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Songwriting Elegance Through Song Form - Introduction
By Mary Dawson - 05/28/2007 - 11:07 PM EDT

When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me about a very elegant and beautiful First Lady (I can't remember which one it was) who knew exactly how to dress so that she looked her absolute best at every function! After one occasion, a newspaper columnist who had covered the event wrote: "As usual, the First Lady was dressed so elegantly that no one can remember what she wore!"

The point of this memorable little vignette was that the lady knew how to choose clothes that complimented and accentuated her best assets so that all eyes were on her -- rather than on her clothing.

Some things are meant to be in the spotlight -- other things accomplish their purpose best by NOT being noticed! In fact, many of these behind-the-scenes elements are noticeable only when they are absent -- when they don't fit -- when they are inappropriate! A First Lady clad in ill-fitting or gaudy dresses, for example, would create a much different vibe than the sophisticated woman described above.

It is my long-held conviction that song structure or song form is one of the most necessary elements of hit songwriting, but it is such a behind-the-scenes ingredient that many people are not even consciously aware that songs have structure at all. And yet, listeners have been subliminally conditioned through the years to expect certain song elements. If there is no familiar song structure …or if it is not used well in the crafting of the song, listeners sense that something is wrong and tend to lose interest quickly.

Here's another analogy. Most people are not grammarians. They have a hard time differentiating between an adjective and an adverb. But they can sure tell if a public speaker is well-spoken or not. How do they know? Because their minds have been subconsciously trained to discern between correct and incorrect use of language. They may not know exactly which grammar rules a speaker is breaking, but they sure know if it "doesn't sound right." Proper grammar is one of those crucial elements of communication that allows listeners to focus on the idea the speaker is expressing without being distracted by the words themselves.

It is my conviction that hit songwriting is far more about communication than it is about expression. Any songwriter can "express himself/herself," but it is a far different skill to communicate a thought so the listeners can "get it." I often consult with beginning songwriters who rebel when I exhort them to learn the discipline of song form because they fear that it will "inhibit their creativity." But in my opinion, skilled use of song structure is as essential to effective communication in songwriting as proper grammar is to speech.

Over the next several articles we will be delving into the very important matter of song structure -- especially the major song forms that are used in most commercial or hit songwriting. Much of what you will learn, you will already know intuitively. But once you are aware of the various song components and how they can be skillfully combined, you will gain both a new appreciation of the songs you love and a toolbox of crafting options for your own original songs.

First, we must define the terms we will use to describe the basic elements of every popular or commercial song. Whatever the genre -- Pop, Country, R&B, Jazz -- songs that have both words and music always contain at least some -- if not all -- of these elements:

The Hook -- The dictionary defines a hook as "an implement for catching something, holding something, sustaining it or pulling it along." That is a great definition for a song hook as well. The hook is the line of words and music that catches the listener's ear, holds his/her interest, sustains that interest and pulls the listener along to the end of the song.

The hook is the song's thesis statement. Every essay has a thesis that encapsulates its central idea; similarly, an effective song must have a hook that expresses in just a few words and notes what the song is about. The hook MUST be repeated several times throughout the song -- if it isn't repeated, it isn't a hook. It is that one line -- both musically and lyrically -- that listeners will remember long after the song is over, and what they will ask for when they call the radio station to request it.

The Verse -- The verse or verses of the song are the sections that provide information about the hook. Well-crafted verses will build toward and lead into the hook. All the verses of the song will have the same melody but different lyrics, and the parallel lines of each verse should be identical in length and meter. Songs of all song forms have verses which are always referred to as the "A" Section of the song.

The Chorus -- Not all songs have choruses, but you can easily identify the ones that do because a chorus contains the most memorable music and lyrics in the song. It is repeated after each verse and usually contains the hook. A chorus can be removed from the rest of the song and still sound complete in itself both musically and lyrically. A chorus is referred to as the "B" section of Verse-Chorus songs.

The Bridge -- As with the chorus, not all songs have -- or need -- a bridge. When a bridge is used, it is musically and lyrically transitional (unlike a chorus, it doesn't sound complete alone) and it occurs in the latter half of the song. A bridge takes the song in a different direction -- adding new lyrical information and new music which will once again bring the listener back to the hook. A bridge may be referred to as a "B" section or as a "C" section -- depending on the song form used.

These are the major song components. We'll also examine several minor ones as we continue our study, but it is a good exercise to identify at least these four elements in every song you hear. Learn to listen like a songwriter and you will be amazed at what you can learn! Remember, the radio is Songwriting University! When we convene next month, we'll begin to use these components to identify the three major song forms and their variations.

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