On Songwriting Pt. II
Nuts, bolts, warts and all
My last blog post, for those of you following along, was about the attitude and work ethic that helps me write a lot of songs for different projects in different styles. It’s been fun discussing the aspect of musicianship I’ve chosen to focus on, after I realized that I wasn’t a genius and that being the shreddiest shredder that ever shredded was kind of a hassle: Songwriting (in case you missed the title there). If you missed it, check it out here if you’re so inclined. That said, this isn’t one of those sequels that you won’t understand if you aren’t familiar with the first installment.
A key element of any process is defining your goal and understanding the steps that it takes to get there. So let’s start with something that seems simple – what is a song? It’s a word that’s so ubiquitous and something that seems so obvious that when we try to really put it into words it can be difficult to articulate.
The dictionary defines it as a poem set to music, but that seems too narrow. WIkipedia has a more elaborate entry you can look at as well. I would say that a song for our purposes here is a musical composition, usually featuring a lead vocal, created for popular consumption.
What we’re talking about is not a symphony, not a cantata, not a waltz, but specifically a popular song – popular in that it’s part of pop music (which is the larger umbrella that encompasses rock, which itself is the larger umbrella that includes metal,etc), not classical or jazz. Speaking of symphonies, a helpful aspect of classical music is that it has fairly strict definitions and forms– specific movements that proceed in a certain order for a piece of music to be a symphony or concerto, etc. Once you apply that formal mode of structural thinking to popular music (rock, folk, pop, dance, death metal, etc.) you can start breaking songs down into structural elements and formulating generalizations about how they’re composed.
One realization that took me a long time to come to (which felt like a breakthrough, even though it seems painfully obvious) is that ultimately, a piece of music is designed to be listened to – to create a form of communication between the performer and the listener. There’s supposed to be some mutual understanding achieved. So if you’re writing songs, you’re attempting to communicate. Even if your subject matter is obscure, esoteric, or intensely personal, the only way to effectively convey it is by communicating as clearly as possible.
Song structures help the listener grab onto songs, making communication more effective. If you craft an 11-minute song with 25 different non-repeating parts that are extremely technically difficult to play and then write non-repetitive, non-rhyming lyrics to go with it, you’re going to have a hard time communicating your ideas effectively to most listeners. That’s not saying that it can’t be done, but you’re really stacking the odds against yourself. Song structures that are familiar to the ear allow the listener to grasp a song immediately and resonate with it – the composer and audience are basically speaking the same language.
Think about why a section appears in the song. Is its sole purpose to show off what a good instrumentalist you are? If so, don’t make it the focus of the entire song. Use it as a contrast section, or else what was a mutual experience between the listener and the musician becomes a monologue of “look how great I am.” There’s a reason why singers are typically the most famous band members – they’re the ones literally speaking the same language as non-musician listeners – words.
Here’s what happens when you just write music to show how good you are at playing:
And here’s a great, catchy song with an excellent instrumental contrast section that also highlights outrageous virtuosity:
If you want someone to listen to your song, think about what you like as a listener. How do songs that have special meaning for you make you feel? I’m not saying write a song solely for in the hope that it’ll become a hit single – you have to be expressing yourself honestly to make something compelling and your material has to be novel in order to catch an audience’s ear. But think about how you’re conveying your ideas and how to make them clear, interesting and powerful. The place that all of this comes from is still personal / emotional, but use a rational approach to channel that into something listenable.
So now that we’ve defined what a song is and what it’s supposed to do, we can break songs down into component parts and learn about those components and how they combine to create a good song. We know a good song when we hear one, but that’s not enough information to help us write our own songs. So without further ado, let’s cut open a song and poke around in there to see what makes it tick.
Primary components of songs
In broad terms, most (dangerous words there) rock and pop songs follow a fairly similar structure – verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / chorus (often songs will include a 3rd verse after the bridge before the last chorus). This is the structure of most of the music on the radio, be it country, classic rock, pop, R&B, etc. You may be thinking something like, “but extreme metal is all about throwing out the rules and just doing what thou wilt!” That’s fine, but if you come up with a better song than “Wasted Years” or “Master of Puppets,” you just let me know. I’ll be waiting. The reason that this structure is so prevalent is because it is digestible, listenable and familiar. It contains enough elements to be interesting, but still digestible. It’s not so challenging as to drive away an audience. And, just as stories generally consist of a beginning, a middle and an end – the good ol’ 3 Act structure – songs also have 3 primary components. This may seem pedantic, but bear with me as we loosely define these components.
A verse generally features the same music, but different lyrics each time. Verses generally serve to establish the tone and theme of a song and build up to the chorus. Here’s the verse from “Master of Puppets” for an example:
1st verse: End of passion play, crumbling away… (etc)
2nd verse: Needle work the way, never you betray… (etc)
3rd verse: Hell is worth all that, natural habitat… (etc)
A chorus generally features the same music and lyrics each time. Choruses tend to be the most memorable, repetitious parts of a song and often feature the song-title prominently in the lyrics. Musically, choruses are often more open and are designed to feel like a release of tension from the build-up section of the verse. Here’s the chorus for “Aces High” for example:
Run, live to fly, fly to live
Do or die, won’t you
Run, live to to fly, fly to live
A bridge is what we would consider to be a “contrast” section. Most extended musical themes and guitar solos are featured in the bridge section. The bridge serves as a way to highlight the chorus and verse by being a separate entity. In pop music, songs in major keys often feature bridges in minor keys or vice versa. Verses may or may not feature a vocal section. The bridge of “Master of Puppets” is a great example because it utilizes almost every common element of bridges in one song. The clean guitar section is a dramatic dynamic contrast to the rest of the song, which builds into a brooding melody, and then builds to a vocal section with a completely different cadence and lyrics than the rest of the song, followed by an extended guitar solo and another riffing section that appears nowhere else in the song.
Secondary components of songs
Now that we’ve outlined the basic building blocks of songs, there are some other elements that may be used to add variety.
A pre-chorus is an additional section between the verse and the chorus that generally serves to heighten tension before it is released in the chorus. A common way to achieve this is modulation, playing the same musical riff or phrase at a different pitch, often one whole-step higher – as in songs like Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, …And Justice for All, etc. South of Heaven uses a similar technique, using the same key change but with a different riff. There are many other ways to achieve this sense of escalating tension – half-time or double-time feel drumming for example. In Exhumed our “generic song formula” uses a double-time verse (the “Slayer” beat) and a quadruple time pre-chorus (blast beat) before the chorus, which generally returns to a double time feel (see Deep Red, Death Revenge etc). You can achieve the same effect as pre-chorus without actually adding an additional section by altering the last section of a verse – for example: changing the beat the snare drum falls on, adding more elements (backing vocals, changing between a bass-line and a pedal point, etc) or other ways that make sense in whatever particular composition you’re working on.
This should be fairly self explanatory. The intro can be a separate section that sets the tone of the song and stands alone (Welcome Home [Sanitarium] is a ready example). An intro can be something as simple as a drum fill (Painkiller, or Welcome Home by King Diamond, for examples), a drum beat with a lead-guitar lick (Cockroaches by Voivod) or an extended musical section with multiple parts like Hell Awaits. Extended build-ups (Enter Sandman) or musical themes from the composition played markedly differently (Wherever I May Roam) also fall under this category.
The standard pop songwriting playbook tells you that if you have a monster hook in the chorus, keep repeating that shit and fade the song down – that’s the surefire way to have the song stuck in the listener’s head (“Living on a Prayer” anyone?). Conventional wisdom would assert that the second “catchiest” way to end a song would be at the end of the final chorus, so as not to dilute the hook – see Pull the Plug. Often that feels too poppy for a metal song, so a separate outro piece can be used to cap off a song, or a part from the intro or bridge will reappear to serve as the outro. Any ending that is not the chorus or verse would qualify. One thing I like about Repulsion is that most of their songs, even while generally clocking in at two minutes or less, still have great structures and usually include a separate outro section.
So Where Are We?
Now that we have defined what a song is, what it’s composed of and and what those components are, we can actually start looking at various songs and seeing how similar they may or may not be. And by dissecting songs from our favorite bands, we can start to find patterns in their work and replicate or ignore those patterns in our own as we see fit. So if you thought the first two installments here were dry – next time, I’ve got charts. Ah yes, charts the essence of rock and roll.
And as a quick ending note, sorry for the delay in getting this updated – originally I had planned for this entry to be combined with the next one, and due to my poor editing decisions, I got delayed – then Exhumed went to Europe, and life and stuff kept getting in the way of me coming back to this. Hopefully this won’t be a pattern. Anyway, as usual, hope this was informative and not too painful to read. Cheers, all!