Written by Caroline Jones
In the last few years of writing songs, I’ve been thinking a lot about structure. Like most singer/songwriters, the majority of my songs follow the conventional structure: verse, chorus, second verse, second chorus, optional bridge and/or solo, and third chorus. I use the word “conventional” rather than “traditional” in this piece because there really is no traditional song structure. Popular song structure developed and evolved dramatically over the 20th century, from ragtime to Broadway to rock ‘n’ roll, from The Carter Family to Sinatra, The Beatles to Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks to Billie Eilish.
As late as the ’90s, popular song structure in country music still followed AABA, in which the chorus is not only not the focal point of the song, but there is no chorus. Listen to all 60 of George Strait’s No. 1 hits and count how many have choruses. Rather, in this structure, the “hook” of the song lands at the end of every section “A,” and section “B” provides additive/alternative melodic themes and lyrical perspective. All this to say, the modern commercial song structure is relatively new. Modern commercial music is still less than a century old, and I don’t have enough space here to delve into the structure of popular music in Mozart’s time.
Modern commercial song structure—the three-and-a-half-minute song—developed because of radio and LPs. Now, as digital platforms begin to eclipse radio in terms of audience reach and accessibility, I ask myself as a songwriter and creative: to what extent can I free myself of these structures and create new forms of music? A 20-second vocal or guitar riff video uploaded to TikTok or Instagram Stories can touch someone just as deeply as my song on the radio. No one cares that the guitar video took me 60 seconds to record and upload, and the radio single took me and a team of people months to write, produce, mix, master, distribute, and promote. Truly, nobody cares. Listeners just want to be moved and inspired as they always have been and always will be. It’s not scary, it’s freeing. I challenge musicians everywhere to thank the techies for being braver and more innovative than we have been. THANK THEM for disrupting and shaking up our business so we may be CHALLENGED to create and connect anew. For constantly asking: what is a better way? What is a way that resonates with more people? These are questions that we artists should be asking all the time, not only of our audiences but of our own hearts. We will always figure out how to make music and make a living doing it. If anything ultimately suffers, it will be the now obsolete middlemen and a business model that took advantage of musicians.
Sometimes I write a guitar riff, or a vocal melody that lyrics don’t immediately unfold on top of, or a single verse, or a piano figure. As songwriters, we have been taught to see these as “incomplete” song ideas. Good starts. Fragments. We all have piles and piles of them. Some of them are really special—we all know which ones—and we kick ourselves when we can’t elongate those ideas to fit our structural biases. Or, no matter how hard we try, nothing feels as good as that initial chorus we wrote. But what if that is the song? What if the story is told in a minute and a half? What if it is complete, even though it breaks structural rules? What if this song is not meant to be three and a half minutes, and I am superimposing convention at the expense of my greatest inspiration? Of late, I have been asking myself what feels complete and exciting, rather than constantly checking myself against rules. Rules have been changed countless times by unapologetic, creative geniuses who created art so moving, so brilliant, and so undeniable that the music industry adopted their style as conventional structure.
We artists are freer than ever. You have the opportunity to find your audience, whether your inspiration calls you to write hook-based three-and-a-half minute songs and put them on an album, or stream yourself for four hours while you make instrumental music like Jacob Collier, or create 30 second acapella clips for TikTok. Thanks to new social media platforms, we have the opportunity to share the art that comes to us pure, non-conforming, and rebellious. Accept and embrace this creative lawlessness, and see what you can make of it—literally.