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« The Top Ten Reasons Fans Don’t Buy Your Merch | Main | The Bricks With Which You Will Build Your Palace... »
Wednesday
Apr282010

The Death of the Bridge

Many of my all-time favorite songs are “growers” - album tracks that don’t really grab you the first few spins, but eventually dig their hooks in and don’t let go. Few artists these days have the luxury of writing growers, because listeners aren’t willing to invest that kind of time. Unless the artist is proven to deliver, the listener will tune out and move on. While I’m a huge fan of the album format, it’s hard to deny the shifting focus from albums to individual songs. Every one of those songs needs to grab the listener’s attention and hold it until the last note - preferably longer! In order for your songs to be grabbers rather than growers, they must have clear and familiar structures.

The textbook pop song structure is verse - chorus - verse - chorus - bridge (also known as the “middle eight”) - chorus. At its most basic level, structure is repetition. If no element of the song repeats, it has no structure. Every repetition of the verse and chorus is another chance for the listener to fall in love with the song. The one section of the song that doesn’t repeat, the bridge, has been phased out in favor of a short break or instrumental solo. Don’t get me wrong - plenty of popular songs still have bridges, but it’s not the staple it once was. As much as I hate to dumb down my songs, I recognize the wisdom in simplicity. Until you’ve got a substantial following, two sections - a verse and a chorus - is plenty.

Not to say you have to follow the traditional form to the letter! There’s plenty of room for variation. You could:

  • Start with the chorus
  • Throw in an extra verse before the first chorus to allow further exposition
  • Substitute a third verse for the break for the same reason
  • Cut the first chorus in half, in which case you’ll probably want to…
  • Add an extra chorus at the end

To extend the structure a bit further, you could insert a prechorus (also known as the “build”) between the verse and chorus. While the prechorus ups the complexity by adding a third section, the crucial difference between the prechorus and bridge is that the former repeats. Should you choose to go this route, I suggest eliminating the break in favor of a third prechorus (V-PC-C-V-PC-C-PC-C).

OK, so you’ve got a catchy verse and an explosive chorus. You’ve got lyrics laced with concrete imagery that tell a universal story in a fresh and imaginative way. Too much repetition can be annoying, but it takes more than most songwriters are willing to dare. How do you arrange the song to include just the right amount, so that it repeats without sounding repetitive? Here are some ideas (I’d love to hear yours in the comments!):

  1. Break up the groove. Start the song with sparse instrumentation and stagger the introduction of rhythmic elements over course of the first verse. Or, drop the drums and bass at the end of the verse to explode into the chorus. Solo the vocals for a few beats. If you’re ending with a double chorus, thin the arrangement for the penultimate chorus to make the ending seem huge. Filter the whole mix and automate the cutoff frequency. Drop to a half time feel, or bump it up to double time. The possibilities are endless.
  2. Add a new element. A new guitar line or synth arpeggio can make a verse feel fresh, even when everything else is the same. Maybe it’s as simple as playing eighth notes on the hi-hat instead of quarter notes, or dropping the bass down an octave. Be careful not to clutter the midrange, or you’ll compete with the lead vocal.
  3. Layer the vocals. Highlight important words or phrases with harmonies, yells, or whispers. Double the chorus lead vocal, and gradually stack harmonies over the course of the song. Ad lib over the final chorus, R&B style, or superimpose lines from the verse.
  4. Vary the lead vocal treatment. Automate the reverb to swell on a long note, add a delay to the last word of each phrase, use a bandpass EQ for “radio voice,” or if you’re not afraid to jump on the bandwagon, do the autotune thing.

While there’s more to a great song than clear structure, a song without obvious repetition is destined to fail. Don’t equate sophistication with quality. Win listeners over with simple strong structures. Write songs that can be easily appreciated, and they might just promote themselves.

Brian Hazard is a recording artist with fifteen years of experience promoting his seven Color Theory albums. His Passive Promotion blog emphasizes “set it and forget it” methods of music promotion. Brian is also the head mastering engineer and owner of Resonance Mastering in Huntington Beach, California.

References (1)

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Reader Comments (19)

good stuff. thanks

April 29 | Unregistered CommenterReal J.O.B

the Bridges are Still Around they just Look & feel Different (Technology)..you always needed a "Single"
to power Album "CD" sales..just like today!..the sales and discovery of the songs & Talent are just showing up from "Other" avenues of Exposure & Promotion,..Remember--if you do not Promote your Talent or Product,something terrible will Happen ",.. NOTHING!.. Promotion Drives All Markests.
Joseph Nicoletti consulting Laguna Beach,CA usa musicbiz@cox.net ph 949-715-7036

sorry for the typo it is MARKETS.......

...or you could just write your music the way your heart tells you to. Following a formula in order to be a success in the music business is pointless when applied directly to the music.

Success or failure is entirely down to luck, and successfull marketing strategies.

www.taztaylor.com

April 29 | Unregistered CommenterTaz Taylor

I always thought that McCartney wrote the bridges. It just seems that he was the guy who wrote them the way that they sounded in the songs.

April 29 | Unregistered CommenterAlan

I really enjoyed your essay on the elements of a good pop song. I have been writing instinctually for about twenty five years now and you have described the rules by which I live. Nice to see them all laid out like Hit Writing 101. But please, no matter how open minded you are trying to be, do not encourage anyone to use the autotuner ...ever. I feel like it is the one element that is going to embarrass an entire generation of music makers and listeners as well. Not cute like 80's drum machines. Not cute at all, just plain silly.

-Overly Opinionated

April 29 | Unregistered Commenterdd stroud

This advice will only lead to artlessness. Integrity for your artistic vision should trump pandering to trying to keep your career afloat. Include a bridge or don't. Write ten verses or two, whatever serves the song. The song determines the rules and doesn't care about formula.

April 29 | Unregistered CommenterCandy Rice

In regards to growers, here's one I found:

click here

April 29 | Unregistered CommenterMike Ross

it appears to me that a writer simply must tell a great story within a small time frame. All of the variations in struture hindges on hoe good the engineer and producer are. A universal subject is the key and basic common sense. there must be repitition of the chorus mainly. People might forget lyrics but never a good chorus!

April 30 | Unregistered Commentercathy kennedy

The way I see the whole art versus commercialism thing is: If you feel that writing in accessible structures is a sacrifice to your artistic integrity, you shouldn’t do it. But if you see songwriting as a form of communication, it makes sense to become an effective communicator. Professional songwriters hone their craft through rewrite after rewrite. For me personally, over 15 years and 10 albums worth of material, the songs that tend to catch peoples’ attention are the ones with simple forms.

I’m not trying to preach the gospel of “song science,” but I master a lot of potentially great music that’s a little too sophisticated for its own good. Since I’m kind of required to listen carefully, I usually start to appreciate the songs by the end of the process. The problem is, it takes more exposure to the songs than anyone else but friends and family are likely to get.

Anyway, these “rules” are merely observations of what seems to work and what doesn’t. Bend or break them as you see fit.

I'd like to point out the distinction between song writing and arrangement/production. A well crafted song -- chord progression, melody and lyric -- can be timeless. Where as the arrangement/production -- tempo, instrumentation and audio effects -- is a separate art that can make a mediocre song or break a great one.

I aspire to the song...
"Surfin Bird"
by The Trashmen...
Sincerely,
UFOjim

May 6 | Unregistered CommenterUFO JIM

An interesting exploration of what constitutes a catchy song, but if you're writing to please the lowest common denominator, you're setting yourself up for failure. I'd only write this way if I was writing songs for established acts.

I used to write like this because I wanted to be successful, and got compared to all the bands I sounded like. Now I write the music to deliver the emotional content of the song in the most effective way I can, and I write it for myself. I call it art, and sincerity.

In my experience, people like music with a fresh perspective. In my experience the best way to give yourself creative block is to belittle your gifts and treat them as a commodity. I propound the opposite - give yourself no limits, take devices from avante-garde, classical, jazz, death metal, and use them to build your own artistic toolkit, and discover your own voice in the process.

However, why not try a different approach and take your masterpiece and dumb it down into the above format, and see how it does sound?

"If you have a way of working, change it" - Brian Eno.

May 6 | Unregistered CommenterJez

Just for kicks, I analyzed the chord progressions of three Hall & Oates classics, and only one had a bridge. For what it's worth (not much).

Hall & Oates at colortheory.com

And let me guess... next time a blog post that speaks of teenage inattention captures your attention, you'll recommend we cut out the intro.

Or perhaps the outro.

Maybe, after some ample reflection and more fastidious research, you will recommend that smart and forward-thinking musicians might attract more fans if they simply repeat a single chorus for 90 seconds (though research will probably reveal that 83 seconds will maximize the song's stickiness even more).

You don’t equate sophistication with quality? Really? Really? Really? Really? Really? Repeat.

-Mark

May 18 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Really!

I don't remember the specifics of the study, but the vocal in hit songs started an average of 7 seconds in. It's up to you to decide if that's worth pondering and factoring in to your songwriting process.

For what it's worth, my favorite track on my new album is 8 minutes long, with the vocal entering after about 3 minutes. As much as I like it, I don't expect it to grab people, and don't feature it prominently on my site or profiles.

July 30 | Registered CommenterBrian Hazard

"At its most basic level, structure is repetition."

This is not true. One can have structure without repetition. Consider non-repetitive poems, films, novels, and of course, music. In music, non-repetitive structure is frequently called "through-composition". Not so common in contemporary pop music, but perhaps that statement is more of a condemnation of the limitations of the pop format.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Through-composed

- Versus

September 11 | Unregistered CommenterVersus

One might argue that "through-composition" is in fact, a lack of structure. But for the purposes of our discussion, it's a purely academic debate. I stand by what I said at the end of the post: a song without obvious repetition is destined to fail.

September 11 | Registered CommenterBrian Hazard

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