Video: Blair talks about patterns and structure in songwriting

I have rarely met a songwriter who loves to re-write or edit. Most songwriters I know love the moment of creation, when the ideas are flowing, when they’re feeling great about their songwriting genius. I have no quarrel with this at all, because I share that sentiment! When my brain just oozing ideas and it seems like it’ll never stop, that is the best feeling!

But what happens when you write a verse and a chorus, and maybe part of another verse, and it starts to become more difficult to continue? This happens to me all the time. And it’s okay, especially if I have come up with something I really love, so far. Now is the time to start looking at the song critically, and one area to examine is structure. How is this thing I came up with structured? Does it work as-is? Do I need to re-shape it? How can I make sure it speaks to the listener as much as it spoke to me as I was writing it?

Did I write four lines in the verse? Eight? Six? Where does it rhyme? Are there any run-on sentences? How does it feel?

My job now, as I see it, is to take what I’ve written in a flurry of creativity, maybe shape it/maybe leave it alone, and then duplicate the form. If what I wrote really works, my job is to come up with another verse or two that also work (albeit with new content—it’s important to advance the story) using the same structure that I used in the first verse (same number of lines, same rhythmic stresses, same length of lines, same rhyme scheme). By doing this, I am establishing, from verse-to-verse, a pattern.

The human brain is a pattern-recognition machine, seeking out (or imposing) patterns on everything it encounters: traffic on the highway, a standup comic’s jokes, the clouds in the sky…even songs. Whether we recognize the parts of songs enough to know their names (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) our brains know when they recognize a pattern in a song. And the brain is generally delighted in the instance of recognition. The chorus comes around again, and our brains silently, joyfully, sing along. But hit that chorus twice in a row and our fickle brains could easily become bored—the brain likes variety along with familiarity. This is why certain song structures are perennial, going back to the 19th century, before recorded music, and continue into utterly contemporary styles like rap and reggaeton: the human brain really likes patterns to be established and then broken.

As songwriters, we can use this to help convey our thoughts and feelings in song. We may not begin the process by thinking about establishing patterns, but once we begin our editing or re-writing process, we can do what we can to make sure the song (mostly) follows the structure we have established in the initial creation phase.

Patterns also can occur in the overall structure.

If the song starts with two verses, then a chorus, you should probably return to a verse after the first chorus (further reinforcing the pattern) and then hit the chorus again (cementing the pattern). By then, however, the brain will be hoping for/expecting a break in the pattern, a subverting of expectations. That’s why it would be great for you to write a bridge for this spot; a bridge, whose function is to provide a breath of fresh air, a left turn, a new perspective, or even just new chords. (They don’t have to be never-before-heard-on-this-planet chords, just not the chord that might be expected at that point—the verse chords, for example).

Newer songwriters worry that too much repetition will be boring. They’re right, of course; they just don’t know what “too much” is. Imagine someone in a venue, hearing your song for the first time, and your song’s choruses are all different from each other, or the verses aren’t structured similarly to each other: the listener will have difficulty apprehending the song’s “message,” thought, or feeling. Repetition is generally celebrated by audiences, who sing along, clap their hands, and often delight in the familiarity.

Repetition, once you accept that it is useful, can be easy to employ. Establishing a pattern in the structure can help cement a song into a listener’s consciousness. (Providing variations on the repetition, to delight our human brains? That’s the challenge!)