You probably know the moral of the fable “The goose that laid golden eggs”: Don’t examine a magic gift too closely, lest you destroy what makes it magical.
Similarly, some songwriters are leery of learning the mechanics of what makes a song tick. We’d like to gently challenge that notion today: Being unaware of the proper names of the elements of a song is not a reliable way of lending them magic or mystery.
Conversely, knowing what you’re creating lends valuable insights into the writing process, and helps guide your lyrical and arrangement decisions. What’s more, being able to communicate musical terminology clearly will give you a leg up when you’re ready to work with collaborators.
So let’s take a whirlwind tour of some of the more common terms you’ll encounter as a songwriter. Not all of them appear in every song, but the idea is to get you familiar with the basic building blocks of the song.
Think of this as a prelude to the actual song. It might be as simple as an instrumental bar or two of the coming verse, or it could be a longer, fully realized section employing alternate tempos and keys. Whether it’s intricate or plain, the idea is to set up a listener’s expectations of what’s to come.
Arguably the most elemental part of a song, the verse is where the song’s story—whether it’s lyrical or instrumental—begins to unfold. Musically, the verses will usually be more or less identical to each other, while the story contained in the lyrics will play out over the course of several verses.
This element typically replaces its counterpart, the more commonly found chorus. It’s a part of the song that repeats throughout, typically at the beginning or end of the verse, and the lyrics often contain the title of the song. Though similar to the chorus, it’s shorter and simpler, and musically it doesn’t diverge much from the verse. The line “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind” from the Bob Dylan song of the same name, is an example of a refrain.
Another optional song section, but one especially common in rock. Think of it as a musical spacer between the verse and the chorus. Unlike a bridge, it’s typically repeated before each chorus in the song. Its role is typically to build up suspense or anticipation before the big payoff of the chorus.
This is where you’ll find the biggest energy, massed voices (if they’re going to appear) and a sense of having reached the “payoff” in terms of what the song is about. Ideally, it’s also the catchiest part of the song, the part listeners will want to return to again and again.
Think of this section as a “palate-cleanser,” interrupting the standard verse/chorus tradeoff by introducing new musical and lyrical content. There’s also typically a bit of tension of buildup implied, so that when the familiarity of the verse reappears, the listener feels a sense of reward.
Outro (or Coda)
Like the intro, the outro or coda is a section of song that takes us out of the song’s emotional landscape. It can be as simple as a bit of verse or chorus repeated several times, or it can be an entirely new section of music. The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” includes one of the most recognizable codas—the long “Na na na na….Hey Jude” section—in rock.
While not technically a part of song structure, the hook is an important element. As the name implies, it’s the catchiest part of a song. Confused? Imagine Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” or Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” without their choruses, and you’ll know what a hook is.
As a songwriter, it is extremely vital to keep track of your song decisions, and split and lyric sheets are two important documents that can help you with that. A lyric sheet captures all the relevant information about you and your song, if your song includes lyrics, that can help when pitching to music supervisor’s or labels. A split sheet is an agreement that identifies the ownership percentage each creator has in the song. Having an understanding of both will ultimately help you determine the royalties you are owed. Whether you’re just getting started or have been writing for a while, having a healthy understanding of the parts of a song and the resources that help keep your publishing complete are vital to your success.
Take control of your publishing. Maximize Songtrust for your songs and business.
We created this guide to answer a simple question: How do songwriters support themselves?
The answer is not as simple as we’d like, but our goal is to make it as clear, transparent and understandable as we possibly can.
Songtrust is more than just a rights management platform and publishing administrator - we’re a team of experts in the music community who strive to educate, support, and provide thought leadership to creators, representatives, and businesses across the music industry.
Our hope is that you’ll finish this guide with an better understanding of the business behind songwriting and have actionable resources to help you be successful.