On Songwriting III

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.

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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:

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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.

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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 –

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

Pounder “Web of Fear”

Scarecrow “Scapegoat Parade”

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.

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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!

On Songwriting Pt. II

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.

Verse

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)

Chorus

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

Aces High

Bridge

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.

Pre-chorus

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.

Intro

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.

Outro

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!