9 Tips to Build a Great Song Structure

Learn how nine essential musical composition techniques can help you write songs with a solid emotional impact.
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Arrangement is a crucial element in the process of producing music. "Arranging" refers to the organization and structure of different musical elements, such as melody, harmony, rhythm, and dynamics, to create a cohesive and engaging musical experience. In this blog post, we'll explore tips and techniques to build a great song structure.

1. Start with a Strong Foundation

I recommend developing a rock-solid melody or chord progression that serves as the backbone of your composition. Your melody or chord progression should be catchy, and provide a strong sense of direction for the rest of your arrangement.

When developing a melody or chord progression, think about the emotional tone you want your music to convey. A minor key, for example, may create a sad or melancholic mood, while a major key may create a brighter and more uplifting mood. Experiment with different keys and melodies until you find one that effectively communicates the mood and emotions you want to convey in your music.

One excellent resource to aid in the process of creating melodies and chord progressions is Hooktheory's online songwriting platform, Hookpad. Hookpad is a comprehensive and user-friendly tool that allows musicians to explore chord progressions, melodies, and harmonies in a visual and intuitive manner. With features like color-coded chords, customizable scale settings, and a large library of instruments, users can easily experiment with different keys and melodies to build a strong song foundation.

2. Create Contrast

By varying the dynamics, instrumentation, and other musical elements throughout your composition, you'll keep your listeners engaged while avoiding monotony. For example, you can start with a quiet and intimate verse, and build up to a loud and explosive chorus. With a quiet point of reference, the loud chorus will sound massive in comparison — contrast amplifies emotions.

To create effective contrast, experiment with various levels of intensity and emotion, and focus on creating a sense of tension and release. Being selective with the instruments, textures, and rhythmic patterns that you use can add to tension and release, enhancing the contrast that exists within your music.

An invaluable resource for learning about the use of contrast in songwriting is the book "The Art of Songwriting: How to Create, Think, and Live Like a Songwriter" by Ed Bell. This comprehensive guide covers various aspects of songwriting. Through practical tips and exercises, you'll learn how to effectively utilize dynamics, instrumentation, and emotional intensity to create songs that capture the listener's attention and leave a lasting impression.

3. Experiment with Different Sounds

Experimenting with different sounds can help you create a unique musical soundscape, and in some cases, alter the genre of a song. For example, you can use different instruments for different sections of your song, or layer instruments together to create rich and complex sounds.

When choosing sounds, think about the mood and emotion that you want your music to elicit in listeners. A piano may create a more intimate and emotional mood, while a guitar may create a more energetic and upbeat mood, even if they're playing the same chords. Experiment with different sounds until you find a palette of virtual instruments, loops, and one-shots that cater to your artistic vision.

An excellent resource for learning about instrumentation and its role in shaping the mood and emotion of music is "The Study of Orchestration" by Samuel Adler. This comprehensive textbook dives into the world of orchestration, exploring the capabilities, range, and characteristics of various instruments, both traditional and unconventional. Additionally, it provides guidance on selecting appropriate combinations of instruments to evoke specific emotions and moods.

4. Develop a Strong Chorus

A chorus is often the most memorable and impactful part of a song. Spend time developing a strong chorus that is catchy, memorable, and provides a strong sense of resolution to the rest of your arrangement. You can use repetition, variation, and wordplay to make your chorus stand out.

Strong choruses often provide a lyrical, rhythmic, and emotional payoff of some kind. The effectiveness of a chorus is tightly tied to the anticipation built up through the preceding verse and pre-chorus. When you manage to write a chorus with a strong sense of resolution, listeners won't be able to get enough of it. Experiment with different melodies, chord progressions, and instrumentation until you find a combination that effectively communicates the emotions and mood you want to convey.

A valuable resource that will help you write strong choruses is "Songwriting: Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure" by Pat Pattison. Pattison is a professor at the Berklee College of Music and has a wealth of experience teaching songwriting and lyric development. The book explores different elements of songwriting, including structure, pacing, and the use of repetition and variation.

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5. Use Dynamics to Create Tension and Release

Manipulating volume can guide a listener's emotional journey. By subtly adjusting volume, you can create anticipation, build excitement, and lead to a climactic release. This production technique can transform an ordinary track into an emotionally charged and unforgettable experience.

Genres like EDM tend to contain minimal dynamic content in an attempt to maximize perceived loudness, whereas singer/songwriter tracks and orchestral pieces fall on the opposite end of the spectrum—they're very dynamic. By using dynamics effectively, you can enhance the emotions and mood of your music. Experiment with different volume levels, and use dynamics to create powerful compositions.

The book "The Art of Mixing: A Visual Guide to Recording, Engineering, and Production" by David Gibson addresses dynamics visually. This comprehensive picture book explains the principles of mixing and arranging music using pictures. It focuses on achieving certain emotional impacts through the effective use of dynamics, among other techniques. The book is accessible and easy to understand for both beginners and experienced audio engineers.

6. Pay Attention to Transitions

Transitions are the points in your arrangement where one section of the song ends and another begins, such as the transition from a verse to a chorus. Creating seamless transitions can be challenging for new music producers, especially if they're not leveraging appropriate arrangement techniques. You can use fills, drum rolls, or effects to create transitions that flow naturally.

Black Ghost Audio's "Music Production for Beginners" course is a great resource for those looking to improve their musical arrangement skills. The course covers a range of topics from music theory to recording, mixing, and mastering. One section of the course that stands out is the section on transitions. It provides valuable insight into how to achieve smooth transitions, walking you through the entire process.

7. Keep it Simple

While it's important to experiment with different musical elements and techniques, it's also important to keep your arrangement simple and focused. A cluttered and overly complex arrangement can be overwhelming and distracting to your listeners. Focus on creating a clear and concise arrangement that effectively communicates your primary musical ideas.

Most people can't focus on more than 3 main song elements (melody, harmony, and rhythm) at a time. For example, if you're producing an EDM track, this may include a synth lead, space-filling background pads, and your drums. Some songs use multiple synth patches in serial to playback the main melody, which is perfectly acceptable. As long as you don't have conflicting melody lines playing at the same time, you're in the clear.

Keep your instrumentation and musical elements focused. Many new producers add an abundance of FX to cover up poorly written songs with weak melody lines and boring harmonies. To avoid this and focus on the root of the issue, stray away from adding FX to your songs until you're happy with your main musical ideas.

8. Use Repetition Effectively

By repeating certain musical elements, such as a chord progression or melody, you can create a sense of familiarity and continuity throughout your composition. That being said, use repetition judiciously and vary it throughout your arrangement to keep your listeners engaged.

Too much repetition can lead to a boring listening experience, but a lack of repetition will lead to a song that's unpredictable and unrelatable. Striking a healthy balance takes most new producers some time to figure out. My top piece of advice is to use a reference song as a guide and adopt the same song structure that it uses.

9. Consider the Arrangement as a Whole

Finally, all of the different musical elements in a song must work together to create a cohesive and effective composition. Pay attention to the balance between musical elements, and make sure that each section of your arrangement serves a purpose and contributes to the overall structure of your song.

Step back and listen to your composition objectively. Ask yourself if each section of your arrangement communicates the emotions and mood that you intend it to, and if the overall structure and pacing of your composition engages listeners. Make adjustments as needed!

By following these tips and techniques, you can create a resilient song structure that engages your listeners and clearly communicates your musical ideas. Start with a strong foundation, create contrast, experiment with different instrumentation, develop a strong chorus, use dynamics to create tension and release, pay attention to transitions, keep it simple, use repetition effectively, and consider your arrangement as a whole.

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