Putting the puzzle pieces together
Welcome back, those of you with long attention spans. If you’ve been reading through the first two installments (thanks), we’ve established what components make up most “popular” songs – “popular” here including everything that isn’t classical or jazz, so we mean everything from My Bloody Valentine to Terrorizer to Lana Del Rey to Whitney Houston. The most direct way to make general observations on how songs are generally put together is to dissect other people’s song and analyze their structures. Through studying songs, you can find what resonates the most with you as a listener, and then carry that into your songwriting.
The weird thing is that for most musicians, everything I outlined in the previous two installments (what’s a verse / chorus / bridge, music as a form of communication, etc) is stuff you learn right away as an instrumentalist or composer. However, many people playing extreme metal are self-taught, or have focused very narrowly on one aspect of playing – being “brutal,” sweep arpeggios, 240bpm blast-beats, etc. Extreme metal is a genre whose appeal is its apparent lack of any real rules – there can be keyboards, harsh noise, odd time signatures, screaming, singing, sound effects, whatever. That lack of orthodoxy often carries over to much of the songwriting in the genre. There are certainly great albums without a lot of traditional structures (Slowly We Rot and Effigy of the Forgotten come to mind) but even most of the extreme stuff that has become “classic” still has some kind of verse / chorus pattern.
So without further ado (unfortunately for you, dear reader, further ado is kind of my specialty) let’s take a look at the basic construction of some songs – we won’t get into the more specific stuff like mapping the key changes and number of repetitions of parts at this stage, we’re just going to create general outlines.
So Come On, Jump in the Deep End
My philosophy is to learn from those I consider the best, so here’s a breakdown of two of my all-time favorite songs side-by-side, both of which are fairly compositionally complex, especially to a non-musician.
Both of these songs have a lot of separate parts, but they also both essentially go:
intro / verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / verse / chorus
with some extra bits. The extra bits are part of what gives each song its “personality,” but if you go too far afield of a traditional structure, that personality gets lost because the song becomes difficult for listeners to follow. So you can include fairly elaborate / complex arrangement variations while still retaining a basic sense of form. Slayer does all the extra riffing and “jamming” at the beginning of the song, Metallica does it in the middle. Metallica uses a more traditional pre-chorus, Slayer uses a transition riff as a “post-chorus.” But ultimately, these are both fairly traditionally structured, if elaborate, pop songs.
Anatomy of a Heavy Metal Hit Single
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of metal tunes that are less structurally complicated and have shorter run-times that we all know and have heard a million times:
Pretty similar, right? All Wasted Years needs is a 3rd verse, and they’d be practically identical, structurally speaking. So, on one hand yes, I’m boiling art down to a formula, but on the other hand, the formula is pretty rad. It’s also the same formula as 99% of pop songs that have been on the radio for the last 40 some-odd years, so like it or loathe it, it works on the level of connecting with listeners.
The hook in Rainbow in the Dark is so infectious, they even thought they could sell beer with it.
Song Structure – Taking it to the EXTREME*
(*Disclaimer: this section is not about the use of Mountain Dew or Monster Energy Drink to improve your compositional skills)
After looking at the previous examples, I hear you saying (from all the way across the internet, I have really good hearing) “these are all dad metal songs – what about more extreme stuff? That stuff breaks all the rules!” So let’s dissect some classic extreme metal staples.
These examples are a little bit more elaborate or quirky, but still firmly rooted in the verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / verse / chorus template. The Autopsy tune falls into a structure type I’ll get to at the end of this post (cliffhanger!). I’ve chosen older examples because a) I’m old and these are the songs I like, and b) these songs have stood the test of time to be considered classics in the genre (or at least Decibel put them all in their Hall of Fame series).
Ultimately, structural quirks are a matter of personal preference. Some people hate long intros, some people love ’em. Some people don’t like guitar solos, others can’t get enough of ’em (looking at you, Trey Azagthoth). There’s still a lot of room for variation within more straightforward song construction. Ultimately, any song with discernible verses and choruses is a lot closer to being catchy than 90% of the Death / Extreme Metal that’s out there, so just the presence of hooks and choruses will help differentiate an actual song from a “song.”
In the early days of “extreme metal,” the extremity and style of the music was so shocking that having a well-crafted song was less important, simply because of the novelty of the style’s trappings. In 2018, we’re 31 years (!) removed from Scum and have heard thousands and thousands of blast beats in the intervening years, so just being “extreme” isn’t particularly interesting – hence people adding all kinds of different instrumentation or combining seemingly incongruous styles (folk metal, world-music influenced metal, etc). These are gimmick-based ways to stand out – “Sure you’ve heard metal, but have you heard it with a xylophone as a lead instrument?” I’ve never cared for that kind of approach, which again is simply a personal preference. I just want to hear extreme metal with actual songs. Speaking of Scum, even a song flies by in a blur like The Kill by can manage to have coherent structure –
They packed all that into 19 seconds – now that’s what I call efficiency.
Sometimes the structure is more obtuse, like most pre-Heartwork Carcass songs. Here’s a comparison of Exhume to Consume and Heartwork to give you an idea of how much they streamlined their arrangements.
So, while Exhume to Consume is pretty zany, it still has verses and choruses (even though each “chorus” has different lyrics, so maybe I’m fudging the rules a little here, or maybe Jeff was). Fast-forward four years to the much more confident, musical iteration of the band that wrote Heartwork – Not only are there fewer individual parts in this song, but the song reuses more of the same parts in novel ways. I personally like Exhume to Consume better as it’s rawer and nastier in disposition, but in terms of quality songwriting, Heartwork is far more direct and effective. Identifying these elements and being able to chart them out will help you wrap your head around how songs work – after you start seeing similarities in these breakdowns, you’ll start immediately hearing them as you listen to music.
The Patterns of a Certain Individual’s Thoughts
As someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time studying the Death catalog, Chuck’s sense of song-structure is one of the clear through-lines throughout his stylistically varied career. Death songs consist of multiple verse sections (usually between two and five), often featuring key / tempo / time signature changes and breaks that culminate in a chorus, followed by a bridge with at least one guitar solo section. After the bridge, the multiple verse sections repeat, culminating in a second chorus and the end of the song. Spiritual Healing is a good example of a longer iteration of that formula with more different parts and The Philosopher is an example of the same song form, but more compacted and featuring an outro. This isn’t exactly your standard pop song-structure formula, but it really isn’t all that different either. Chuck also uses highly repetitive lyrics (often only the first or first two verse sections feature differing lyrics) which help to balance the complexity of the music with something that remains catchy and listenable. Here’s a breakdown of three Death tracks from different points in their discography as well as a Gruesome track:
When I’m writing for Gruesome, it’s a very specific process that reflects my interpretation of the Death catalog, not necessarily what I would do from my own sense of song-writing style. We also tend to have more parts and breaks because we don’t have the novelty of having our own style – we’re assuming that the listener is familiar with the source material that we’re referencing, so we spend less time displaying the individual riffs and throw a bit more stuff at you because you’re already familiar with it. We presume that we’re already on the same page as the folks listening to us – we like Death, you like Death. So we take some liberties in terms of pacing and amount of riffs per song compared to what Chuck and the gang(s) were doing.
Money, meet mouth
In the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, here’s a breakdown of songs that I’ve written for four pretty different projects, so you can see how they compare structurally and call me out for any number of musical transgressions:
They’re certainly not identical, but… they all have 2 or 3 verses and 3 choruses with guitar solos in the middle so they ain’t exactly wildly different either.
Stairway to… Somewhere Else
Before I wrap this up, I want to discuss one other fairly common song structure type I haven’t gotten into but I alluded to earlier when we looked at Ridden With Disease. I call it the “Stairway to Heaven” structure – a song has a fairly traditional verse / chorus structure but then instead of a traditional bridge, the song goes into a contrast section that develops as much as a separate song normally would and – here’s the important part – never returns to the original verse / chorus section. These songs often retain the feeling of being more “jam” oriented, a vibe that is mostly associated with 60s and 70s stuff. Here’s some examples.
One important thing about these three examples is that each use different ways to contrast the sections of the song. “Stairway” has a drastic dynamic change between the initial part of the song and the second half, “Mesmerized…” goes from 4/4 timing to 6/8, and “Sanitarium” uses a tempo shift and consistently loud dynamics to contrast the second section of the song from the moody dynamics of the verse / chorus part of the song.
Chartwork (see what I did there?)
To anyone who wants to improve as a songwriter, I’d task them to find 10 songs that they like and break them down similarly. Then, take 10 songs that they don’t care about but are “hits” or “classics” and break those down. If you really decide to attempt this, make sure to include stuff from different genres and different time periods. You may be surprised at how structurally similar many of these songs are.
When I do stuff like this, I usually grab a guitar and try to at least figure out skeletal interpretations of each part, and make notes on chord progressions, how many times each part repeats, the number of beats of any transitions, etc. How deeply you go is up to you, but you should at least be constructing rough outline maps like the ones I’ve included above.
My intent behind this fairly extensive comparison / contrast exercise is to find commonality between different songs and understand their differences in construction. You should be able to make maps of your own songs and unless you already have a record deal and are playing packed shows every night, you should probably work to make them look fairly similar to some of the examples above. As I press onward into this exploration of songwriting, I’m going to get into practical examples of building a song and analyzing different transitions, but I feel like this post is already pretty bloated and unwieldy, so if you’ve made it this far, thanks!