then. If you don’t need four verses to tell your tale, then make a three-verse song, if you have more to tell, go to five verses.

This song won the lyrics section of the UK Songwriting Contest 2020 and one judge noted it was “structurally perfect.” Much as I appreciate the award, I think you could probably pick holes in it, technically.

First of all, the song title, “It’s Later Than You Think”, is also the hook (the ear worm), but doesn’t appear in the chorus and, in fact, only once anywhere in the original lyrics. Really successful pop songs repeat the hook as many times as possible, usually ending each chorus with it. (Think Yesterday by The Beatles). If you can work the title into the chorus, do it, it’s what producers want.

Next, the song could become tedious, repetitive, in the four-verse version. This is where a bridge might help. A bridge is a different lyrical and musical idea introduced purely to break the monotony and introduce a new thought. A little surprise. Something like:

You don’t have to scale a mountain or swim across a sea

But the world is full of magic things for you to do and see.

The bridge in this song would most likely have come after the third verse, before the chorus, and the structure would have become: verse, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, verse, chorus, or A, A, B, A, C, B, A, B. And, again, note that B is the chorus, C is the bridge.

Further elaborations are possible – intro, pre-chorus, refrain, outro – you will learn these in time but they are beyond the scope of this little treatise on song structure.

The verses, chorus and bridge will have their own unique internal structure and rhyming scheme. I’ll cover that in another post.

I hope this has been of interest to some of you.

2 Comments

  1. Roger Hardy

    Great stuff

  2. Elisabeth

    Enjoyable read… two thumbs up!

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