Building Bridges

If we’ve gone over it once, we’ve gone over it a thousand times. The “conventions” of music theory, whether a chord progression from Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony or the song structure of the latest tunes off the latest Oasis album, are older than the hills.

I’m bringing this up (again) today because of our subject – bridges. And I’m referring to the bridge of a song, as opposed to the bridge of a guitar. Those of you who want to discuss guitar bridges will have to patiently wait for another day.

In observing song structure, be it Beck or Irving Berlin, it’s almost impossible not to see the patterns that make up almost every song. If you’ve read Unearthing the Structure or Going Against The Grain, A-J Charron’s article of last week, then you should have a pretty good grasp of the fundamentals of song structure. What is difficult for a lot of people to see (or, I guess, hear) is that even songs that we might consider “complex” tend to follow these patterns as well. If you think in terms of musical phrases (such as we’ve been discussing over the past few columns) instead of “verses” and “choruses,” you will amaze yourself with your ability to dissect a song or just about any piece of music.

Looking Across The Chasm

These files are the author’s own work and represents his interpretation of the song. It is intended solely for private study, scholarship or research

Some people love to do the “chicken or the egg” thing. Which did come first? Did they really inspire Paul Simon to write Mother and Child Reunion?

The use of a “bridge” has been around almost as long as the study of music. You can find examples of it in classical music, religious music and, of course, the popular music of any given era in history.

And, while I’m not an authority in music history (not by any means), I can imagine a couple of early songwriters getting together to discuss things:

“Thag think song a bit too long.”

“Is only twenty-two verses!”

“But it’s boring!”

“Okay! Og will sing only three verses. Maybe play solo between second and third verse?”


If you’re ever lucky enough to hear a songwriter’s earliest songs, you’ll find that they tend to fall into one of two categories. Either they try to copy songs that they like a lot or they, for lack of a better word, “ramble” a bit. There are no set patterns; it’s a little bit of this, then that, then this again, then something else and then finally back to that and you wrap it up with this. It is truly an adventure.

But eventually, patterns and phrases form and the songs develop a structure. As we’ve discussed before, the most common type of structure is a verse-chorus or just a verse-verse-verse, etc. And, as Thag so conveniently pointed out, it can get boring. The use of a “bridge,” or a new (albeit short) piece of music introduced into a song at some point, brings about both surprise and relief. For the listener it’s an interesting detour on our way towards the end of the song. For the writer, it’s like knowing that you have to wear a blue or gray suit to work but still allowing yourself a “creative outlet” of sorts in your choice of shirt and tie.

And I want to note here that by “bridge,” I mean something that is structurally different from other parts of the song. “Solos” are often done over the same chord patterns as a verse or chorus (or both) and therefore do not qualify here. This is not to say that there aren’t instrumental bridges. Quite the contrary! The bridge after the second chorus on American Girl by Tom Petty (the quirky rhythmic bit before it goes back into the verse chords – guitar solo and all) is a good example. Another is the flute solo in Nights in White Satin. At first it may sound like it is playing over the verse chords (Em, D, Em, D, C, G, F, Em) but it’s actually a whole new progression (Em, D, C, B7, Em, D, C, B7, etc.)

Crossing Over

Some of you may be familiar with the term “Middle Eight.” Ages and ages and ages ago, many popular songs were verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, (sometimes verse) and chorus. The bridge was often eight lines long (or eight measures – people like to argue about these things, you know!) and hence the term. Even though most “middle eights” are rarely eight anythings long, the name still stands, particularly with British songwriters for some reason.

Regardless of their length, all bridges serve the same function – to carry us to the start of the next verse or chorus. And because of this, almost all bridges tend to end on either the root or the fifth of the song. Not always (because we’ve learned that you can never use the word “always” in music theory), but practically always.

As you’ll soon see, it’s hard to pin something down as a “typical” bridge. This one, from Ray Davies’ Stop Your Sobbing, is a very economical example. The song is in the key of G and the chorus has just ended with a D to G to C to G progression when we come to the bridge:

Stop Your Sobbing

Pardon the pun, but that’s a fairly pedestrian bridge. It stays firmly rooted in the key of G, simply building tension between the fourth, C, and the fifth, D. On the record, the bass walks down the scale repeatedly in the last line, actually making the chords C, C/B, C/A. This is repeated three times and then it runs up to D at the word “stop” (C, C/B, C, D).

Another quite popular bridge progression involves the “V of V of V” routine. In XTC’s The Mayor of Simpleton, the bridge first reemphasizes the song’s tonal center (again, G major) before modulating briefly in order to resolve to D. This is a good example of the use of a pivot chord (in this case the second Bm could just as easily be the VI chord in D as it is the III in G):

The Mayor of Simpleton

Getting Lost On Along The Way

Knowing where you want to go doesn’t necessitate getting there in a direct line. Some people look at songwriting as confining. You find a pattern you like and you color nicely in the lines. I prefer to think of the challenge involved in stretching the boundaries. You can write in a “traditional” manner and still come up with exciting things. We already examined the Moody Blues’ For My Lady two columns ago (You Say You Want A Resolution…) and saw the use of the minor plagal cadence. Take a look at what John Lennon does in Norwegian Wood. It’s in G (and no, I didn’t plan it this way!) but he starts out the bridge with a G minor chord! This is actually a pretty clever thing to do when you think about it, because the fifth of both G and G minor is D, isn’t it?

Norwegian Wood

You could make the argument here that Lennon transforms the song into the key of F, since the Gm to C cadence sounds so much like a half-cadence (it is, indeed, II to V in F). Personally, I think it’s a bit of over-analysis, but then that’s what theory is all about. All I know is that it can be fun, too.

Fellow Beatle George Harrison had his share of interesting bridge progressions as well. Take Something. The song, for all intents and purposes, is in the key of C major. The chorus section (“I don’t want to leave her now…”) uses a chromatic descending scale from the A minor (relative minor of C major) to great effect. But in the bridge, he changes the song into A major and creates a whole new tonal center using an A major descending scale:


The beauty of this is how you get set up by the second line. By the end of the second line, your ears have pretty much accepted that the song is now firmly based in the key of A major. Even though an authentic cadence is not used, the D to G to A in the second line rings with a resounding sense of finality. When the fourth line comes around you fully expect it to be another D to G to A, but since G is, after all, the fifth of C it makes perfect sense to resolve there and thus continue on with the rest of the song.

Psycho Killer, by the Talking Heads, carries this illusion a step further. Up until the bridge, the song rolls merrily along in A minor (flitting back and forth with C major on the choruses). But the song makes an abrupt transition into the key of G major (as well as into French) (and please pardon my French; it’s been awhile…) and then modulates again in order to place the final verse in the key of A major:

Psycho Killer


A well-written bridge can transform a song into something special. If the verses and choruses are full of complex chord progressions or dynamic tension, then a simple bridge can bring a space of calm where one can gather one’s energy to move on. Think about The Punk Meets The Godfather from Quadrophenia. And if a song is more of a traditional piece, a surprisingly complicated bridge can create an apprehension that is only eased by the return to the familiar patterns of the verses. If you’d like to see a stellar demonstration of this, then you’ll want to read (or reread) the analysis of Richard Thompson’s Walking On A Wire that we did in Solving The Puzzle way back in January.

The art of crafting a good song can be very frustrating. You want to be different, yet you also want to be heard. We all like to think that we’re incredibly open-minded, but think of how easily you dismiss a piece of music because it’s “country” or “rap” or “heavy metal” or whatever genre that happens to give you fits.

But whether you want to write a hit song, a genre song, or just something to prove that you can write a song, it is vital that you understand how they are put together. No matter how avant-garde you may think yourself or your music to be, you cannot expand any boundaries (or obliterate them, for that matter) if you don’t know what and where they are. Or why they are there in the first place.

I’m a big fan of silent movies, especially Charlie Chaplin and Buston Keaton. Even after the advent of sound in film, they continued to make their usual masterpieces. Oftentimes, something that might seem to be a huge restriction, forces you to become more creative in order realize your art. Listen to what Jimi Hendrix was able to do without the luxury of any effects that we think we couldn’t possibly live without.

Songwriting can be like this, too. For me the biggest thrill of writing is finding the center of a huge paradox – how do I write something that is personal enough for me to justify having written it at all while making it palatable for as many other people as possible to enjoy? Part of the answer lies in shaping a song into a form with which people are already comfortable. If can gently coax someone to go along on the ride with you, then it’s usually a rewarding experience for both you and your listener. And again, the skillful use of a bridge can satisfy both the creator and the listener in their respective needs.

Next week, we’ll put together another song (similar to what we did in Alternate Writing Styles) using the various aspects of theory and songwriting we’ve been discussing throughout the month of June.

As always, please feel free to email me any questions, comments, concerns, or topics you’d like to see covered in the future. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or write directly to [email protected].

Until next week…