Unearthing The Structure

Broken Guitar

Before we begin figuring out songs by ear, we need to take two brief but necessary side trips. Some of this will involve general stuff – things you know but maybe never thought out in a formal manner. Some will be a bit of fine-tuning of your newly appreciated listening skills. And, of course, we’ll toss in a bit of theory for good measure. I promise it will be painless.

Okay, relatively painless.

Learning By Example

Not that I need any encouragement, but let’s get a bit philosophical for a moment (hence the “relatively painless” tag). What, exactly, is a song? What differentiates a song from a simple bit of music? Its length? The number of chords used? If my Webster’s New World Dictionary defines a song as “a piece of music for singing,” then is an instrumental piece not a song?

Before we can go figuring out that song we want to learn, we need to have a sense of song structure. By “structure,” I am referring to various conventions that have been widely accepted over the course of hundreds of years. Much of this may seem like old hat to many of you, but take a moment to think about it. A lot of what makes a song a “song” is the familiarity of its structure. Even when we’re listening to a song for the very first time, there is usually something about it that makes us feel comfortable, feel at home. One of the reasons that many people have a hard time with classical music is not the music itself, but rather one’s lack of knowledge of its structures and conventions. Because it is unfamiliar it is (seemingly) unfriendly. As I told you in my first column, our comfort with what we know (coupled with our inability to move outside our area of comfort) is occasionally a weakness. But in the study of what comprises a song, this comfort can be a big help.

The best way to study song structure is to use the same method we use studying music theory – we simply make analyses of the huge history of song that lies before us. Pick a song, any song, and we’ll look at how it’s organized. Most songs nowadays start out with an instrumental introduction, but it wasn’t all that long ago (depending on how you view the 30’s and 40’s) that a majority of pop songs had lyrical introductions. The introduction is usually followed by the first verse and then the chorus. Now let’s not get all hung up in semantics. By “chorus” I am referring to the part of the song (lyrically) that tends to be repeated. It’s the “everybody, sing along” part. Often, but not always, it will incorporate the song’s title as part of its lyrics (and sometimes, as in Knocking on Heaven’s Door, the title is all the lyrics the chorus contains). The chorus will usually be followed by a second verse (musically identical to the first verse), then the chorus again. After the second chorus, things usually get interesting. There will either be an instrumental verse (usually featuring a solo of some sort), or what is known as a “bridge” or a “middle eight” (and I’d love to know where this term comes from. I’ve heard numerous stories and maybe one day we’ll devote some time to this…). This section is often very different musically then the rest of the song. Finally the song will usually go through the verse and chorus one last time and end with some kind of flourish that we call an outro.

Let’s look at an example and two variations of this style. By the way, I picked all these examples from the Guitar Tab pages here at Guitar Noise. You don’t have to go far to get your hands on a lot of examples to study. To analyze a song’s structure, you should ideally be listening to it. But since we can’t do that here, I’ve tried to pick songs with which I think most people will be (relatively) familiar. We’re not going to worry about the song’s chords for the time being – I just want you to concentrate on its structure. If you don’t know the songs, just find one that you do know and work with that. As always, feel free to email me any questions you might have.

PSYCHO KILLER – Talking Heads

Intro: Musically same rhythm and chords as verse

Verse 1:
I can’t seem to face up to the facts I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax
I can’t sleep cause my bed’s on fire Don’t touch me I’m a real live wire

Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est better run run run run run run run away
Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est better run run run run run run run away Oh______ ayayayay

Verse 2:
You start a conversation, you can’t even finish it
You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed
Say something once, why say it again


Ce qu’elle a fait, ce soir la ce qu’elle a dit, ce soir la Realisant, mon espoir je me lance, vers la goire Okay

Verse 3:
We are vain and we are blind
I hate people when they’re not polite


OUTRO: Same chords and rhythm as intro

As you can see, this is almost a textbook example of our standard verse/chorus format. The only significant difference is that the third verse is half the length of the first two.

Now, not every verse/chorus format has a bridge, either. Here’s an example with which most of you should be familiar:

Hotel California – Eagles

Intro (musically, it’s half a verse)

Verse 1:
On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim I had to stop for the night
There she stood in the doorway; I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself this could be heaven or this could be hell
Then she lit up a candle, and she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor, I thought I heard them say

Welcome to the Hotel California. Such a lovely place, such a lovely face
Plenty of room at the Hotel California Any time of year you can find it here

Her mind is Tiffany twisted, she got the Mercedes bends
She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys that she calls friends
How they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat
Some dance to remember, some dance to forget
So I called up the captain; “Please bring me my wine.”
“We haven’t had that spirit here since nineteen sixty-nine”
And still those voices are calling from far away
Wake you up in the middle of the night, just to hear them say

Welcome to the Hotel California. Such a lovely place, such a lovely face
They’re living it up at the Hotel California What a nice surprise bring your alibis

Mirrors on the ceiling, the pink champagne on ice
And she said “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device”
And in the master’s chambers, they gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast
Last thing I remember, I was running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
“Relax” said the nightman, “We are programmed to receive”
“You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave”

OUTRO: (Instrumental – Guitar solos traded over verse chords)

Here you should notice two things – first, the choruses are not exactly the same. The lyrics in the last half of the second chorus have been changed even though it remains musically the same. Secondly, there is no bridge or final chorus. After the third verse the song repeats and fades over the chord progression from the verse. Another thing I’d like to point out here is that some songs in the verse/chorus style start with the chorus. Sugar Mountain by Neil Young and the Traveling Wilburys’ End of the Line are examples of this type.

Okay, one final example of how one might vary the verse/chorus structure:

1979 – Smashing Pumpkins

INTRO: (musically same as one verse)

Verse 1:
Shakedown 1979 cool kids never have the time
on a live wire right up off the street, you and I should meet j

Verse 2:
Junebug skipping like a stone with the headlights pointed at the dawn
we were sure we’d never see an end to it all

and I don’t even care to shake these zipper blues
and we don’t know just where our bones will rest to dust I guess
forgotten and absorbed into the earth below

Verse 3:
Double cross the vacant and the bored they’re not sure just what we have in store
Morpine city slippin dues down to see

that we don’t even care as restless as we are
we feel the pull in the land of a thousand guilts
and poured cement, lamented and assured

to the lights and towns below faster than the speed of sound
faster than we thought we’d go, beneath the sound of hope

Verse 4:
Justine never knew the rules hung down with the freaks and the ghouls
no apologies ever need be made
I know you better than you fake it to see

that we don’t even care to shake these zipper blues
and we don’t know just where our bones will rest, to dust I guess
forgotten and absorbed into earth below

the street heats the urgency of sound
as you can see there’s no one around

There are quite a few interesting things going on here. First off, there are two verses before we reach the first chorus. Next, we see that not only in the second chorus lyrically different, but it also flows directly into the bridge. Finally, there is an extra line in the final verse, which creates an impression of it being totally different from the other verses. So you can see that there are quite a few ways to tinker with this verse/chorus structure. Being able to recognize what’s going on gives you a handle on how to figure out the song.

Another popular song structure is simply one verse following another. Many Bob Dylan songs, such as All Along the Watchtower and Tangled Up in Blue use this style. Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush and Hey Hey My My are two other good examples.

Why is it important to be able to recognize the structure of a song? Well, the most obvious reason is that when you are trying to figure out a song, you only have to figure out a part once. If you can say, “This is the verse,” then you will not have to puzzle out the chords for a second (or third, fourth, etc.) time. Likewise with the choruses. So, for instance, instead of sounding out the chords to all ten verses of Shelter From the Storm, you simply decrypt the first verse and then you’re home free.

But perhaps a more important reason to familiarize yourself with popular song structures is to prepare yourself for sitting in with people and playing an unfamiliar piece. When you’re jamming with some friends and someone introduces a song that many people might not know, you know have some common ground on which to work out an arrangement. If the person tells you that each verse is so many measures long and followed by a chorus of so many measures, you don’t have to worry about not knowing the song – you’ll learn it very quickly and will find yourself enjoying the experience instead of dreading it.

Progressive Thought

Musically, songs consist of chord progressions. This is not a universal truth, but a fairly convenient generalization. The Talking Heads’ song Houses in Motion, for example, consists solely of an Em7 chord, but if you simply sit and strum an Em7, I can pretty much guarantee that what you’re playing will not sound remotely like the song. What makes this particular song work are the various riffs and rhythm patterns (vocal as well as instrumental) that the band members are tossing about – it’s almost like a game of catch. Again, you will always be able to find exceptions to any generalization in music and music theory.

But the generalizations will help you immensely if (a) you know them and (b) you can recognize them. This is where your practice with interval recognition can pay big dividends.

In order to help us out, I’m going to set out a few of our primary and secondary chord charts for the five major keys guitarists tend to play (bonus points for noticing that we’re using the given scale’s flat seventh, which is a half-step lower than the regular seventh, as the root of the VII chord!):

Primary and secondary chords

I – IV – V (the blues becomes rock and roll)

Okay, most of you are familiar with what is known as “twelve bar blues.” This is the format used in the vast majority of blues songs. In a nutshell, the verse of a song (and it’s usually all in verses) is twelve measures long. Each measure (marked by a “/”) is four beats (“-“) and follows this pattern:

I – – – / – – – – / – – – – / – – – – / IV – – – / – – – – /
I – – – / – – – – / V – – – / IV – – -/ I – – – / – – – -/

So if someone tells you that a song is twelve bar blues in A (as in “A”nother blues song!), you know that it will play out as follows:

A – – – / – – – – / – – – – / – – – – / D – – – / – – – – /
A – – – / – – – – / E – – – / D – – -/ A – – – / – – – -/

A popular variation of the twelve bar blues changes the first four measures like this:

I – – – / IV – – – / I – – – / I7 – – – /

Now, if someone wants to play this version in D (another “D”amn blues song), we just fill in the appropriate chords:

D – – – / G – – – / D – – – / D7 – – – / G – – – / – – – – /
D – – – / – – – – / A – – – / G – – -/ D – – – / – – – -/

Pretty simple, isn’t it? In addition to the blues, this I – IV – V progression was used a lot in the early days of rock. Many of Chuck Berry’s songs follow this pattern. And it’s still used these days by all sorts of artists like the BoDeans (Good Work), or with slight variations (in this case, substituting the final IV with an addition measure of V) by Bruce Springsteen (Pink Cadillac) and the Rolling Stones (Respectable). By the way, you can find out more about the this progression, not to mention the blues in general, with lessons like Before You Accuse Me, right here at Guitar Noise.

I – IV – V (the eternal medley…)

Another hugely popular use of I – IV – V is the Louie Louie progression:

I – IV – / V – IV – / and on and on and on…

I don’t know how many songs use this – I’ve long lost count. Hang On Sloopy, Twist and Shout, La Bamba are but a few. An interesting variation on this uses the VII (and it’s the flat VII we’re talking about here) instead of the V:

I – IV – / VII – IV – / and on and on and on…

If you play this in E (E-A-/D-E-/), you might recognize it as R O C K in the U S A, That’s What I Like About You or Wild Thing depending on how fast or slow you’re playing. Again, that’s just to name a few.

I – VII – IV (look, I’m a rock star…)

Perhaps no other progression sings out “rock and roll” as much as this one. It’s usually done in a one-measure-apiece style such as this (and, again, we’re talking about the flat seven in these progressions):

I – – – / VII – – – / IV – – – / I – – – /

No matter what key you decide to try this out, you’ll recognize some song. Taking Care of Business, Sweet Home Alabama, Take The Money and Run, the verses of Sympathy for the Devil – it all depends on how you vary the rhythm.

Sneak Preview Alert:

And, again in what is becoming a tradition of sorts, I’m going to have to spend another column on the “why” of this particular progression, and others like it. It’ll be called Scales Within Scales and at this point I hope to have it online sometime next month.

Next column, we’re going to put these past two columns into practical use and wrap up the “figuring things out yourself” thread for a bit. I’d like to recommend that you review Jimmy Hudson’s column entitled Key Changes between now and then because it will be of great value to us in this final stage.

As always, please feel free to bookmark this page for easy reference and please take some time to analyze some song structures on your own. The Guitar Tab page is perfect for this kind of work. Questions, either via email or on the Guitar Forums are encouraged. By the way, my email address has changed with the new year. You can now reach me at [email protected].

Until next week…