Many creators are wary of learning how songwriting actually works — as if understanding the elements of a song makes their music less genuine or “real”. We’d like to challenge that notion today; knowing why a song sounds the way it does lends valuable insights into the writing process, and helps guide your lyrical and arrangement decisions. What’s more, being able to communicate musical terminology 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.
Perhaps the most basic and familiar 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 identical to one another, 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 it doesn’t diverge much from the verse musically. 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 that’s especially common in rock music. 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 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 a bit of tension or 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 separate part of a song’s formal structure, the hook is an important element. As the name implies, it’s the catchiest part of a song, the repeated bit that grabs (or “hooks”) a listener. 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 vital to keep track of your song decisions; split and lyric sheets are two important documents that can help with that, and determining any royalties you may have earned. 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 supervisors or labels. A split sheet is an agreement that identifies the ownership percentage each creator has in the song.
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. Need help writing stronger lyrics, check out this helpful article to learn more.