In the first post of this Songwriting 101 series, we discussed the four main approaches to writing a song: melody, harmony, rhythm, and lyrics. Now that you’ve got a handle on those, it’s time to tackle the basics of structure, arrangement, and dynamics so that you can start applying them to your songwriting.
The song structure or form is a fundamental aspect of songwriting. Simply put, it’s the organization of the musical sections in a song. Form consists of sectional repetition with variation in each section. Each section typically contains a progressing storyline in the lyric and a building melody, harmony, and/or rhythm.
The most common song structure in popular music is verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus, which can also be written as ABABCB. (For just one example of this form, listen to Radiohead’s “High & Dry.”) However, many popular songs leave the bridge out and simply stick to verse/chorus/verse/chorus, or ABAB. Other common variations include adding in a pre-chorus section or a third verse. AABA form, also known as 32-bar form, was the most common song form throughout the first half of the 20th century, and continues to be used in songwriting today.
Try this: Write a song in the standard popular song structure, and then try writing one in your own unique song form.
Arrangement is a general term for multiple elements of a song, including the key, tempo, and instrumentation. The arrangement of a song plays a big role in supplementing the story you’re telling and the vision you’re creating. It has the power to grab your listener’s attention and affect the emotion within the song.
The key of the song often relies on the range of the vocalist or a comfortable key for the instrumentalist. The key should always support the story and emotion of the song. In other words, if you’re writing a happy song about falling in love, you’re probably not going to want to write it in a minor key that sits low in your vocal range.
The tempo is one of the first things that you set when you’re recording a song demo. The tempo of a song can vary greatly based on the genre. Whereas ballads are typically written at a slow tempo (roughly 55 BPM), dance music is typically written at a fast pace (roughly 128 BPM). The resting heart rate for humans is roughly 60 to 100 beats per minute, so if you want your listener to sit and feel your music, then write in that tempo. If you want someone to dance your music, set the tempo to over 100 BPM and get your listener moving!
Instrumentation simply refers to the combination of instruments you choose to use in your song, and how they all work together. If you’re looking to introduce instruments in your song demo that you don’t personally play, make sure you study up on their timbre and ranges first.
Try this: Analyze the arrangement of a hit song (like Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” above) and try to apply one of the techniques to your next song.
Dynamics tend to be one of the most overlooked elements in the songwriting toolbox. Dynamics are what keep the attention of your listener by adding tension, movement, energy, contrast, and depth to your music. Just as building up to a huge crescendo increases the emotional intensity of a song, silence can be just as powerful in grabbing your listener’s attention.
Try this: Listen to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”above, and analyze the how the dynamics affect the emotion of the song.
Joe Capalbo is an intern for SongwriterLink.