Songwriter U: Lyrically Speaking—Building Bridges III

Over the last two articles, we’ve looked at bridges that bridge verses (AABA), and bridges that bridge choruses (V/Ch,V/Ch, Br/ Ch). Let’s turn now to the third type of bridge, one that joins verses to choruses: V/Pre-Chorus/Ch.  

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Wait! Are you calling a pre-chorus a bridge? 

Yes, I am. A bridge’s job is to transport you from one place to another. Whether it’s the Brooklyn Bridge or a footbridge, it offers a different experience, a different kind of perspective and journey than the elements it joins. As usual, the kind of bridge you build always depends on what elements you’re joining. 

In my Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure, I tried my best to rename “pre-chorus,” swapping it out for the term, “transitional bridge.” I was pretty happy with the new term, and then sad when it sank and drowned, alas. But still, that is the pre-chorus’ job: to transition from verse to chorus; to build a ramp or bridge taking us from something we haven’t seen (verse one) to something else we haven’t yet seen (chorus one). And along the way, to generate excitement and a desire to land on the other side. That’s its job both in terms of moving to a new level of discourse and of creating structures that move us forward. 

Take a look at Julia Michaels’ nifty pre-chorus in her wonderful, Love is Weird:

Tattoos on my arm, still scared of forever
Keep my exes letters in the third drawer of my dresser
First one hit me hard, second was a feather
Playing operation tryna put me back together

Closed off and exposed
Salty and I’m seared
Naked in my clothes, yeah

Love is weird
Don’t know how I wound up here
Love is weird
It shows up and disappears
Love is strange for some 

It ranges from
Making love to tears
Now we’re here
Love is weird

The level of discourse changes from verse to pre-chorus, moving from quirky facts from  the narrator’s perspective (especially the trigger line: playing operation tryna put me back together) to a list of contradictions created by love: 

Closed off and exposed
Salty and I’m seared
Naked in my clothes, yeah

See how it moves the conversation? The list cries out for some perspective; it’s on a different level of discourse: What am I to make of all this confusion? Well,

Love is weird…

The pre-chorus structure longs for resolution too. First, it’s a three-line section, automatically unbalanced. Second, its rhymes create an ABA, exposed/seared/clothes, a sequence. Seared is waving its arms, begging for a friend too. Luckily, the most important word in the song is happy to befriend seared – weird. See how the pre-chorus ABA sequence not only lunges forward but actually targets the sound of the most important word in the song, bathing weird in spotlights. Changing seared to Closed off and exposed / Salty and I’m burned / Naked in my clothes, yeah would still make us move, but the arrival would sure feel different, with burned being orphaned, and weird lacking a best friend. 

Ah, a wrinkle: any second pre-chorus will transition from something we hadn’t seen (V2) to something we’re already familiar with, Ch2. So its relation to each end will depend on whether you’re repeating the first pre-chorus or changing it.

If the second pre-chorus repeats the first, then it is something familiar that you’ve seen before, just like the chorus. Thus, the second verse, all by itself has the ENTIRE job of making BOTH the pre-chorus AND the chorus mean more than they did the first time. It’s now functioning like a piece of the chorus, making only the verse responsible for advancing the idea.

On the other hand, if the second pre-chorus changes its lyric, then it’s like a verse extension, and shares the verse’s responsibility for making the second chorus mean more. 

Julia Michaels repeats her second pre-chorus exactly, so her second verse has a lot of work to do:

People in my past, put ’em in a coffin
Laid ’em all to rest but I still think about ’em often
We were on our toes tryna make a good impression
Now we’re kissing under lampposts and we’re asking deeper questions

Closed off and exposed
Salty and I’m seared
Naked in my clothes, yeah

I love that there’s no opening pronoun, making closed off and exposed grammatically connected with we’re in the trigger line,

Now we’re kissing under lampposts and we’re asking deeper questions.

Closed off and exposed
Salty and I’m seared
Naked in my clothes 

We’regives the pre-chorus a wider meaning, including anyone in love. Both the pre-chorus and chorus mean more than they did the first time. Nice song. Neat structure.

You have lots of ways to make a pre-chorus move. Here’s a technique from Jeffrey Cohen and Narada Michael Walden’s Freeway of Love:

City traffic’s movin’ way too slow
Drop the pedal and go

Really effective. The short second line dumps us into the chorus. 

Or here’s Ric Ocsaek’s pre-chorus in Why Can’t I Have You:

Just one more time to touch you 

Just one more time to tell you 

you’re on my mind 

Three lines with a short third line, plus three long-i sounds in the same positions, targeting the long-i’s in the chorus’ first line,

Why can’t I have you

Pre-choruses. When you listen to songs, keep your eye on these little bridges and, for each one you see, ask

  1. What have you done to move us to a new level of discourse?
  2. What issue do you raise for the chorus to answer?
  3. How does your structure move us forward? 
  4. How does it prepare for arrival? Does it create a desire for a particular rhythm or rhyme?

Ask yourself the same questions when you’re writing your own pre-choruses. They’ll help you construct the necessarily unstable structures demanded by this interesting little bridge. Have fun.

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