Song Elements (Why you should know them and some great examples)

If you’re serious about songwriting, you NEED to be familiar with song elements.

Why?

Well, song elements, or the different parts of the song, are like players in a basketball team.
When a coach wants to pick the players in a basketball game, it’s not always about having the best five players on the floor. 

It’s about having the five players that play best together. If the players play well together the team wins.

If you know how to make the song elements work well together, you’ll have a great song.

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Here’s a breakdown of the basic song elements:

Intro 

Have you ever recognized a song in just a few seconds? You may have done so quite a lot. 

The fact that the opening lines of a song enable it to become so instantly recognizable turns into one of the most important song elements.

These lines are the song’s introduction, or, “intro”.

Examples:

The intro is very much like a first impression in a job interview.  

You’ve got between 7 and 30 seconds to nail it. After that, a decision has been made.

But why does this happen so fast?

Well, this is because humans are able to process small bits of information very quickly. This is especially true in today’s world. In the always-connected world of social media, smartphones and gadgets, our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. 

How long is the intro?

When it comes to songwriting, there are no fixed rules but a very general rule of thumb may be:  the intro is anything you’ll hear up until the vocals enter. 

The intro will usually set up the musical background of a song.

Notice the opening lines in Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” which basically provide the setting of the song and give it its identity. 

Many intros may often create sense of tension and anticipation. This is very cool as it generates interest. 

When you start listening to the song, you want more of it.

Examples:

Tip:  A good intro will compel your listener to keep listening.  You can think of an intro as the beginning of a book.  This is your chance to hook your listeners and get them excited about your song.

Verse

The verse is the where the story that you’ll tell your listener begins. The verse is where you’ll first listen to the words in the song. You can think of a verse as the setting of a story. 

The lyrics may introduce the plot, characters and in many cases a conflict.  If the song has a chorus or refrain (we’ll talk about the refrain in just a moment), the verse will provide the background to support it.

Example:

Notice how the story begins in the first verse:

{Verse}
Pistols shots ring out in the bar room night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out, “My God, they killed them all!”

Since the verse sets the pace and setting of a song, most of the time, it’s not going to overwhelm the listener with big sounds (like the chorus dies – more on that later on).

See, the melody and chord progression will quieter and simpler than the chorus because this will allow the lyrics to take the spotlight. As the lyrics change in each verse so does the story. It develops.

Here is the second verse in Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”:

{Verse}
Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he never done
Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.

Tip: In order to make your song interesting make sure that you are not saying the same thing in each verse. 

Refrain

The refrain is a line or a group of lines that typically occur at the end or beginning of each verse.  

You will usually find refrains in folk, blues and country songs. These one or two lines are repeated throughout the song.  

In many cases, the song’s refrain is the same as the title of the song.

Let’s look at an example of a refrain occurring in at the end of a verse:  

Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
And where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall   <–Refrain

And here is an example of a refrain occurring at the beginning of the verse:

“Better World” — Woody Guthrie:

Well there’s a better world that’s a-comingI’ll tell you why why why   <–Refrain
There’s a better world that’s a-coming
I’ll tell you why
We will beat’em on the land
On the sea and in the sky
There’s a better world that’s a-coming
I’ll tell you why

There’s a better world a-coming
Don’t you see see see    <–Refrain

Better world that’s coming don’t you see
When we’ll all be union and we’ll all be free
There’s a better world that’s a-coming
Don’t you see

Are the refrain and the chorus alike?  

Well, yes and no.

Just like the chorus (we’ll talk about the chorus in just a bit) the refrain acts as the resolution to the verse.  It’s the closure, the ending and the completion of the verse.

Example:  “You Win Again” — Hank Williams  

The news is out – all over town
That you’ve been seen – a-runnin’ ’round
I know that I – should leave, but then
I just can’t go – you win again. Refrain

This heart of mine – could never see
What ev’rybod – y knew but me
Just trusting you – was my great sin
What can I do – you win again…   Refrain

Besides that, the refrain, like the chorus, repeats throughout the song.  It is the anchor of the song.  

And this repetitiveness gets your listeners hooked to the song.

However, unlike the chorus, the refrain doesn’t exist on its own.  It exists only within the context of a verse.  Besides that, it may not be as detailed as the chorus is. 

Tip:  As we have seen, the title of your song can also be your refrain. So, when coming up with a refrain try to think of something important that you want to say again and again. 

Pre-Chorus

Imagine riding a bike and slowly climbing up the hill until you reach the beautiful top.

The Pre-Chorus is like that.  It’s the hill you ride on your way to the beautiful energetic chorus. 

It’s the buildup.  

Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” is a great example:

{Verse}
I stay out too late
Got nothing in my brain
That’s what people say, mmm-mmm
That’s what people say, mmm-mmm

I go on too many dates
But I can’t make them stay
At least that’s what people say, mmm-mmm
That’s what people say, mmm-mmm

{Pre-Chorus}
But I keep cruising
Can’t stop, won’t stop moving
It’s like I got this music
In my mind
Saying, “It’s gonna be alright.”

{Chorus}
‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off
Heart-breakers gonna break, break, break, break, break
And the fakers gonna fake, fake, fake, fake, fake
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

Just like the chorus, the pre-chorus will usually have the same lyrics and melody. 

Sometimes the pre-chorus will introduce new musical elements and by doing so it will prepare the transition from verse to chorus:

Example:  Zayn Malik’s “Let Me”:

{Verse}
Sweet baby, our sex has meaning
Know this time you’ll stay ’til the morning
Duvet days and vanilla ice cream
More than just one night together exclusively

{Pre-Chorus}
Baby, let me be your man
So I can love you (I can love you)
And if you let me be your man
Then I’ll take care of you, you

{Chorus}
For the rest of my life, for the rest of yours
For the rest of my life, for the rest of yours
For the rest of ours

Another great example is Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”:

{Verse}
Say your prayers little one
Don’t forget, my son
To include everyone
Tuck you in, warm within
Keep you free from sin
‘Till the sandman he comes

{Pre-Chorus}
Sleep with one eye open
Gripping your pillow tight

{Chorus}
Exit, light
Enter, night
Take my hand
We’re off to never-never land

Somethings wrong, shut the light
Heavy thoughts tonight
And they aren’t of Snow White
Dreams of war, dreams of liars
Dreams of dragon’s fire
And of things that will bite
Sleep with one eye open
Gripping your pillow tight

Tip:  Think of a text and a melody that will add to the intensity of your song.  

This is the part where you would want to create some tension right before the chorus.

Chorus

Have you ever had a song get stuck in your mind and wished it went away?

I have 🙂 

Most of the time, it’s the chorus that gets stuck in my mind.

Why does that happen?

Well, it’s because the chorus is the catchiest element of the song.

What makes it so catchy?

Three things:

1) Most choruses are simple and contain a few lines.
2) These lines are repeated throughout the song making them easy to remember.
3) The chorus often summarizes the entire song telling you how the songwriter feels.

Did you ever go to a concert and feel a bit lonely because everyone knew the lyrics of every single song but you didn’t?

I did (and more than one time) 🙂

It feels lonely but….not completely.

See, I always managed to learn the chorus of each song.  Once I did that, I joined the crowd and sang along.  

In other words, the chorus gave me the opportunity to participate. It generated a sense of belonging. And this felt good.

That’s the power of the chorus.  If you can easily learn it by heart, it will get you involved in the song.

Most chorused will typically tell you how the songwriter feels:

Example:
Dolly Parton’s “I will Always Love You”

{Verse}
If I should stay
I would only be in your way
So I’ll go, but I know
I’ll think of you each step of the way

{Chorus}

And I will always love you
I will always love you

It’s where the music will get bigger and louder:

Check out: ACDC’s “High Way to Hell”:

{Verse}
Livin’ easy
Livin’ free
Season ticket on a one way ride
Askin’ nothin’
Leave me be
Takin’ everythin’ in my stride
Don’t need reason
Don’t need rhyme
Ain’t nothin’ that I’d rather do
Goin’ down
Party time
My friends are gonna be there too

{Chorus}

I’m on the highway to hell
On the highway to hell
Highway to hell
I’m on the highway to hell

Tip: When you are writing a bridge try to treat it as an independent section.  This will add contrast to the song and refresh its energy.

Outro

The outro is the very last section of a song.  

As you probably know, there are many ways to end a song. Some songs end with the exact opening of the song, the intro. 

Example:  Kaleo’s “I can’t Go on Without You”.

Other songs end in with an instrumental part:

Example: Harry Nilsson’s “Remember”.

There are some songs that repeat the chorus until the very end:

Example:  Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”.

And there are songs that have a solo that fades out:

Example:  Led Zepplin’s “Black Dog”.

Some songs end suddenly:

Example:  Jethro Tull’s “Son”:

These are the frequent outros.  Of course, there are more.

Tip: Think of your outro as the ending of your favorite book or movie.  

Just like a great movie or book, a good song can reach a greater status if it also comes with a really satisfying ending.  Your ending should be able to wrap up your song and give it a sense of closure. 

Now I want to hear from you.
What do you think of these song elements?
Did they help you understand songwriting? Do you feel a need to know more?
Either way, let me know by leaving a comment below.

 

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