Breaking the usual song structure
December 13, 2013 11:27 AM   Subscribe

I've been on a massive songwriting binge recently but can't seem to break out of the Verse-Chorus- Verse-Bridge-Chorus structure. I'm looking for examples of high quality pop songs that really break that mold. What songs/songwriters can you suggest that are creative with structure in a pop context? Some examples inside:

Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" is, to me at least, the absolute pinnacle of pop songwriting and production perfection....but it follows, strictly, the V-C-V-B-C structure.

I'm looking for similar ear candy that breaks that mold while still being incredibly engaging and not repetitious. The Beatles and Beach Boys were great at this, but I'm looking for more modern songwriters that are writing really interesting pop songs.

The best example I can think of is Brendan Benson's "Don't Wanna Talk". It has 2 choruses, maybe 3, or at least the 'hook' is found in the verse part. Or maybe it's chorus verse chorus verse then a great breakdown bridge, then ANOTHER bridge, then back to the chorus, or is it the verse, then ANOTHER breakdown that references the chorus. This is a GREAT example of what I'm looking for. (and a great song)

John Mayer's "Half Of My Heart" is interesting because the verse and chorus have the same chords, though the verse has a slight tension change that resolves to the main chorus theme, but it still follows the VCVCBC structure. This is pretty common in his songwriting.

Ben Howard's "Only Love" would be a another good example. The 'hook' is the main verse motif, and the chorus (if there even is one) is just a break down to get you ready for the next verse.

All 3 are great pop songs that have somewhat unusual structure. Does that make sense?

What I'm NOT looking for are tempo changes, key changes, referencing the chorus in the song intro, a mariachi band breakdown in the middle, a 20 minute Phish song with 18 parts and a flow chart and other 'tricks' etc etc.

Will try not to threadsit but worried I haven't articulated myself.
posted by BlerpityBloop to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Most of fun.'s excellent and overlooked first album, "Aim and Ignite" fits the bill. This is the full album, but I'd like to call to your attention, especially, "Be Calm" and "Benson Hedges."
posted by jbickers at 11:40 AM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

The Beatles "A day in the life" work? The song does a bit of a switch in the middle, and then goes back to the original structure. Oh, wait, you already mentioned the Beatles.

What about "Staplegun" by Ladyfuzz. Love that song. Breaks that normal pattern.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:41 AM on December 13, 2013

I really like what Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak / Flock of Dimes / Dungeonesse) has been doing with song structure. You've got something like 'Replica' that feels superficially like conventional electropop, it's not a straightforward VCVC structure.

CHVRCHES, too. 'Recover' has a kind of false chorus with what you initially think is the hook, but is actually a bridge/pre-chorus that flips into a refrain.
posted by holgate at 11:53 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

The video looks like it was paid for with change out of the cracks in Chezza's sofa but Biology by Girls Aloud is structurally and sonically spectacular. I'm not sure I could even diagram it; it seems like it's made of pieces of four or five pop songs strung together on a piece of tinsel and it doesn't even bother to get to the chorus until 2 minutes in. This is a group that also went to #2 with a skiffle track (and oh, that video is painful, too).

The producers were Xenomania and if you want mold-shattering pop songs you could do worse than digging through their back catalog.
posted by bcwinters at 11:55 AM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Marina and the Diamonds' album The Family Jewels does this for me, for example "Obsessions"
posted by wondermouse at 12:20 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd listen to Kristin Hersh - not at all poppy, but great for weird time signatures, etc. Her songs always sound like what I'd imagine a moth flopping around a lightbulb would sound like as songs.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 12:46 PM on December 13, 2013

Elliott Smith was a master at interesting pop song structure. Almost any of his songs would qualify, but check out the records XO and Figure 8 in particular.

Also, Chetes' record Blanco Facil has some interesting twists and turns.
posted by umbú at 12:50 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was realizing recently that You Oughta Know has three or four recognizable song parts to un-music-educated me - there doesn't seem to be a bridge? I'm not sure if this helps since it marks Alanis's move into alt rock, but it was hugely successful on pop stations too.
posted by maryr at 1:09 PM on December 13, 2013

The first thing I thought of is XTC. Check out Andy Partridge's songs. Dear Madam Barnum comes to mind as a song that has two different bridges, just for the hell of it.
posted by blue t-shirt at 1:25 PM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Arcade Fire do this all the time.

Also The Dears do this all the time too.

But those bands are alterna-pop (crooners). And they seem to let the song evolve and have different themes, especially The Dears.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:37 PM on December 13, 2013

One of my favorite songs of the past few years has been Solange's (Beyonce's sister) single, Losing You(produced by great Dev Hynes). The whole thing is essentially a chorus, and it works beautifully.
posted by beisny at 1:41 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Later Led Zeppelin songs do this by A. replacing the chorus with a guitar riff over which they play a solo (instead of soloing over the verse chords) and B. throwing in breakdowns and rave-up codas that double the time or remove elements from the other parts of the song to create new sections.

For instance: The Ocean is:
ChorusRiff, Verse, ChorusRiff, bridge, breakdown, Verse, ChorusRiff, Coda (Raveup version of Bridge).

If you want some classic examples of a musical form, check out some Sonatas a similar form that felt natural and sort of the end-game of composition before the Romantics starting breaking it down, and then discarding it.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:51 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I should say, I bring up Led Zep as an example of how many many classic rock composers broke from the traditional V-C-V-B-etc structure of 50s-60s rock and roll. Some of it was just extended instrumental jamming but there were plenty of bands that cleverly played with traditional song structures (my favorite is probably the MC5 who would often throw 3 or 4 bridges into a 3:30minute song), until Prog Rock kind of ruined the party by extending the experimentation until it wasn't really pop music any more.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:01 PM on December 13, 2013

MIA's Double Bubble Trouble is so catchy that it took me three or four listens to realize that it doesn't really have a chorus, or even repeating parts, really.
posted by erlking at 2:12 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

In Dreams by Roy Orbison has an interesting structure while remaining a very traditional song.
OK Computer is the other one that springs to mind.
posted by crocomancer at 2:20 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

A couple nice instances of long pop song construction:

Lilys' Socs Hip keeps spinning out section after section of perfect pop, somehow constructing a structure that is in retrospect tight as can be while spanning over 7 minutes.

Cardiacs' Dirty Boy is similarly tight despite being 9 minutes long. Just really expansive, long-arcing harmonic lines that take their time to breathe.
posted by dfan at 2:27 PM on December 13, 2013

A high quality pop song if there ever was one,

Up the Junction - Squeeze,

is all verses, no bridge, no chorus.
posted by humboldt32 at 2:28 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Up the Junction has a middle-eight, I'd say. Either that, or one of the verses has a completely different chord progression.

I'm talking about the part that starts with "I worked all through the winter" and ends with "...and little kicks inside her".
posted by blue t-shirt at 2:32 PM on December 13, 2013

Not to chat too much, but good point blue t-shirt. I was relying too heavily on my recollection.

It's interesting to note that the next verse is up a whole step. So for the OP you might try some key changes to help break up the usual patterns.
posted by humboldt32 at 2:57 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Flipping sideways, just for argument's sake…

Bob Seger would beat you to death over and over with the chorus after two verses. It was painful.
posted by Thistledown at 3:02 PM on December 13, 2013

I'd just sit down and work through Zappa's catalog, skipping the purely instrumental stuff. He's done everything from staight-up pop through wild avant-garde, and you'll learn a lot about what can be done to leverage/subvert typical structures. Hell, even taking V-C-V-B-C and turning it into V-C-V-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-B-V-B-B-B-B-C...heh, I'm laughing just hearing it in my head, but there's a lot of freedom of form to be inspired by. Not that he was sloppy; on the contrary, we was very disciplined, but he extended that discipline to accomplishing (at an extreme) what you're trying to accomplish now.
posted by davejay at 4:00 PM on December 13, 2013

Oh, and Tom Waits' early stuff. Not pop, exactly, but again a lot to learn from. In particular, the song Ol' 55. It goes from a verse into a chorus, except that it isn't the chorus because here comes the chorus, except it isn't really a chorus because it sounds like it's leading into the real chorus...but it isn't, and you're back to the verse again. It's a wonderful song for realizing how specifically a songwriter can fuck with your expectations in order to build an emotional peak.
posted by davejay at 4:03 PM on December 13, 2013

Middle of the Hill by Josh Pyke is a lovely acoustic ditty which has no chorus.
posted by h00py at 5:15 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hooktheory is the site for you.
posted by fritillary at 9:32 PM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

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