The DNA of Songs

Like people, songs come in all shapes and sizes. Some are long, some are short. Some are happy and some are sad. Some are fast and some slow. Though they may vary widely in appearance, all songs share the same basic DNA – the same building blocks. Each building block carries out a specific function. It is vital for a songwriter to understand these functions, and recognize when and where they are needed - and when they are not.

The Repeating Parts
The verse tells the story and moves the plot along. A common misstep by budding songwriters is saying the same thing with different words in each verse. Remember: each verse should contain new information. The melody during a verse is often busy, while the harmony and accompaniment remain subdued. Here, listeners are trying to follow the story. Don’t distract them! The vocals are generally in a lower range, making it easier for a singer to enunciate and speak clearly.

The last line of a verse preceding a chorus is especially important. The lyrics in this line should return the story to its central theme or idea in preparation for the chorus. The melody will often rise and the harmony will begin to build. Some songs will magnify this sense of excitement by extending this section to two or three lines. These lines are referred to collectively as the build or pre-chorus.

The chorus is where the title goes, and its job is to state (and restate) the song's central idea or theme - to say what the song is about. It should be the same or nearly the same every time. During the chorus the melody becomes simpler. Meanwhile, the harmony and accompaniment get more complex for maximum dramatic impact. The chorus is also generally sung in a higher register than the rest of the song. The chorus is a restatement of the song’s theme, and the music should help drive that idea home.

The Non-repeating Parts
An intro begins a song and could almost be considered a repeating part. Its primary function is to set the tone for the song and usher in the first verse, but often its musical theme is identical, or at least similar, to that of the chorus.

The bridge, or middle eight as it is sometimes called, is the place for a plot twist or other new information that takes the story somewhere unexpected. New chords or musical themes are used here to accentuate the fact that there is something new going on; to remind the listener to pay attention. Bridges usually end in one of two ways: they return to the chorus or they precede an instrumental solo.

An outro is a musical tag that ends a song. As with intros, outros are often musically identical to the chorus. Since the advent of modern recording many producers have opted to replace a song’s outro with a volume fade. Such fades usually occur while the musicians repeat the chorus. In songs that spotlight a musical soloist, the fade can also occur over an extended solo.

Instrumental solos in most pop songs should be kept short, especially if you intend to market the song to other artists. Don’t let them run longer than eight measures at most. Obviously, if the intent of your song is to spotlight a soloist you should include extended solos.

Mapping the Genome
From these musical building blocks - this song DNA - arise an infinite number of possibilities, from the most common popular song forms to the craziest avant-garde opus. Not every song needs every block, and not every song puts the blocks in the same order. Therein lies the beauty. As songwriters we each can act as creator or mad scientist, shaping, changing, or mutating the very substance of song to create something unique and interesting. It is this endless variety that makes music so wonderful.

*Photo by mknolwes.


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