Sunday, March 23, 2014

Living in an ABAB World

One of the biggest problems we see with Christian songs that come our way is a structure that seems random or strange to listen to.

Now, songwriters, I hear you. You say, “I want to write original stuff that no one has heard before!” Oh if that were only true. What you really mean is “I just wrote it down this way and I’d rather go write something else than change it at this point.”

While it is interesting to hear songs that have different lengths in their verses, or don’t have a traditional chorus, or change from 3/4 to 5/4 every other section, the problem is this: you run the risk of no one understanding the song. This is especially troublesome if you really want the world to hear your songs.

Most writers want to be able to eventually interest a publisher with what they write, and maybe even get published or have an artist choose to record their song. If this is your goal, then you better be writing songs that the general public can understand and sing along with by the second chorus.

Like or not folks, we live in an ABAB world. Verse chorus verse chorus. That’s what people like to hear when they listen to the radio. That’s what they are accustomed to, even trained to like and prefer. It’s how American music has been since the 1800's.

Now, yes, songs can start with a chorus, and you see this often in contemporary worship music. If you have a chorus that needs to be stated first, either for melodic, rhythmic, or lyrical reasons, I can get with that. But most times, contemporary pop songs start with a verse that sets up the chorus and hook.

The verse provides the back story. It is the set up for the big hook that is coming. If you are careful, you can make your verse have musical and lyrical hooks too. Hooks are repeated phrases that catch the ear, and the more hooks in a song the better if you’re wanting people to want to listen repeatedly.

Cliché alert: Christian songwriters take heed. What seems like a great lyrical hook to you may be a stultifying tired phrase to others. We Christians can live in our own little bubble where phrases and titles we love and cherish seem to keep popping up in our minds. A hook isn't a hook if it drives a listener away because of a worn out cliché. Read more about that here.

Once the verse has been established, or perhaps repeated the first time through, then the chorus that we will repeat comes in. This is where your strong melodic and lyrical hooks come in.

Now sometimes, a song can be very strophic (verses) and then have a B section that is more of a bridge than a chorus. But the verse – chorus –verse – chorus – (bridge) – chorus structure is most prevalent in western popular songs.

Now, I won’t say this is the only way to write a song of course. And please, no comments telling me I’m blind to the creative process and that your music transcends the noise that is popular music.

But for most of you hoping to get published, get a cut, or get audiences hooked on and buying your music, this structure is a great place to start.

Have a great week, and write something great this week!! (In fact, show us your lyrics in a comment below and let's talk about your song's structure!)

Eric Copeland is a songwriter and arranger/producer for Christian songwriters. His company Creative Soul works exclusively with Christian songwriters and artists helping them find new levels of success and growth. Check out


Unknown said...

I very much appreciate your insight and perspective on the music industry overall. What you say cuts across all commercial musical forms ,christian and otherwise. I believe that there's a balance between writing something that's "comfortable and familiar"and and something that actually has musical/lyrical content. It's pretty easy to write "How great is our God" [1,6,4,5] over and over again or to write something that's so "outside" that it has no commercial appeal whatsoever. The trick [or the art] is to marry the two. Thanks again for all that you have to say. Dennis

Anonymous said...

I agree when you say that is "what we're trained to hear". But everyday I also hear someone say that they can't stand listening to Christian radio anymore because it all sounds the same.

Eric Copeland said...

Good comments. Dennis you are right, as much as we want to be cutting edge, we have to obey rules of what people who aren't musical are used to hearing.

And Anon, yeah, you are right Christian radio DOES sound the same, but that has less to do with songwriting, and more to do with a 20 song playlist that isn't looking for originality, but what will draw in listeners. This is another blog/subject, but the problem is people listen more to songs they know and love and radio sees that. And so do radio sponsors. It's an endless cycle.

Robert Freemont said...

Do you think SPOKEN WORD or GOSPEL RAP is a viable means of spreading the gospel?

Mike Ford said...

I am a worship leader at our church and we sing songs written by the most played songwriters and artists of the last 20 years. There are an overwhelming number of songs that are not original in the lyric or melody played on the radio every day. So how do these songs get picked up by those in the music industry who choose those songs? I appreciate your blog, and enjoy reading it.

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Eric Copeland is an author, producer, keyboardist, songwriter, and president of Creative Soul Companies. What is Creative Soul? Our main goals are to inform, encourage, and assist Christian creative folks in ministry, no matter where they are in their journey. Thanks for reading! Find out more about us at