What makes structure work?

After experimenting with different approaches to structure, you will begin to vary standard structures and start to think about developing your own approaches to structure. You might start to wonder – what makes structure work? What separates an effective and satisfying structure from an ineffective one?

Contour and proportion

Contour and proportion are about the overall shape of the structure. A structure with good contour is one where the overall rise and fall of tension and excitement makes sense. This means it can be understood by the listener as having a shape that can be followed. The obvious and most common shape is one where the song begins with low excitement, gradually increases to maximum excitement about 2/3 through, and then ends at minimum excitement again. This isn’t the only shape that works though! Another shape that makes sense is one where the excitement is greatest at the start and the end, but the middle section is quiet and subdued. Several Juno Reactor songs from their album Labyrinth have a contour like this.

Proportion goes hand-in-hand with contour. At a slightly smaller scale, proportion is about the lengths of each section. A structure with good contour is one where each section is just the right length – not too long or too short. Poor proportion is usually caused by sections that are too long without enough change to keep them interesting. There’s no easy rule to help you determine the right length – you have to use your experience and judgement. Shorter sections can be useful for increasing excitement and expectation because they make it feel like the song is moving along at a quicker pace. Longer sections are useful for building tension because the listener is expecting a change that is postponed, or for maintaining and emphasising a hightenened level of excitement during a climax.

Expectation and fulfillment

Expectation and fulfillment go hand-in-hand when approaching structure. Expectation, as you might guess, is what happens when a listener thinks s/he knows what is going to happen next in the music. This expectation is shaped by many factors you can’t control, such as personal taste in music and genre norms. A factor you CAN control though, is repeated sequences. For example, if you have three sections – A, B, C – and arrange them in your song as A-B-C-A-B-C-A, the listener will excpect section B to follow. As a more real-world example, standard song form begins with verse1-chorus-verse2-chorus, after which the listener naturally expects a third verse to follow.

Fulfillment is what happens when the listener’s expectations are met. In light of the above explanation of expectation, the listener experiences fulfillment when the section that logically follows is the section that actually follows. Note – this is not always a good thing. If the listener’s expectations are fulfilled too much the song is percieved to be predictable and boring.
Instead, building expectation but not fulfilling it helps add surprise and interest. It can also support a sense of development and movement in the music. For example, standard song form begins with verse1-chorus-verse2-chorus, at which point the listener naturally expects a verse3. Instead, there is a bridge – new material that surprises and adds interest, and also gives the song a sense of development by increasing the musical scope (adding musical material to the song).

Coherence

Coherence is about the amount of musical material in a song. An easy way of thinking about this is to consider the number of different sections (or melodies, or themes, etc) in a song, as well as the overall length of the song. A song with a high level of coherence will not have much musical material – it might have fewer different types of sections, or its sections might be very similar. Conversely, a song with a lower level of coherence will have a lot of musical material – either more different sections or more variations. Some level of coherence is necessary in music – in order to give the song a distinct musical identity and so that each part sounds like it belongs to the same whole. Too much coherence, however, will make a song boring and repetitive.

Time is also a significant factor contributing to coherence too. Given a certain amount of musical material (say, for example, three different sections), you can increase coherence by increasing the overall length of the song. Similarly, you can decrease coherence by shortening the length of the song. This is an often-overlooked approach. If you’re working on a song and you feel like it’s too boring and repetitive, try shortening it instead of simply adding new material. Likewise, if you have a lot of musical material (many different sections or musical ideas to organise) and the song is feeling like it doesn’t have a distinct musical identity, try making the song longer. This will let the music breathe a bit more – allow the musical ideas to expand and develop.

As with all composition techniques, using them in extreme is usually not the best approach – some judgement is required. And as with all composition techniques, practice is necessary for mastery! You won’t get the hang of this first time around – give yourself a few songs to experiment, to develop your own sense for how it all works.

-Kim.

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  1. Nice blog. Consider me subscribed. :)

  2. awesome reading, a lot of things I had thought of I have had confirmed or re-affirmed from this writing. Thank you!

  3. Isn’t it pretty much all about building tension and releasing it? Rinse and repeat. Just discovered your blog and i will be back, no doubt.

  1. October 18th, 2010
  2. November 22nd, 2010
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