A big part of why understanding song structure is so important is that listeners bring expectations, based upon what they’re familiar with. At this point, the most common song structures are practically hardwired into music lovers’ brains. (And, like those brains, song structures are also evolving.)
It’s like watching a film: most of them fall within a genre—with a detective story, a horror film, a gangster movie, etc., we know what to expect, more or less. That’s part of the pleasure. And then seeing what a particular artist does with the expectations of the genre is what makes it really fun.
Without understanding the ins and outs of song structure, we can’t take advantage of those expectations for our own purposes.
A related reason for understanding structure is that we can make our points much more powerfully. Just utilizing contrast in going from one section to another is an exceptionally strong device. When it works, the listener will jump amazing distances with us (without even noticing, if it’s done right).
Take for example Adele and Dan Wilson’s “Someone Like You,” a Verse/Pre-Chorus/Chorus song. In the Verse the singer visits her “former” love, who has moved on:
I heard that you’re settled down
That you found a girl and you’re married now.
I heard that your dreams came true.
Guess she gave you things I didn’t give to you.
Old friend, why are you so shy?
Ain’t like you to hold back or hide from the light.
She’s conciliatory, maybe a little self-pitying, but reaching out.
In the Pre-Chorus, as the rhythm of the melody accelerates, her pent-up real emotion begins to break through…
I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited
But I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it.
I hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded
That for me it isn’t over.
She admits that her intentions are to rekindle his feeling…or at least make him feel guilty… something. Then, suddenly, the Chorus hits with a strong contradictory impulse: “Never mind...”
Never mind, I’ll find someone like you
I wish nothing but the best for you too
Don’t forget me, I beg
I’ll remember you said,
“Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead,
Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead”
This is a great example of using the contrast of a new section, especially a Chorus, to add intensity, urgency, and, in this case, a current of anger to the story.
Waylon Jennings said, “Every line has got to make sense against your Title.”
I take that word “against” very seriously here. The Verses (and Pre-Chorus) need to lead up to and support the Chorus—but not always with agreement. Verses can be like a question for which the Chorus provides a kind of answer, like a call for which the Chorus is a response. It can be a list of things that are then contradicted with “But,” which then leads into the Chorus.
Often you don’t want to get into the Chorus’s “business” in the preceding sections. You need to set it up…not give it away.
Think about your Chorus—from what angles can the Verses best reflect the “light” onto it that will create the effect you want? Think about contrast from section to section.
This article originally appeared on the author’s blog, found at tonyconniff.com