Vance Powell Song Structure

Song structure—the sequence of the various song sections—is a crucial aspect of music production. A well-designed structure, in conjunction with a smart arrangement of the instrumentation, helps propel the song forward and keep the listener interested.

In the pureMix video, “Start To Finish With Vance Powell Episode 1,” Vance is recording a rather unconventional indie rock group who get an impressively full sound for a duo. The video shows Vance in the studio with the Illiterate Light band members, Jeff Gorman and Jake Cochran. They’re working on their song “Sweet Beast,” which has a rather raucous riff-based intro and verse, a mellower and hook-laden chorus, as well as a high-powered instrumental section.

From the video (L-R) Jake Cochran and Jeff Gorman of Illiterate Light and Vance Powell.

A Regular Cut-Up

When listening to the demo of the song, which is quite short—only 2:06—Vance says he thinks that the chorus comes in too quickly. He suggests that it should come in after two verses, rather than one.

The chorus has a very different feel than the high-energy intro and verse sections. It’s more melodic and also in the key of C, while the verses, intros and instrumental sections are all in B. As a result, the chorus feels almost like a bridge in that it goes to a very different place. Vance feels that the song needs to build more before the feel changes, so putting a second verse before the chorus makes sense.

He has a stereo mix of the song demo in his Pro Tools session, and he imports it into the timeline and proceeds to cut up the song sections and rearrange them. That way, the band can hear what his new ideas for the structure will sound like. It’s one thing to talk about it in the abstract, but it’s much easier to get a sense of the new structure if you can actually hear it.

Powell tries song rearrangement ideas by cutting up the stereo mix and rearranging it.

Parts

When you’re writing or arranging a song for recording, think hard about the flow of the sections and how that will impact the listener. Naturally, the lyrics, melody and performance are the most critical factors, but the structure is also crucial.

Let’s look at the song sections typically found in popular music and talk a little about how they function. What follows is relatively general information, and there are plenty of songs that diverge from these guidelines.

Intro: It’s the first thing the listener hears, so it should be catchy in some way. Intro sections are usually pretty short. One way to go, like Illiterate Light did in “Sweet Beast,” is to base the intro around a memorable instrumental line or riff that will be repeated later in the song for continuity. A common technique is to create an intro with stripped-down instrumentation so that the following section—usually a verse or chorus—feels like it increases in energy when it comes in with more instrumentation.

Verse: Lyrically, verses are where you tell the story. The chord structure tends to revolve around the tonic. Frequently, you’re holding back a little in the verse. It could be with the instrumentation, the chords or the overall energy, so that you leave some room to ramp up the energy in the chorus.

Pre-Chorus: It’s usually a relatively short section that serves as a transition to set up the chorus. There are plenty of songs without pre-choruses, but plenty of pop songwriters use them to great effect.

Chorus: The lyrics of the chorus provide the central message of the song. The chords are typically going somewhere different than in previous sections, often to a IV or V chord to start. The energy of the song is high. You’ll usually find the most memorable song hooks in choruses.

Bridge: The role of the bridge is to provide contrast, taking the song to a different place. For example, a bridge might go into a new key or get quiet or feature a very different drum pattern. There are no rules other than to provide contrast to the song’s main feel. Often, the bridge leads into an instrumental section of some sort before the verse or chorus comes back in.

Instrumental: Lead solos are not as prominent in pop music as they once were, but often you do want to include some sort of instrumental section for variety or transitional purposes. If it isn’t a solo, it could be a repeated riff from earlier in the song or. If you’re producing an EDM track, your instrumental section might include a riser.

Outro/Ending: Many songs will repeat the chorus a number of times before ending. Some use a “tag,” which is typically a repeat of the last line (or part of the last line) of the chorus. It signals to the listener that the song is about to end. Try to avoid clichéd endings where possible. Sometimes a surprising ending can make it more memorable.

In conjunction with the arrangement of instruments and vocals, the structure of the song affects its overall impact on the listener.

Try This

If you want to learn more about song structure it can be helpful to analyze songs in a similar genre to your own to see how they’re put together. Maybe even jot down a “map” of the song, showing each section in order. It could give you ideas.

It’s also useful to listen to how the overall arrangement changes as the song progresses. You’ll likely notice that instruments or vocal elements get added or subtracted as the song goes along to keep the feel from being static. Sometimes it’s done very subtly.

For example, if a song has two verses in a row before a chorus, the second verse will likely have something new going on, perhaps a percussion instrument or a background vocal coming in. Sometimes the drums are sparse in the first verse and then get more complex or loud in the second. The possibilities are endless, but the idea is the same: keep things interesting.

The dynamics also change as the song goes forward. Usually, they build up leading into the chorus and then later, there could be a breakdown in which everything but the vocals gets more sparse. A breakdown is an excellent way to bring the dynamics temporarily lower so that when the instruments all come back in, they seem even more powerful. By the last chorus, you generally want to be at full throttle.

Do it Like Vance

If you have a rough mix of one of your songs, you can easily cut it up to try some alternate song structures, the way Vance did with the “Sweet Beast” demo. It’s easier to do with a mixed track than to try cutting up and moving tracks in a multitrack session, although you could do it that way, as well.

It helps if you set your DAW to the tempo of the song, so that the measures line up with the grid (assuming it was recorded to a click), although that’s not entirely necessary. Trim your mix so that it starts on the downbeat of the song. If the song has a pickup, then leave the pickup in and just line up the downbeat of the measure that starts after the pickup with the beginning of bar 2.

When you cut up the song sections, make sure you name each one to avoid confusion.

Next, cut each song section into a separate region. If you’re lining up the song with the bar lines of your DAW, make sure your snap-to-grid function is turned on and set to bars when you do this. Before moving anything around, name each section (verse 1, chorus 1, verse 2, etc.). Otherwise, it will get confusing once you start moving things around.

If you’re in Pro Tools, turn on Shuffle mode when you’re ready to rearrange a section. That way when you move it, the surrounding sections will automatically close up the space you created. If not, you’ll have to use your cut, copy and paste editing tools to accomplish the rearrangement. If you have sections that start with pickups before the downbeat, you may have to turn off the grid and lengthen a region to the left to include the pickup.

The rearranged track won’t always sound perfect at the transitions, but it will certainly suffice for experimenting with the structure and arrangement.

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