Paul Heinz

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Song Forms, Repetition, Elton John and ABBA

Last May, as part of a build-up to the Elton John biopic Rocketman, the magazine Entertainment Weekly posted interview snippets of some of today’s great piano rockers about John’s influence on them.  One remark by Ben Folds particularly resonated with me.  When asked about the song “Levon,” Folds says:

The melody doesn’t repeat for a long time. I’ve brought this up with him and he’s usually “eh, I don’t want to think about it too much.” Same with “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” It stretches for over two minutes before a repeat. The current era’s songs are maybe two seconds.

He’s right.  Listen to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”  There isn’t one second of melodic repetition until 1:08, when he briefly repeats a melodic motif in the chorus before moving onto new material.  It isn’t until 1:53 that we have an honest-to-goodness repeat, when we go back to the beginning before the second verse kicks in.   

That is fricking amazing.  It also goes to show that human beings are capable of not being spoon-fed pop songs onto perfect little index cards.  It’s a shame that more music isn’t as exploratory.

Ben Folds’s comment inspired me to listen to some songs more closely and look for moments when artists don’t throw away the playbook, but invent interesting alterations with regard to song structure.  Sure, when it comes to prog rock or particularly inventive songs like “The Continuing Adventures of Bungalow Bill” by The Beatles, “Déjà vu” by CSNY, or “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, song forms go out the window.  For these compositions it’s hard to identify what constitutes the verse or the chorus, or if these sections even exist at all.  But as impressive as these songs are, what I find truly remarkable are hit songs that eschew traditional structures but are still rooted in constructs that we can identify.

There seems to be a dearth of material on the internet about creative song forms in pop music, though there are a few, including one that inspired a comment about how unorthodox Journey’s ubiquitous “Don’t Stop Believin’” is.  What most of us would identify as the chorus doesn’t occur until the song’s end at 3:23.   Pretty remarkable.  If I had to map out the song form – which is certainly open to debate – I’d call it A-A(half)-B-A-B-C, with C repeating until fade.  It’s not a multiple movement song like “Bohemian Rhapsody” – there is a verse for sure, and a chorus, and a section we might call a bridge (the “Strangers waiting…” section).  It’s just presented unusually, and for that I give Journey kudos.

Having said that, I never want to hear the song again.

Scott McCormick of Disccogs writes an insightful blog that analyzes the work of Roy Orbison and Kendrick Lamar and how their song structures often stray from the norm.  I would label some of the song sections he examines a little differently, but I definitely recommend giving it a read.

And in 2013 I wrote about song forms and highlighted the work of Elvis Costello, who often places a bridge immediately following the first chorus – a highly effective technique – and a wonderful song by James Taylor called “Shed a Little Light,“ notable for its symmetric song structure of A-B-C-D-C-B-A.  Remarkable stuff!

But it’s another song that’s completely enraptured me recently in ways I hadn’t anticipated: ABBA’s “The Name of the Game.” 

It starts out simple enough, a verse (A), a pre-chorus (B) and a chorus (C), but then adds a sort of post-chorus (D).  At that point the song is already more intricate than 95% of what’s been produced in the last hundred years, which makes what happens next all the more amazing.  We would expect to go back to a verse here, but the Swedish pop band instead goes into an entirely different (and entirely wonderful) section E, the “And you make me talk, and you make me feel…” section, which in and of itself gets complicated with an altering melody the second time through.  Call it section F.

It isn’t until 2:04 that we go back to the beginning of the song.  How is it possible to anchor the listener when you go through five or six song sections in two minutes?  ABBA succeeds largely because there is repetition within each section, unlike, say, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” which follows a normal song form but whose forms are extremely intricate.  For “The Name of the Game” each section repeats within itself.  Within section A the melody repeats twice.  Same for B, C, D and E.  Because of this repetition, the listener isn’t left floundering with information overload like attending a Broadway musical that fails to offer any repeating motifs or reprises.  ABBA pulls it off beautifully, following this song form:


Wonderful stuff.

In my own writing I’ve on occasion explored different song forms with varying degrees of success, but not to the extent that I should.  When you only have 12 notes to work with, one of the most effective ways to mix up your compositions and make them sound original is toying with song structure.  I may not be capable of creating a verse as interesting as Elton John, but I can at least go to a new section instead of returning to the verse right after the first chorus.  For composers, I highly recommend messing with this stuff and seeing what you can come up with.

In the meantime, I’m going to play some more ABBA.  And I owe an apology to Andy who loved this band in 7th grade and who I ridiculed because of it.  I’ve come around, Andy.  My bad.

Song Forms: Doing away with AABA

Paul Simon once wrote the lyric, “I seem to lean on old familiar ways.”  And so it is for most songwriters, Simon included.  When it comes to song structure, inertia is strong, and few writers deviate substantially from one of two general song forms: AABA (most jazz songs follow this format, many show tunes, and several pop songs as well.  Think “Yesterday” by the Beatles) and, with modest modifications, ABAB (more identifiable as verse, chorus, verse, chorus, often adding a bridge after the second chorus).  Composers do it almost without thought, which makes exceptions all the more impressive.  Sure, it might not take a genius to write a song with the form ABCDCBA, but it’s not something that occurs to most people, so in that sense, maybe it does take a genius to compose a song in an interesting format, if only because no one else thought to do it.

Which means maybe JamesTaylor is a genius.  His 1991 song, “Shed a Little Light,” follows that song form – ABCDCBA - and somehow makes it flow nicely and memorably.  You would think after four sections foregoing repetition, the listener would be left to flounder, lost in a sea of unfamiliarity, but JT pulls it off impressively.  Most listeners probably aren’t even aware that the song is proceeding to unexplored territory; they’re only aware that the song continues to move forward, to gain momentum, before reversing the momentum and slowing to a halt, as if completing a four-minute train ride.

Of course, composers don’t need to go to these lengths to inject new life into their songwriting.  Even slight alterations from the standard formats can be inspiring.  For example, instead of following a format such as verse – chorus – verse – chorus – bridge – chorus, what about pushing the bridge up, or repeating it, or adding a second unique bridge?  Elvis Costello does a particular good job of mixing up song sections.  Consider the following song from his 1994 release: Brutal Youth:

“London’s Brilliant Parade”

Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus


What I particularly like is the addition of a bridge immediately after the chorus, delaying the return to a verse.  I borrowed this technique for my song, “No Point In Seeing Me Through” from my album Pause.  After the first chorus I go to a bridge before returning to the verse.  To me, this keeps the song moving forward, plus I add a modulation up a step for the final verse before returning to the original key for the final chorus.

Costello song forms deviate even further in some of his compositions by repeating a bridge or by adding a second bridge (The labels of the song sections I use here are relatively irrelevant, and likely disputable, for in some of these songs each of the sections carry nearly equal weight):

“The Other Summer Side”

Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus – Bridge – Verse – Chorus


“All Grown Up”

Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus – Different Bridge – Verse – Chorus – Different Bridge


Even a successful song, like Costello’s modest 1989 hit, “Veronica,” can depart from the usual fare.  Here, Costello and Paul McCartney inject the bridge in a different place: after the second verse.  A very unusual tactic, but, in my find, an effective one.


Verse – Chorus- Verse – Bridge – Chorus – Verse –Chorus


It’s odd that in light of these and countless other examples, so many songwriters – me included – continue to follow the formats we’ve grown accustomed to over the years.  Perhaps it’s time to try a little harder to mix things up.

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