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Debate About Song Structure..


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Hello there ladies and gents,

I am starting this topic in hopes to stir an intelligent debate about the structures of songs. Lately I have been pondering the basic song writing structure, (verse, bridge, chorus)I was just thinking about how that if you were to compare music to painting or sculpture you could draw a lot of connections with how they developed throughout the eons of measurable time: Painting and sculpture at one point was about preserving classicism and a reference to the great masters (Raphael, Michelangelo, Da Vinci etc.) Music experienced a similar period where composers all strove to emulate the masters of music (Beethoven, Mozart, Bach etc.) Basically what I'm getting at is from my experience in music (as a general music enthusiast) I've noticed that is rare to see any deviation from the "classic" song structure. Do you think that We are in an era of preserving classicism and like with art songwriting will go through a phase of abstraction? (not to say that bands aren't doing some pretty unique things currently) Do you think there will always be a place for the traditional methods or will this current cannon of lyricism will pass?

And if perhaps you know of some artists that are turning the traditional idea of writing on its head please feel free to point me in their direction because I am a big fan of innovation. :thumb23:

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I've noticed that is rare to see any deviation from the "classic" song structure. Do you think that We are in an era of preserving classicism and like with art songwriting will go through a phase of abstraction? (not to say that bands aren't doing some pretty unique things currently) Do you think there will always be a place for the traditional methods or will this current cannon of lyricism will pass?

Hi Jordan.

I guess it all depends upon what you mean by ‘classic’ song structure. In my experience, most aspiring tyro song-writers wouldn’t recognise ‘classic’ structure if it rushed at them quickly, leapt up to clamp its jaws around their eyebrows, and spent a week swinging in front of their faces. They are largely blind to the riches and value of traditions outside last month’s pop charts or YouTube sensation. And, quite clearly, I am a jaundiced and desperately cynical old git who deserves to be beaten and then ignored,…. but at least I know how to spell ‘canon’.

Contemporary songwriting is cursed and hobbled by its dependence on folk-forms – which may certainly pre-date our great-grandparents but could hardly be graced with the exemplary status of a level of achievement deserving the epithet ‘classic’.

Part of the issue, as I see it, is that not only is ‘song’ an essentially musical event, but also the elements you mention of ‘verse’, ‘bridge’, and ‘chorus’, are essentially musical events – and yet currently each term appears to have been kidnapped by amateur barbarians and applied to purely lyrical forms without reference to, nor understanding of, underlying musical architecture.

The central importance of this architecture, the need for structure, suggests to me the ‘abstraction’ which you hypothesise is highly unlikely. Certainly it occurs in other media as well as other modern music forms but, in popular songwriting, our ears respond preferentially to shape and form and recognizable pattern repetition. Yet evidently I can neither agree to your core assumption that there is currently “a place for the traditional methods”. Currently I see a huge ignorance and denial of songwriting tradition and instead a conviction that the randomness and accidents of un-tutored stumbling constitutes ‘innovation’, that we can write entire novels without understanding syntax or being able to form a coherent sentence, and that it is in effect possible to run like the wind before we learn how to walk.

There!

I feel much better now.

And if perhaps you know of some artists that are turning the traditional idea of writing on its head please feel free to point me in their direction because I am a big fan of innovation.

There are two people to whom I would draw your attention for their successes in innovating and developing structure (and all within the ‘classic’ structure, too!).

Burt Bacharach is one. Take an analytical look at “Say A Little Prayer”, for example. Nothing particularly significant or special about that song, we may think when we hear it. Taking it apart, though, we notice it is built with mixed time signatures, cut-bars, and odd phrase-lengths. But, when we listen to it, and simply enjoy it as a classic pop-song, these ‘deviations’ are absolutely imperceptible. No sticking out like a sore thumb at all. The mark of a true craftsman.

Hoagie Carmichael is another. Just take a close look at “Stardust” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well”. Both of these pieces illustrate unexpectedly unusual liberties being taken with normal ‘classic’ song form – but in such a supremely apparently effortless way, like Bacharach, that the ‘deviations’ are completely un-noticeable – unless you are paying close attention like a proper student song-writer should.

But then, these are exemplars of the ‘classic’ traditions of song-writing form and practice which are currently largely ignored and overlooked.

(I'll bet you wished you had never asked.)

(But I couldn't resist an answer.)

.

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I'm thinking that here Jordan is being specific about the ultra-current pop culture and it's machine made pop.

That is just it, most of it is formula writing and you really have to step away from anything with "pop" in the description before you get to anything really experimental song structure wise. Then a veil draws aside and lo there are many song forms to explore, and yes, within current writing across many genres including indie (just not indie pop rock lol)

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And, quite clearly, I am a jaundiced and desperately cynical old git who deserves to be beaten and then ignored,…. but at least I know how to spell ‘canon’

I laughed a little :)

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Hello there Lazz

I get the impression that you grow tired of answering this sort of wet-eared, ill educated, juvenescent topic. I appreciate the response none the less. I am going to go through this paragraph by paragraph, I wasn't expecting such a passionate and lengthy response.

Referring back to my original post, I suppose I should have explained what I had meant by "classic" I used it as how one would use "typical" or perhaps "commonly used" I didn't mean to suggest that great songs with a traditional folk-format don't exist: only that the overuse and misuse of the forms becomes tiresome (pop song writing.) I apologize for my extra "n" I hope this error has not lessened your opinion of me, ^_^ again I didn't expect such a well formatted and thought out response. From now on I shall try and post with the utmost attention to grammatical law.

I definitely agree with your point about musical architecture, and understand that with every lyric there is a paired musical composition. When I posted this debate I had a main goal in mind, it was to garner an opinion on contemporary song writing and maybe learn of ways I could avoid cliche in my structuring. I guess when I spoke of an abstraction it was more of a theoretical abstraction and not something that I had thought of achieving personally, so I hadn't considered the union between lyric and instrumentation and thus missed this keenly observed flaw in the idea of structural abstraction. Thank you.

" Currently I see a huge ignorance and denial of songwriting tradition and instead a conviction that the randomness and accidents of un-tutored stumbling constitute ‘innovation’, that we can write entire novels without understanding syntax or being able to form a coherent sentence, and that it is in effect possible to run like the wind before we learn how to walk. "

In reference to this quote could you give an example of an artist like this. I get the impression that you believe I resent folk forms or technical songwriting practices, which I don't, I was just looking for a way to write a "novel" differently not necessarily without regard to "syntax" (structure.)

Thank you for pointing me towards Burt and Hoagie. Very interesting stuff upon a first spin/read I intend to study them more.

Oh and by the way I am glad I asked because you will never learn unless you do right? I appreciate the educational if not slightly grumpy reply :P

Thanks,

Jordan

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" Currently I see a huge ignorance and denial of songwriting tradition and instead a conviction that the randomness and accidents of un-tutored stumbling constitute ‘innovation’, that we can write entire novels without understanding syntax or being able to form a coherent sentence, and that it is in effect possible to run like the wind before we learn how to walk. "

In reference to this quote could you give an example of an artist like this. I get the impression that you believe I resent folk forms or technical songwriting practices, which I don't, I was just looking for a way to write a "novel" differently not necessarily without regard to "syntax" (structure.)

Great stuff Jordan.

Although sincere, I was having a good laugh at myself as I wrote - which I was confident you would recognise - as well as sharpening my pencil and polishing phrases ready for a pithy and pointed letter to my ex-employer.

No - I did not get the impression you resent folk forms at all - I obviously communicated poorly. It is my good and unblemished self who views and hears most contemporary pop as folk forms - that's the perception I was attempting to express. Folk forms are simple and basic and user-friendly. And I like and enjoy and study a great deal of folkloric musics from all around the world. Like you, I bear absolutely no resentment towards them. And I similarly bear no resentment towards the fact that they become readily useful and serviceable for anyone with a basic human desire to make music and have a good time. The most important thing, after all, is that people are 'doing' and creating and expressing, and enjoying without harm.

When we are talking about songwriting per se, though, as an art form which has been accumulated and developed over many years by some mighty fine artists and composers, those folk-forms begin to occupy a much lesser part of the overall picture. And I had made the mistake, as John suggested, of presuming the big picture was what we were talking about rather than just the minor tributary of contemporary pop where, because still consisting of mere folk-forms (however honourable and honest those forms may be), the discovery of innovation seems unlikely and rare. Pop thrives and survives, I suggest, on the effective commodification of comfort and reassurance rather than the unexpected. (And in doing so, I hasten to add, it can certainly achieve its own measures of perfection.)

But my inner-grumpy-old-man, I hope you understand, while usually grumbling only inwardly and silently (silently, like the 'c' in 'rap' or the 'p' in swimming), was unfortunately provoked into misplaced vocal outburst by your apparent implication that these contemporary pop folk-forms could somehow be elevated into some exemplar of sophisticated structural excellence ranked greater than their merits. Silly old bugger.

You mention Raphael, Michelangelo, and Da Vinci in your post. Old 'grumps' finds this interesting also. He has long complained that whereas in all other areas of creative endeavour - theatre, cinema, literature, dramaturgy, painting, science, the plastic arts.... - students and practitioners hold constant and sincere affection and appreciation for the long rivers of tradition that have stretched before, and which inform their practice like regular pygmies clambering atop the shoulders of giants, in the current popularity of songwriting as a pursuit this deeper respect and recognition is commonly abandoned in favour of claims to be 'new' and 'revolutionary' and 'cutting-edge' almost completely without regard or understanding of what has long preceded them. As the old dead gnomic reprobate Salvador Dali ("Salvage", to his mates) was overheard to say: "Anything not grown from tradition, is plagiarism".

(Old 'grumps' can be boringly predictable to live with - but often he has a point.)

So - my suggestion (of which I gratefully and graciously note you have already taken some heed) is that, if the desire is to find ways of escaping the current limitations of form (and formulae) there is no better source guidance than exploring the work of past masters.

And please don't worry about 'cannon' - old 'grumps' was only having his fun - we all make spelling mistakes.

Very funny and ridiculous, for example, is the way that pesky automatic 'spell-check' insists that 'formulae' is the wrong spelling.

Ha! What do they know? No wonder that there is illiteracy abroad.

The dumb automatic grammar-checker is blind also to subordinate clauses.

Microsoft has only limited respect for language.

Bah!

Sorry - old 'grumps' doing his thing again.

He doesn't get at all tired of responding to this sort of topic, though.

Seldom gets such a welcome opportunity.

And the old codger likes your attitude.

.

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I really enjoyed reading this debate, for me and i presume a lot of other people classic or basic structure in songwriting is our only guide to writing

When i fisrt started and i have to be honest here!! i looked at how other songwriters structured their songs and took it from there, so i am sure that mine was very basic, i would like to think that i have improved somewhat and even though i am in my infancy where my writing is concerned i believe i am more likely to try out somthing new structuraly

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I am going to go through this paragraph by paragraph,

This paragraph is not as clear as I would wish in intent or meaning.

We have a great many lyricists here. I am even most primarily myself a lyricist. Being hipper to, more aware of, the musical nature of song and its parts is something which offers us enormous insight and advantage. Often even what seem basic concepts like 'verse', 'chorus', and 'bridge', can mean one thing to someone working on the purely lyrical side of the equation while suggesting something slightly different to a musician. And generally if a lyricist has a deeper understanding of how a song is structured musically it seems possible, in my experience, for them to be enabled to pull off a better job.

Lyricists have to be able to work with regular musicians in order to survive.

So it's a huge benefit to study and learn as much as we can about musical structure and motive in order to inform and improve our working vocabulary of ways to carve words into appropriate shapes.

None of that 'pre-chorus' baloney.

That's the point I was trying to make.

But a lot of people aren't at all interested in stuff like this.

They like doing things their own way - and fair enough, good luck to 'em.

Some even protest a quite strenuous dismissal of any style of self-education or development.

How many times do we hear, for example, a tyro musician's proud boast that their theoretical understanding is "not enough to hurt my playing, man"?

Blissful in obstinate ignorance - those are some of the 'amateur barbarians'.

.

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...or obstinate lazyness, which I find both boring and frightening.

Oh, good!

Another grumpy old git in the making.

.

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Can I be an amature barbarian too? That sounds like fun.

Face-paint.

It's all in the face-paint.

.

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  • 1 month later...

I always say let the song choose the structure. What I mean by that is purely the difference between having a pre chorus or not. Sometimes you don't need it but sometimes the song lends itself to a pre chorus. Other than that you will find I always stick to:

Verse,

Verse or Pre,

Chorus,

Verse,

(Pre),

Chorus,

Middle 8,

Chorus.

It's the universal song arrangement and you will never go wrong with that.

JD

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