Piano Lesson: How to write a pop song

by Christian Morris

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This follows on from How to Write a Pop Song - Part 1

Part Two: Structure

The holy grail of writing a good song is structure. In pop music a clear structure makes the song quick and easy to understand, maximising enjoyment for the listener. Happily, for the aspiring hit-writer pop structures are easily learned. Even if you've never thought about the shape of you're favourite songs, with a little effort you'll soon see how they are put together.

The main elements of a pop song are: intro, verse, chorus, middle eight and outro.

An Intro: This sets the scene for what is to come. It may set up some kind of 'hook', a catchy melody that grabs the listener, as, for example, in Europe's The Final Countdown. It might also introduce some of the vocal material as in Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks or be a chord sequence that is used often or even throughout the song, as in Bruno Mars' Just The Way You Are. It may be a rhythmic pattern. Often chords and harmony are combined together in what we would call a recognisable riff. There are many examples of these riff patterns on 8notes.com. Think, for example, of Imagine by John Lennon or Back To Black by Amy Winehouse.

Verse: A verse may be said to contain the narrative of the song. It tells a story. As such, each verse will normally use the same music but with different words. The words themselves will normally be written like a poem. Think, for example, of Alanis Morisette's searing Forgiven, where the two verses tells the story of her interaction with Catholic faith. Between each of the verses is:

The Chorus: In Forgiven this begins with the words 'We all had our reasons to be there.' Unlike a verse, the words of the chorus as well as the melody stay the same each time it is repeated. It is also usually the part of the song with the greatest emotional intensity and often the most recognisable melodic material. Often it will decide the success of the song. There are quite a few pop songs that would not have succeeded but for their catchy chorus. An 80s classic, for example, Rio by Duran Duran has an incredibly singable chorus (to the words 'Her name is Rio') but an unremarkable verse. It is impossible to imagine its success without the chorus.

Middle 8 or Bridge This section contains new material and often occurs after the second appearance of the chorus. Sometimes the effect is to add a moment of reflection, as in The Pet Shop Boys' It's A Sin (The middle eight occurs to the words 'Father, forgive me'). Sometimes it creates energy and forward momentum, as at the words 'What I learned I rejected' in Forgiven. Other songs with great middle eights include Bruce Spingsteen's Born to Run, The Beatles We Can Work It Out and The Beach Boys' Good Vibrations.

Outro: This is simply the way the song ends. It may refer back to the material in the introduction. Sometimes the song will fade out as the chorus is constantly repeated.

Other parts

Ad lib: This may be a section, often using the same pattern of chords underneath where the singer ad libs using material from the song. It will usually be familiar, but will not appear exactly the same as before.

Instrumental Solo: These may take place briefly anywhere in the song, perhaps, for example, responding to or repeating some melody from the singer. These won't normally be considered a separate section. Sometimes, however, there will be a longer passage, usually repeating chords used elsewhere, where one player comes to the fore.

When writing your own pop song it is worth listening to some of your favourite music and analysing it with sections in mind. When doing this it is helpful to label the main sections of the song with letters: Verse (A), Chorus (B).

Taking some example used here, for example, this is what you would find:

Alanis Morissette Forgiven

Intro - A (Verse) - B (Chorus) - A (Verse) - B (Chorus) - Middle Eight - B
(Chorus) - B (Chorus repeated) - B (Chorus repeated) - Ad lib - Leading to abrupt Outro

Bruno Mars Just the Way You Are

Intro - AABA - Middle Eight - B - Ad lib - B

John Lennon Imagine

Intro - AABAB

The Pet Shop Boys It's a Sin

Intro - AABAAB - Middle Eight - AAB - Instrumental solo - Outro

Duran Duran Rio

Intro - AB - Intro material reappears - AB - Intrumental solo (saxophone) -

Middle Eight - B - Outro (fade)

You can find a lot of information about song forms on the Internet. One of the classic types, for example is: Intro - ABAB - Middle Eight - BB. Looking at the examples above, however, you can see that there is a lot of variation in this basic structure. The most important thing of all is to find a clear shape that works for your song. Also, don't be afraid, when repeating a verse or chorus, to bring in new ideas. The best pop songs, even when repeating material will, for example, add new instruments and drum patterns or even change key. Variety keeps listeners interested. But, by using and varying the elements here, you have all the basic ingredients to write your own hit!

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