THE ANATOMY OF SONG:
BIOLOGY AS A METAPHOR FOR MUSIC
Let’s talk about bodies.
You have a body. I have a body. We all have bodies. Except for the sentient AI software that floats through the Internet like a great, shadowy whale in a deep, dark ocean of data, though. It probably doesn’t have one. But the rest of us have bodies. And our bodies are diverse! Consider the diversity of the human form, the many shapes, forms and tones it can arrange itself into; think about the discrete individuality of every person you know, and beyond that, the billions of people that exist beyond your experience.
Now, consider the fact that humanity’s diversity is narrow compared to other species of apes. For example, there is greater genetic differences between some tribes of chimpanzees than within the whole of humanity. Consider how many different shapes, forms and tones our fellow apes can be arranged into, and beyond that, the diversity of all primates, the monkeys and lemurs that are our more distant relatives. Consider how diverse are all of the mammals of the earth, and all of the animals. Life is diversity.
We can think about music like life. Grand, complex, a little weird, and always evolving. And like life, all music, be it bluegrass or be it baroque, from calypso to chanson, everything can trace its roots back to the same simple source. In music’s case, this is not some single-celled organism but rather bone flutes, animal skin drums, and whatever other instruments our ancestors were able to cobble together and carry with them in their nomadic lifestyle. Their lifestyle was the primordial soup of music.
If we can compare music to life, than perhaps each classification of biology can represent a broad genre of music, and each taxonomic rank creating greater specificity, from phylum to family, and then finally, species. And each song we write, an individual in that specie, each individual as distinct from the other as you are from me. Maybe you can imagine it, the great diversity of a specie like humans, standing in the foreground before the greater diversity that is life.
That’s like music. And we can only ever really experience to a tiny slice of it.
I didn’t put together this imperfect metaphor of the grand diversity of music in order to argue about what performers equate to what animal species (for my money, Radiohead is probably some kind of lemur and Kanye West, a flying squirrel), but rather to talk about the adaptability of song structure, and the morphing organ-like nature of the parts that make it up. The very word “structure” suggests the song is somewhat like a building, rigid and intended to maintain but one single shape.
However, this goes against the very fact that life must be added to music in order for it to truly manifest itself, and life can be messy. In the end, someone has to play the music so that the music can exist. But even when the same song is played by the same musician on the same stage, the song might vary wildly from night to night, from iteration to iteration. Therefore, I prefer to think of songs in terms of biology: living, breathing, changing, evolving. From day to day, from year to year, from one epoch to another.
So let’s think of the parts of songs not like they’re bricks in an archway, but rather organs in a song’s body. After all, both song-parts and organs serve a purpose in sustaining the life of something greater than itself.
My culture, American culture, is one deeply saturated with popular music. Not only pop, but music that’s structurally influenced by pop. Hip-hop began to take shape when MCs first put radio hits on the chopping block, rearranging the popular songs to create a revolutionary new sound. Rock, of course, is pop music’s rebellious little brother that always used to go out at night without telling the Parent Culture, and now has settled down in a regular office job (where at least they let him wear a leather jacket at work). He even has some unruly children of his own. The relationship between pop music and rock music is familial: close, but not without its rough spots.
The anatomy of pop music, the arrangement of parts that make up popular song, is deeply embedded in our ideas about music. Assuming that you grow up listening to the popular songs of the day, be it on the radio or streaming online, you’re going to have some expectations installed by that history. And if you’re a musician, knowing about those expectations can help you explore the boundaries of the art-form. You have to know you’re in a box in order to know that you can leave it.
The most well-known elementary organ of a pop song is the chorus. It’s kind of like the circulatory system or heart of the song’s body, in that it’s very important and everyone talks about it but in the end it gets far more credit that it earns. The chorus usually is the catchiest part of the song (but not always), with a consistent, memorable refrain (but not always), and usually gets repeated periodically throughout the song (but not always). The most common way this organ is used is as a frame for the central theme or image of the song. For this reason, it’s no surprise that the chorus also usually contains the song’s title (but not always).
Verses are the next common body part. Verses are a bit like the nervous system: it dictates the majority of the body’s actions and does the brunt of the work but it doesn’t really get enough credit for all of the work it does. Usually the most lyrical part of the song (but not always), the verse often expands on the story or idea that the chorus presents (but not always). It also usually has the same melody and chord structure each time the section is played (but not always).
A bridge is the section in the middle of a song that is different from the verse and the chorus. It generally links two distinct sections of the song, hence the name. It can be lyrical, it can be instrumental. If there’s a bridge at all, then there’s usually only one (but not always). Bands like Queen and Meatloaf are common culprits or having multiple bridges in their extravagant song arrangements. If I had to assign an organ to bridges, it would be hair and fur. Useful, but many animals get by just fine without.
These parts can be used or not used as needed. I’ve heard songs that were entirely choruses, repeated over and over again and interspersed with instrumental sections. Some songs don’t have a chorus at all and merely tell a story through music without any easy to remember sing-along part. And though I can’t say I’ve heard a song that was entirely made of bridges, I won’t rule it out as a possibility.
Many traditional folk songs follow a structure alternating back and forth between choruses and verses, with no bridges at all. Since the priority of those songs was community and inclusion, it stands to reason that you’d want something simple to pick up for beginners, but with enough variation to keep the old hands interested. “You Are My Sunshine,” “Leave Her Johnny” and “Two Dollar Bill” are classic examples of this folk structure.
But the Archetypal Pop Song is queen, these days. And the classic anatomy of a pop song goes like this:
There’s a reason why this is so common: It works really well. It’s a piece of theatre. The anatomy of a pop song itself is a story.
The first verse sets up the idea and story of the song. Then, the first chorus comes in swinging with the catchy melody and the central theme, hooking the audience and taking them into the heart of the song. The second verse extrapolates on the first verse’s ideas, and sets up a pattern. The second chorus further establishes that pattern, so that the listener has an expectation of what will come next. So far, the song has gone verse-chorus-verse-chorus, so one might expect another verse after that second chorus.
Aha! But then, instead of a verse, we have a bridge, which is distinct from everything else that has come before. Maybe it contains a new idea, maybe it is some kind of instrumental, but somehow, the bridge breaks up the structural pattern established by the first part of the song. And then, after this change of pace, the song returns to the chorus, that good old chorus, that comfortable and familiar chorus, which finishes out the song, leaving behind only the memory of the catchy refrain as it fades into the past.
The pop structure works so well because it is a story in and of itself. It’s a theatrical story in a lean, 3-minute shape.
You’ll find this song in so many places: Robyn, Michael Jackson, Bjork, The Misfits, Miley Cyrus, The Beatles, The Ramones, Van Halen, and on and on.
I want to emphasize again that these are not rules, they are not prescriptive ideas, they are not mandatory. This is only a description of what has come before and why it works so well today. The point of this essay is not to paint the Archetypal Pop Song as the paramount of musical evolution, rather my point is to describe why the Archetypal Pop Song has conquered its ecosystem, in the same way that humans have taken over the Earth. There is no scientific standard by which humans are a “better” species than any other. And so there is no standard by which the Archetypal Pop Song is superior to any other kind. We can only say that it works and why it works so well.
But there is something else that is also important for me to directly communicate. These forms that have become our modern traditions are far from unchanging, far from immutable. In a hundred years, the shape of music will have changed, and it will have changed according to what the audiences of the future need it to be.
You can make any sort of song you like. Really. Maybe your next song will have strong jaws for cracking bones, or maybe it will have thick, soft fur to keep it warm during the cold months. Maybe it will have chronic synesthesia, or an aversion to the taste of cilantro. You’ve got a whole world of diversity to choose from.
The songs we write, the stories we tell, the paintings we slave over while others choreograph dance pieces and sculpt statues from stone, all of these things can be as divergent as life itself. So you can be as divergent as you need to be.
The world is ready for it.