Build-A-Song Part VIII: Finishing Touchesby Mary Dawson
The Internet Writing Journal, September 2000
This is the eighth and last in a series of articles called Build-A-Song which present a step-by-step method for creating a song. By no means is this "the only" method for writing songs. In fact, the approaches to songwriting are as many as the writers themselves. But our Build-A-Song series offers a sequential template for covering the basics of successful songwriting. I hope you will follow along and perhaps even try this method as you create your own. If you missed the other articles in the series, you may find them in the articles archive.
Part VIII -- Finishing Touches
If we were building a house instead of a song, we would be almost ready to move in by now! We've been careful to lay a strong foundation comprised of our Great Idea and the Hook. We have carefully planned and constructed the framework of the Lyrics and the Melody. We have used crafting tools like Cadence and Rhyme to make the rooms fresh and interesting without sacrificing comfort and familiarity. It's time now for the wallpaper and the curtains. This is the fun stuff ... so read on!
A Bridge -- Yes or No?
The song we have been constructing in this series is a Verse-Chorus song -- probably the most dominant song form in contemporary hit music. Most Verse-Chorus songs have two verses with two repetitions of the chorus (once after each verse) -- sometimes a third chorus concludes the song. There is, however, an additional section that may be added to the song between the second and third choruses...it's called the Bridge.
The Bridge of a song functions much like any other bridge. It is a transitional feature that moves a person from one place to another. In this case, the Bridge moves the listener from the second to the third chorus, providing contrast and building toward the grand finale -- that last repetition of your unforgettable hook and chorus. The Bridge can also be called a release or a break because it provides relief from the repetition of the verse and chorus melodies and helps to hold the listeners' attention all the way to the end of the song.
A Bridge differs from a chorus in that:
- it usually occurs only once in the song
- it usually does not contain the hook
- it is transitional (rather than conclusive) in both the melodic and lyrical feel, leading once more back to the chorus
- it is optional -- not all Verse-Chorus songs need one
Since the Bridge is an optional feature (much like crown molding or wallpaper in a house), aspiring songwriters often puzzle over the question of whether or not their song really needs one. Here are some considerations:
- Is the song too short? Does it go by too quickly? -- Most commercial songs should be at least 2 1/2 to 3 minutes in length. If the song is uptempo, two verses and three choruses may simply not be quite enough to make the song a standard length. A Bridge can be an ideal "song stretcher" to add a few seconds. On the other side of the coin, if your song is already almost 4 minutes long, you may decide not to include a Bridge.
- Is the Bridge saying something new? -- If the Bridge is simply re-stating something that has been said before in the verses, it is probably best to omit it. Remember…the Bridge must contrast with the rest of the song and bring your "Songwriter's Camera" to a new angle on the Great Idea of the song that is stated in the hook. (In my opinion, one of the most beautiful Bridges ever "built" occurs in the wonderful Gerry House/Don Schlitz song, The River and the Highway, recorded by Pam Tillis. It is worth the price of the CD to study this stellar example of what a great Bridge can do!)
- What is your "gut" telling you? -- It has been my experience that almost every song I have ever written takes on a "life of its own" as I write it. Most songwriters will simply begin to sense intuitively if the song really needs a Bridge or not. If you are collaborating with another writer, this decision would be one you would want to discuss as the song takes shape both musically and lyrically.
In earlier Build-A-Song articles we spent a great deal of time developing the concept of the song's main hook as the most unforgettable musical and lyrical line. It's that one line that the listener cannot forget even long after the song is over. It's the line that usually contains the title and that "grabs the listeners by the ears" -- catching, holding, and sustaining their interest to the end of the song and pulling their emotions into the experience. ( Build-A-Song/Part 2)
There are some other techniques, however, that can effectively assist the main hook in its task of engaging and maintaining listener attention. Secondary Hooks are simply supplementary and often unexpected auditory "treats" that delight the ear and keep the listener tuned into the song. Here are some to consider:
- The Riff -- Riffs are melodic phrases or
sequences that are not part of the main melody, but that are
so memorable that they become part of the song's identity and
sustain listener interest throughout. Often a riff first appears
as part of the introduction of the song, and then continues to
reappear at intervals throughout. The repeated bass line
sequence in Message in a Bottle by the Police is a great
example of an effective riff.
- The Pre-Chorus -- Also known as a channel
or a climb. The
pre-chorus is a part of the verse that immediately precedes
the chorus. The melody of each pre-chorus is the same; the
lyrics may also be the same or can change with each verse.
The pre-chorus builds tension into the chorus and helps to
increase anticipation for the payoff of the hook and the
chorus. Shania Twain and her husband and partner, Robert "Mutt"
Lange, used a very effective pre-chorus section in their 1998
smash hit, You're Still the One. (It's the part
that says, "They
said 'I'll bet they'll never make it/ But just look at us holding
on/Still together, still going strong... ")
- Repeated Lyrical Sounds -- As you tweak your
nearly finished song, look for opportunities where you can
strategically choose words that employ the tools of Assonance
and Alliteration. In case you've forgotten your high school
English definitions, here's a simple meaning for each of these terms:
Assonance -- Repeated vowel sounds -- without repetition of similar consonants. As an example, here's a line from one of my lyrics that employs a repeated long O sound:
Looking through old photos, frozen moments of our lives
I could have said:
Looking through old pictures, all those memories of our lives
Same meaning, but I would have missed the subtle cohesiveness that assonance provides.
- Alliteration -- Repeated consonant sounds in two or more neighboring words or syllables. Recently, I wrote a song about a woman whose "biological clock" was eliminating her desire to have children. Notice the alliteration...
This is Priscilla, professional and pretty
She's climbed the ladder that leads to success
But a week ago Friday, Priscilla turned forty
As she blew out her candles, she had one request...
I could have made the lady's name Maria, which would have had the same stressed syllables and cadence, but I would have missed the opportunity for alliteration with the words, professional and pretty that occurred by simply changing the name to Priscilla. Similarly, in line three... I could have easily made the day of her birthday, Thursday...but I would have missed the alliteration with the word, forty. These are small details, but like the accent pieces in a beautifully decorated home, they can add that finishing touch that makes all the difference.
Just a word of warning, though. Before you know it, you will pass a billboard…hear a phrase….or get an idea that will start the process all over again. That's the life of a Song Builder!
**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.