Understanding Song Structure—For Guitarists

By Jeff Moore, M.S., B.A

Just because the guitar is your primary instrument doesn’t mean you can’t write music for voice as well. This article will explore popular song structure so that guitarists can better understand and participate in writing popular music. The first step to write a song is to understand song structure. Songs are generally composed of a verse, chorus, bridge and/or pre-chorus. The only rule in music though is to understand that the rules really are guidelines. The guidelines in this case give us a starting point for understanding how to divide a song into meaningful sections for understanding. I list the basic terms and most common popular structures for songs below.

 

Song structure:

Verse = V

Chorus = C

Bridge = B

Pre-chorus = P

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Common structures:

VCVCBC

VPCVPCBC

VVVV

VCVC

CVCVC

CVVCVC

 

Definitions for further understanding:

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Question: What is the verse in a song?

Answer: The verse is generally the story. This is something that will change over time as you move from verse to verse. It is the information or the ‘story’ of your song. The notes are generally lower and the range of notes is shorter than in the chorus.

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Question: What is a chorus?

Answer: The chorus is the ‘feeling’ of the song. It is generally repeated, and as the name suggests, the chorus is meant to be sung with the audience. It sums up what is happening in the verse and gives it weight and emotional feeling. The chorus almost always contains the song title. It has more space between words, higher notes, high emotional feeling, repetition so it is familiar and the audience can ‘sing’ along.

 

Question: What is tempo?

Answer: It is the BPM listed above. Higher BPM is faster.

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Question: How many bars per verse or chorus?

Answer: They are generally in multiples of 2. A common song length may have 16 measures of verse. 8 measures of chorus (maybe repeated twice) another 16 measures of verse, another 8 measures of chorus, an 8 or 16 measure solo, another verse and a final chorus. These are generalities but they are very useful in deciding how to structure your song.

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Question: What is a bridge?

Answer: A bridge generally clarifies or surprises the listener and bridges two chorus sections. It generally only occurs once in a song.

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Question: What is a pre-chorus?

Answer: A pre-chorus is generally short 2 or 4 bars and happens (usually) before each chorus.

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Question: What is a hook?

Answer: The ‘catchy’ part of the song. This is generally going to be in your chorus. It can be lyrical or instrumental (sung or played on an instrument).

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Question: What is a counterpoint?

Answer: Counterpoint is using differing or supporting melodic structures in different melodies. Generally, in popular music (rock music, pop, country) the bass will supply counterpoint to the vocals, but this is only a generalization.

Question: Why do I have to understand all of these confusing terms?

Answer: The best way to write “Your” song is to have some base knowledge so you can best express “Your” song in a unique way. Of course, there are software and guides allow you to plug in elements and have a song ready-made, but this is really more of a karaoke type of song writing that doesn’t reflect the creative process that is needed to make a song. If it were, then the famous songwriters would just buy a piece of software and everyone would have a hit song. It’s not that easy. And it shouldn’t be. Any worthwhile creative process takes work. That’s the necessary piece. The good news, is that once you invest to work to write a song, it will be individual. It will represent you, your experiences, and your unique point of view. The audience will have an auditory picture that will allow them to see a real piece of you and your creative soul.

 

The terms above give you definitions that will help you further understand song structure. Understanding is the first step to mastering. There are many excellent online and offline resources so armed with the knowledge that you now have regarding song structure, find out about individual parts, learn how to construct those parts, and WRITE!!

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Jeff Moore is a guitar instructor for Peak Music Lessons in the Capital District of New York. He teaches guitar lessons in Latham, NY and the lead composer of the band Dark Ballet. Jeff is passionate about the fusion of guitar and voice in rock, metal and other forms of musical expression.