The great thing about various possible song designs is that they usually work for any genre. It shouldn’t matter if you’re writing pop, rock, country, folk… the principles that make a formal design (verse-chorus-bridge, for example) work apply to any and all genres. And not just genres… you find them used in practically any era as well.
That means that you don’t have to be studying recent music in order to learn the lessons that make your newest songs work. You can study the classics, and then apply the principles that guided the structure those old songs to your latest creations.
So let’s try that, and I’d like to look at a specific format: the verse-bridge-verse format – the songs that don’t use a chorus, per se.
A great model is Billy Joel’s 1979 hit single, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” Verse-bridge-verse (A-B-A) songs often have the verse ending with what amounts to some sort of short refrain:
The repeated verse is typical of this form.
So let’s take a look at what makes the verse-bridge song design work.
- The verse is a self-contained, complete unit. When choruses are involved, it’s common to have the verse require the chorus to offer a sense of completion. But in verse-bridge designs, the verse typically needs to come to a conclusion before venturing off to the bridge. We determine the key of the song usually by the final chord of the verse.
- A verse often ends with a 1-line refrain. In this song’s case, the title line, “It’s still rock and roll to me”, sums up the sentiments of the verse lyric.
- The chords for the first half of the verse might begin a short harmonic journey away from the tonic. In “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”, the progression starts in C major, but then moves away by adding a flat-VII: C Em Bb F
- The chords for the second half of the verse will normally tighten up, moving solidly back to the key. In this song, we get this as a second-half progression: Em Am Em D G |C Em Bb F Am G C. As you can see, the end of the progression makes C major crystal-clear.
- The bridge usually takes the opportunity to go on a harmonic adventure, moving back to the original key as the bridge finishes. In this case, we get this: G F E Am |G F E Ab Eb F G. The use of the Ab and Eb chords pulls the music in an odd direction before immediately returning to C major.
- Verse-bridge forms need to finish with something familiar, so a return to the verse is crucial. Songs that use just verses and bridges will typically be ABA ternary forms.
Other famous songs that use variations on the verse-bridge-verse (ABA) format: Peter Cetera’s “If You Leave Me Now“, Lennon-McCartney’s “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You“, as well as their “Norwegian Wood” (written by Lennon).
In a way, the verse-bridge format mimics the verse-chorus-bridge form, where a short, one-line refrain is typically used instead of a full chorus. And it works, no matter what genre you call your own.
If you decide to use this as a structure for your next song, you’ll find that your melodies will work best if the highest notes are in the bridge section. That gives the entire 3-part structure a kind of inverted-U shape, with the verse ending low.