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Finishing Touches
By Mary Dawson - 08/24/2003 - 10:50 AM EDT

©2003/Mary Dawson
All Rights Reserved

If we were building a house instead of a song, we would be almost ready to move in by now! We've been careful to lay a strong foundation comprised of our Great Idea and the Hook. We have carefully planned and constructed the framework of the Lyrics and the Melody. We have used crafting tools like Cadence and Rhyme to make the rooms fresh and interesting without sacrificing comfort and familiarity. It's time now for the wallpaper and the curtains. This is the fun stuff….so read on!

A Bridge -- Yes or No?

The song we have been constructing in this series is a Verse-Chorus song -- probably the most dominant song form in contemporary hit music. Most Verse-Chorus songs have two verses with two repetitions of the chorus (once after each verse) -- sometimes a third chorus concludes the song. There is, however, an additional section that may be added to the song between the second and third choruses…it's called the Bridge.

The Bridge of a song functions much like any other bridge. It is a transitional feature that moves a person from one place to another. In this case, the Bridge moves the listener from the second to the third chorus, providing contrast and building toward the grand finale -- that last repetition of your unforgettable hook and chorus. The Bridge can also be called a release or a break because it provides relief from the repetition of the verse and chorus melodies and helps to hold the listeners' attention all the way to the end of the song.

A Bridge differs from a chorus in that

* it usually occurs only once in the song
* it usually does not contain the hook
* it is transitional (rather than conclusive) in both the melodic and lyrical feel, leading once more back to the chorus
* it is optional -- not all Verse-Chorus songs need one

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of an effective Bridge is that it departs from the rest of the song -- both musically and lyrically -- to provide contrast. It is a great place to really "make a point" in the lyric and to provide a completely different perspective which will once more conclude with the powerful hook and chorus. The lyrical cadence and even the rhyme pattern can and should change at the Bridge. Musically, also, the Bridge should move to a new place by using a different melody, different harmonies and perhaps even different rhythms. Often, composers choose to use a key change either going into the Bridge or at the end of the Bridge as a powerful transition into the last chorus. You may even decide to make your Bridge an instrumental-only section, providing you as a musician or a member of your band an opportunity for an instrumental solo. But whatever musical or lyrical departures you decide to take in the Bridge to provide contrast, you must be careful not to get so "far afield" that you do not arrive back at the last chorus. REMEMBER: The purpose of the Bridge is to provide a new and fresh approach to the repeated and now familiar chorus which contains the "1-2 Punch" of the hook and the Great Idea.

Since the Bridge is an optional feature (much like crown molding or wallpaper in a house), aspiring songwriters often puzzle over the question of whether or not their song really needs one. Here are some considerations:

1) Is the song too short? Does it go by too quickly? -- Most commercial songs should be at least 2 1/2 to 3 minutes in length. If the song is uptempo, two verses and three choruses may simply not be quite enough to make the song a standard length. A Bridge can be an ideal "song stretcher" to add a few seconds. On the other side of the coin, if your song is already almost 4 minutes long, you may decide not to include a Bridge.

2) Is the Bridge saying something new? -- If the Bridge is simply re-stating something that has been said before in the verses, it is probably best to omit it. Remember…the Bridge must contrast with the rest of the song and bring your "Songwriter's Camera" to a new angle on the Great Idea of the song that is stated in the hook. (In my opinion, one of the most beautiful Bridges ever "built" occurs in the wonderful Gerry House/Don Schlitz song, The River and the Highway, recorded by Pam Tillis. It is worth the price of the CD to study this stellar example of what a great Bridge can do!)

3) What is your "gut" telling you? -- It has been my experience that almost every song I have ever written takes on a "life of its own" as I write it. Most experienced songwriters will simply begin to sense intuitively if the song really needs a Bridge or not. If you are collaborating with another writer, this decision would be one you would want to discuss as the song takes shape both musically and lyrically.

Secondary Hooks -- otherwise known as "Ear Candy"

In earlier articles we spent a great deal of time developing the concept of the song's main hook as the most unforgettable musical and lyrical line. It's that one line that the listener cannot forget even long after the song is over. It's the line that usually contains the title and that "grabs the listeners by the ears" -- catching, holding, and sustaining their interest to the end of the song and pulling their emotions into the experience.

There are some other techniques, however, that can effectively assist the main hook in its task of engaging and maintaining listener attention. Secondary Hooks are simply supplementary and often unexpected repeated auditory "treats" that delight the ear and keep the listener tuned into the song. Here are some to consider:

* The Riff -- Riffs are melodic phrases or sequences that are not part of the main melody, but that are so memorable that they become part of the song's identity and sustain listener interest throughout. Often a riff first appears as part of the introduction of the song, and then continues to reappear at intervals throughout. The repeated bass line sequence in Message in a Bottle by the Police is a great example of an effective riff.

* The Pre-Chorus -- Also known as a channel or a climb. The pre-chorus is a part of the verse that immediately precedes the chorus. The melody of each pre-chorus is the same; the lyrics may also be the same or can change with each verse. The pre-chorus builds tension into the chorus and helps to increase anticipation for the payoff of the hook and the chorus. Shania Twain and her husband and partner, Robert "Mutt" Lange, used a very effective pre-chorus section in their 1998 smash hit, You're Still the One. (It's the part that says, "They said 'I'll bet they'll never make it/ But just look at us holding on/Still together, still going strong….")

* Repeated Lyrical Sounds -- As you tweak your nearly finished song, look for opportunities where you can strategically choose words that employ the tools of Assonance and Alliteration. In case you've forgotten your high school English definitions, here's a simple meaning for each of these terms:

Assonance -- Repeated vowel sounds -- without repetition of similar consonants. As an example, here's a line from one of my lyrics that employs a repeated long O sound:

Looking through old photos, frozen moments of our lives

I could have said:

Looking through old pictures, all those memories of our lives

Same meaning, but I would have missed the subtle cohesiveness that assonance provides.

Alliteration -- Repeated consonant sounds in two or more neighboring words or syllables. Recently, I wrote a song about a woman whose "biological clock" was eliminating her desire to have children. Notice the alliteration….

This is Priscilla, professional and pretty
She's climbed the ladder that leads to success
But a week ago Friday, Priscilla turned forty
As she blew out her candles, she had one request…..

I could have made the lady's name Maria, which would have had the same stressed syllables and cadence, but I would have missed the opportunity for alliteration with the words, professional and pretty that occurred by simply changing the name to Priscilla. Similarly, in line three….I could have easily made the day of her birthday, Thursday…but I would have missed the alliteration with the word, forty. These are small details, but like the accent pieces in a beautifully decorated home, they can add that finishing touch that makes all the difference.

It's time now to just enjoy the results of your artistry and diligent crafting. Move in -- get comfortable with your new song. If you see some areas that need a little rearrangement, it's not too late to shift the furnishings a little bit and try some different ideas. When your song is finished, you will know it and it will be time to invite the world in to enjoy your song with you.

Just a word of warning, though. Before you know it, you will pass a billboard…hear a phrase….or get an idea that will start the process all over again. That’s the life of a Song Builder!

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