For a song (or piece of music) to work it must have a structure. This is commonly built around verses and chorus.
That structure is called an arrangement. The arrangement helps deliver the story of the song in a form that is not only entertaining, but also one delivers the progression of the story being told.
Here we look at the fundamentals of arrangement for a rock or pop song. All referenced songs are easily found on YouTube. We encourage you to listen to them.
Concepts of arrangement
A song without a structure that makes sense will tend to fail. No matter how amazing the words and melody may be, if they don’t make a cohesive whole, the listener will not feel satisfied, let alone excited enough to want to come back again and again.
There are a lot of ways to write a song. Some are more common, some less so. The way that a song is arranged has a pretty big impact on how people take in the song. There are many songs that have been reworked and re-released before becoming a hit.
Some famous examples being Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling”, Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light”, Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” and a-ha with “Take on Me”.
Each of these songs was rearranged in some way that helped the story to make more sense to listeners.
As with everything in music, there are many suggestions but only one rule: get the story told effectively. This means that a folksy song like “Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez can be covered by metal act Judas Priest and make so much sense it becomes a fan favorite.
Mistakes to avoid
There is no formula for having hits, but like anything, there are some common mistakes that people make that are easily avoidable.
The greatest failings I see (or is that hear) in aspiring songwriters is that they don’t necessarily consider how the structure that they are using helps, or hinders, to deliver their story.
Wizards and balls with wings make sense in Harry Potter. Adding a lightsaber would not really make sense; therefore, it would be confusing. The arrangement that a song uses helps build the world that story takes place in; it needs to make sense for that exact song.
The cautions that I give are:
- Be sure to have a structure or arrangement. While I know many just download a music bed (“beat”) and sing over it, this is not really an arrangement. The result is a blob. While it is possible to use a diffuse structure for a song, an arrangement needs to be deliberate and therefore a strength for the song. Otherwise, the song simply feels broken.
- Don’t be too technical or pedantic about how you arrange your song. Just because you saw a list saying ABACAB, it doesn’t mean that this is how you do it for every song. Let the way the story needs to progress be the guide as to what goes where, when, and how. As we shall see later, some songs that work super well have odd methods in their madness.
- Have an ending. While technically this is covered above, many people don’t really end their songs – often quite literally as they just sto_! This is the opposite of “commercial dynamite” (Demon), in that if you don’t have an ending, your song will fizzle and fail.
Parts of a song
There are many possible parts that a song can use. To make it a bit more confusing, these parts can have different names or terms. I will cover the most common terms here.
Remember that the only rule is that you get the story told well. If you need to bend a common pattern to get there, do so. Do so with courage and style, so people know you meant it that way.
- Intro – key elements of song to get interest
- Verse – body of the story
- Chorus – central idea or emotive hook
- Pre-Chorus or Break – mini-bridge or Break
- Bridge or Middle 8 – highlight section or Climax
- Coda or Ending – Ad Lib, Crescendo or Fade
Intro is how the song begins. This is important as it sets the tone for what is to come. In simplest terms, an intro will show some of the elements to help the listener understand the key scale, chord structure, and style (genre and format) of the song.
The easiest way is to simply play the verse once without singing. This can be effective if not just a little dull at times.
The other main way is to have something that is arresting. This can be great, but be very sure that it is not random, as when the song itself starts it is confusing.
Many songs use both approaches at once to create something that is familiar but striking. The Models “Hold On” has a striking “moody” synth, which is then part of the chord progression.
Verse is the body of the song. Just as I used bullet points above to show what this section is about, and we could sing them over and over to be the chorus, we need these paragraphs to add information to justify what that refrain is about.
If you look at Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man”, the chorus takes a while to arrive. We might all know and be able to sing the title, but the line itself has no real value without the verses that made those words have such power.
Verses should have the power to set up the refrain by telling the story. Great verses have good couplets that draw people in e.g., “Tell her I’ll be waiting, In the usual place” starts Bryan Ferry’s “Slave to Love” to great effect. Simple words, but great power to draw us in and set us up for the refrain.
Chorus or refrain is the part that is sung over and over, commonly between verses and other parts of the song’s structure. These should be the real emotional center of the idea of the song.
Many songwriters will focus on the chorus first. As an example, The Clash had the idea “Rock the Casbah” that they made into a singable refrain that has emotional power or hook. The details were then filled in via verses to give the refrain sense and power.
Generally, the chorus wants to have a feeling of “rising” above the verses. This helps people to feel the emotive pull of the idea. It is wise to have the chorus represent something universal, The Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” being a great example.
The concept is actually a bit silly, but we all understand that desire to feel connected with another, so it works so well for all human beings. While possible to have a song without a chorus, it is very hard to win without this central emotional hook.
Break is a section that can appear anywhere in a song to help make a great arrangement. Often, these breaks are really a form of bridge from one part to another.
It may be hard to move from the chords of the verse to those of the chorus without having some sort of bridge to get there. When done well, a bridge adds great value.
Some styles of music tend to use more breaks than others. Metal and prog rock are great examples as solos are inserted everywhere.
The thing to be aware of is that those breaks must add value to the story, or they diminish the power of the song. Tempting as it may be to add 3,345 breaks before the first chorus, it may be merely stroking your ego, not building the song itself.
Bridge or middle 8 is where the song often steps out of the repetition of the established verse and chorus structure. This is not random, but an evolutionary movement of the story as told either in words or music.
If using a vocal bridge, there can be a different delivery, such as a rap in a rock song, or a “la la la” section, even a verse that is delivered quite differently. If using a musical bridge, this is most commonly where the screaming guitar solo happens.
Sometimes this sort of soloing rises from the melody of the song or vocal part into a climax of the musical idea. This provides a lot of satisfaction for the listener – like when the last baddie falls in Die Hard.
While a song can live without a bridge, it is generally wise to have one in some form or the song appears to lack structure and completion.
Coda or ending is where the song wraps up. This should never be a final goodbye, as the task here is to make the listener so happy that they want to take this ride again, and again, and… Again, there are many ways to get there.
The song can end with the bridge or an extension of it so it is solo, solo, solo etc. The same is often done using the chorus and adding fresh vocal parts, commonly called ad libs (stuff made up on the spot), as the song fades away to leave the listener with a feeling that this goes on.
While people say unkind things about fades, when done well, it is powerful stuff. There is also the big finish, which is usually courtesy of a perfect cadence (see the article on chord progressions). The hang is used to provide a sense of surprise or longing. There is also the cut, where the song stops suddenly.
There is a huge difference between a deliberate cold cut ending where a point is made, or reinforced, and where the song simply lacks an ending.
Always be sure to have a strong ending. Hint, a strong ending on an otherwise weak song will make the song feel stronger overall – if you can get repeated listens.
You will read many pieces of advice about how you must structure your chord progressions with regards to each of these parts of your arrangement. As usual, I will say that while there is value in those pieces of advice, they are NOT RULES that you must follow.
A great song often deliberately messes with the expected formulas to deliver something special. OMD’s “Enola Gay” used a format popular in the ’50s to deliver a very ’80s song (about an event in 1945).
In instrumental music, you still need to consider all of these parts. Often people make the mistake of simply not having instrumental parts to take the role of leading the story, leaving a big hole that makes the piece lack purpose.
Stoned Karma’s “The Dark Side of Destiny” is a good example of modern stoner rock that has a melodic center to give purpose and therefore hold interest.
If at all unsure about if your arrangement is working, talk to an experienced arranger or record producer, as these people specialize in these very things and want to deliver songs that really fire.
While it may cost to use such a service, the results should be worth it. Far better than another song destined to fail.
Putting it all together
A simple song layout may look like:
Intro > Verse > Chorus > Verse > Chorus > Break > Chorus > Ending
This, however, is an example and not a recipe for success. Let’s instead look at a few different songs that are very effective and see how each used the arrangement to deliver their story powerfully.
These songs can all be found on YouTube, and we advise really listening to understand how these structural elements are part of why these songs work so well.
Gary Allan “Sorry”
Gary Allan’s “Sorry” from his 2000 Smoke Rings in the Dark album is a wonderful example of great country writing that can apply to any song. Everything is so well put together – probably as a result of Nashville specialists.
Notice how well “tooled” everything is here. The story itself may be less than epic, but the situation is very universal.
The 4th verse uses the classic technique of having a “turnaround”, which gives not only a nice surprise (we look forward to on repeated listens), but gives the refrain a second layer of meaning to make it far “fuller” than if that 4th verse/reveal wasn’t there.
Intro > Chorus > Verse 1 > Verse 2 > Chorus > Post Chorus > Verse 3 > Break > Verse 4 (turnaround) > Chorus > Chorus > Ending
Bruce Springsteen “I’m on Fire”
Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”, from his massive selling 1984 Born in the USA album, on paper makes a poor single as there is no actual chorus in here! Yet it helped sell even more copies of this record.
The song uses a structure that is minimal, somewhat like the same part over and over with the song title as a refrain.
Bruce and the E-Street Band bring variety through their emotive delivery of this person feeling trapped by their love interest not making things easy on them.
This method is quite similar to what hip hop and trap people try to do. Proof it can work, but you need to be powerful.
Intro > Verse 1 > Refrain > Verse 2 > Refrain > Break > Verse 3 > Refrain > Refrain > Climax > Ad lib to fade
Gary Clail “Human Nature”
Gary Clail’s “Human Nature” from his 1991 album Emotional Hooligan was a surprise hit in the period of house music becoming mainstream.
Part of the surprise is that on paper, this song makes no sense at all. I gave up on trying to write out its structure as it is a bit mental. The first verse doesn’t appear till 01:35. However, the song makes perfect sense and is a joy to listen to.
While the people behind this may appear to have been making it up as they went, they had been doing this for 10 years already and were oft-called-on names.
Intro > Intro > Intro > Break > Intro > PreChorus > Verse (01:35) > PreChorus > Verse > PreChorus > Chorus/Refrain > Middle 8 > Refrain > Break > Break > Break > PreChorus > Verse > Break > …Repeat to fade
Getting it done
What I hope you see from these examples is that there is no perfect formula that when applied will make a song work. Arrangements use some, all, or none of the parts listed above.
If, however, you avoid having a clear structure to your story in song or piece of music, the listener will not be able to relate and will simply walk away.
If you want your song to work, you must understand how the story needs to be delivered to lead the listener into wanting to engage with it – to make the world of the song part of their world. That becomes the right arrangement for that song.
While a similar song may be able to use a similar arrangement, if it is too similar, it becomes boring or derivative. Many try to clone hits and wonder why they never get picked up. There is no sense in writing “Teen Sprite” or “Achy Breaky Harp”.
Often songwriters use the services of others to help them see their song from the outside. This can be other songwriters, arrangers, or record producers. It is wise to only use people better than you for this, as simply posting in songwriter groups often brings nothing but bad advice.
Sometimes is it a relatively small element that makes a song really shine. Examples are Alan Parsons (seemingly oddly) bringing a saxophone solo to Folksinger Al Stewart’s soon to be hit “Year of the Cat”, and Sting spontaneously singing “I want my M-TV” on a song Dire Straits were struggling with.
It is always better to have a hit for which you get paid 50% than to proudly own 110% of a total miss.