Forms of songwriting

man playing an acoustic guitar

© iStockphoto.com/Judson Lane

Songs are usually made up of a number of common structural elements such as a verse, a chorus and a middle eight. Each of these elements provides a set function and help to give songs a progression and structural evenness.

Commonly the verse is a repeated section in which lyrical development takes place within the song. Usually the same melodic line is repeated within the verse section whilst the lyrics change and progress. The chorus is usually the section which provides the most 'catchy' element of the song. Typically it sums up the overall message of the song, while verses provide more lyrical detail and development. Choruses therefore tend to be simple, often made up of repeated memorable phrases coupled with strong melodic lines. Middle eights are so called as they usually occur at the middle of a song and commonly last for eight bars. They provide melodic variation to the rest of the song and may also provide a space for lyrical reflection upon the main thrust of the verse/chorus combination.

These elements provide the basis of a number of differing types of common structures used in pop songs. These structures are often referred to using letters (A is usually a verse, B a chorus etc). Certain types of structure are common within particular music genres: the eight-bar folk song (AA) and the sixteen-bar verse-chorus form (AB) in Anglo-American folk music; the twelve bar structure in blues; and the thirty-two bar standard form in classic American pop songwriting which is common in showtunes, jazz ballads etc (see Lydon, 2004: 53-64).

Below this structural level, chord sequences form the basis of song structures and are often the building block around which melody, harmony, lyrics and arrangement are added. Many songwriters try to work out songs by initially experimenting with chord sequences. John Power of the Merseyside rock bands the La's and Cast comments:

"It comes down to just having the time stroking the guitar fishing for something, you just pull in a shape. You very rarely write a song... beginning to end, lyrics finished, melody sorted." (Interview for The Beat Goes On exhibition, June 2008)

Eddy Amoo from the Liverpool soul band the Real Thing also uses chords as a starting point commenting that songwriting,

"usually starts off on my guitar, whereas I'm playing some chords on the guitar and I think that sounds good and I'll think of a sort of like, a nice melody to go over it, you know, start hearing these riffs in my head." (Interview for The Beat Goes On exhibition, April 2008)

Despite this process of experimentation by songwriters, many songs are based around variations on a fairly small number of chord sequences. For example, there are a number of very simple chord progressions which have been constants throughout the history of Anglo-American songwriting. They include the so-called I/IV/V sequence which has been the basis of countless songs across varying genres. This sequence uses the tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords within the scale (the first, fourth and fifth steps in that particular scale, hence the name). For example if a song was in the key of C, this would mean that the C, F and G chords are used. This sequence has been the basis for songwriting across folk, country and blues and as a result it has fed into many differing types of music from rock, pop to rhythm and blues. Many songs use simple variations on this sequence. The Beatles' 'Love me Do' for instance, uses two chords (I/V) in the verse and mixes the sequence in the bridge/refrain section (I/IV/V). Other sequences add related chords within a given key (for instance a very popular structure is I/vi/ii/V), often adding minor or diminished variations in order to change the mood of a song. Songwriters give variation to these sequences by adding extra notes to individual chords giving new harmonic interest and suggesting new melodic possibilities for the sequence. These simple structures provide the basis for almost limitless variations. Just because a song shares a common starting point with another does not mean it cannot be original. As Ian McNabb of the Liverpool rock band the Icicle Works comments:

"A lot of the time what happens [within the songwriting process] is I hear something on the radio or hear somebody else's song and think, 'Wow I wish we would have written that'. So then I start trying to write something that is a bit like it... You try and assimilate it and hopeful end up with something that has got somewhere close to it but isn't a direct rip-off." (Interview for The Beat Goes On exhibition, May 2008)