Alternative Song Structures

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Lyrical Structure & Style

Alternative Song Structures

Alternative Song Structures

Using letters as identifiers is useful for songs that either have a very small number of different sections (no more than 3 i.e. A, B, C) or a great many sections (A, B, C ,D ,E, F etc). The latter is a useful way to piece together complex compositions with multiple sections.

These are unusual in popular songwriting, but if you’re crossing over into soundtrack writing or more complex compositional genres, such as metal, you may find it a useful tool.

Let’s look at a couple of different song structures you could use.

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AABA

This structure derives from the 32-bar jazz ‘standards’. The A section serves the purpose of a verse and chorus, as it will include the song’s hook, as well as its narrative content. After two 8-bar A sections, the song will move to an 8-bar B section which is different lyrically, harmonically and melodically, like a bridge or middle 8, before returning to a final 8-bar A section. 

You can see how The Beatles do this in their song ‘Yesterday’.

Writing lyrics in this format can be very fun but challenging. As you may have noticed with the song examples, one of the defining features of this song structure is to have the title and message very closely linked and to include it at either the opening or closing of the A section, before treating the B section like a bridge, and then going somewhere completely new lyrically, harmonically, and melodically.

Refrain

Though this structure is more typically found in folk music, the ‘refrain line’ concept has made its way into almost every genre of music.

It traditionally follows a narrative storytelling approach, with detail and character-driven verses. The end of these verses are usually tailed with a refrain line, a summarised lesson, message, or summary of the song. This allows the listener to constantly be reminded of the song’s message.

For example in the song ‘Flesh And Blood’ by Johnny Cash, the refrain line is:

‘But Flesh And Blood need Flesh And Blood
And you’re the one I need’

The lyrics of this song are constantly juxtaposing the idea of the characters spending a day in nature, versus the romantic longing that even mother nature cannot subside – the human longing for the touch and ‘flesh and blood’ of his partner.

In another Johnny Cash song, ‘Don’t Take Your Guns To Town’, you’ll see the refrain line being used as the song’s defining lesson as well as a constant foreshadowing of impending tragedy. It’s a very clever use of a refrain line and one we recommend trying in your writing.

Another famous use of the refrain line outside of a folk/country genre is ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ by the Rolling Stones.

Lyrical Analysis Activity

Let’s look at Structure

Listen to the following songs and  identify their structures. 

How does each song offer a different experience for the listener?

Unconventional Structures

To illustrate some creative examples of songs breaking out of these conventional structures, but still delivering profound stories and experiences to the listener, check out the following songs. 

What is different about these song structures? 

Can you outline the structure?

Why does this structure work for this song? 

Are you longing for any other part of the story?