Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Song Structure

Improv songs often mimic the structure of a "normal" song. What sort of building blocks do you use when constructing a song?

The most basic thing about an improv song is that it generally follows the structure of a normal popular "song" - it is composed of verses and choruses, and perhaps a bridge. I'd say most of the time, the song will start with one or two rounds of a verse, followed by a chorus, another verse, and a chorus. Sometimes that's it; other times you might break in to a bridge or another verse... Ending on a chorus is nice, it usually ties up the song pretty well.

Do you have to follow this structure? Of course not! This structure closely resembles the sorts of songs most people listen to, a structure they already understand. As an audience member it should be pretty easy to grasp this structure, and be receptive to it.


The verses' job is to provide the narrative of the story you're singing. Sometimes they won't seem like they are directly related to the offer. To me, the chorus's job is often to satisfy the offer, and the first verse's job is to anticipate that first chorus.

Musically, finding a straightforward chord progression and melody that you can repeat (and vary) is important, especially for new improv musicians. Keep it simple at first. Once you've found your feet and you know your actors, you can break the formula.


I often tell new improvisers in workshops to aim for simple choruses. It's nice to have something that is memorable enough that the singers and musician can recall it next time it comes around, and keep each instance of the chorus similar. When the audience spontaneously joins in, that's a sign that you hit a simple, catchy chorus.

Like any other "rule", it's ok to do your own thing. You don't need a chorus at all - you might just have a short, common refrain at the end of each verse. Or nothing at all.

I like it when the chorus is thing that ties offer in to the song.


When might a bridge appear? If the song is telling a story, and you anticipate a twist, or there's some change of emotion, a bridge is a great vehicle for introducing that change. Perhaps the singers lead in to the bridge ahead of time, cueing the muso that a bridge is coming. Other times the music can lead in to a bridge.

I really like to construct bridges that depart musically from the patterns you've set up for your verse and chorus. You take a break from the rest of the song, narratively and musically, so when you return it is fresh again.


Most of the time, a song will finish on a chorus. Some nice techniques include repeating the chorus twice, repeating the last line of the chorus twice, and repeating the last line of the chorus twice but stretching it out to twice the length.

I think once we (without planning) did a fade out at the end, which felt weird because the audience didn't quite know if it the song was finished or not. I'd like to try that again sometime though.

If the audience is right in to it, if your chorus is simple, and you want a massive ending, repeat the chorus at the end but get some audience sing-a-long going on with an "Everybody!" or an "All together now!".

Special to impro?

Are these building blocks only relevant to impro songs? Of course not! We use them because they're familiar. There are a great many resources out there on song construction that apply to improvised and non-improvised songs.

1 comment:

Jill said...

Did you ever see this website?

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