Take It From the Bridge

Ah, the ever illusive Bridge. What is it? Why do we songwriters need it? Where does one start if they’ve never used one before? In this article, I will attempt to answer these questions for you.

Most songs have the standard Verse + Chorus format; each performing their separate function. Verses are generally used to unfold stages of a song's story; and are filled with prose. The word "chorus" was originally derived from the need to state a hook over and over. Thus the action packed hook becomes the center of the song. Experienced songwriters know, though, that the hook of a tune can and does sometimes happen in the Verse. So, throughout the decades, this concept of the Chorus needing to always contain the hook has broadened. What has stayed the same, though, is that the Verse and Chorus need to be treated separately; with two distinctly different functions.

When a song's Chorus sounds too much like the Verse - too many of the same chords and rhythms; or, conversely, too different (almost as if one were listening to two different songs); the song is said to have weak prosody. Prosody; an important songwriting term, indicates how well and complimentary the song's sections go together. When this problem exists, the simple solution, without "throwing out the baby with the bathwater", is to create a Bridge.... a functional 4 to 8 bar section (that's the usual size) which serves to break up the verse from the chorus, in such a way that there is an appropriate build from the verse to the chorus. Another indication of weak prosody in a song is when the melody's range (otherwise known as the tessitura) is either too small, too large, too much the same, or too different. A bridge can serve as a grounding device that adds the much needed levelling effect for a melody in distress. A bridge can be completely instrumental; focussing on grooves, interesting chords, and/or modulation.

Allow me to elaborate. We'll take two different scenarios; the one where the verse sounds too much like the chorus; followed by the one where the verse sounds too different from the chorus. In each case, building a bridge is often the best solution.

Problem #1:

Verse sounds too much like Chorus. The groove hasn't changed and the chorus starts on the same chord as the verse. For this example, we'll keep it simple. Lets say the three chords are C to F to G.... and (oops) you've got the same 3 chords in your chorus.

Solution #1:

You decide to modulate, temporarily, to D. You choose the following chords for an 8 bar bridge: D, Db, D, F.

You add a completely different melody.... perhaps held melodic notes; instead of the busy melody you might have chosen for the verse and chorus. Now, we're talking a way improved prosody. All we did was to temporarily modulate (we didn't neccessarily need to indicate the modulation in the key signature - because it's only a few bars long), and then prepare entry into the chorus by ending the bridge with an F chord (IV of the C). Now that you've built your Bridge, you're gonna want to revisit those 3 chords you used on the verse and chorus... experimenting with some different chords over your melody - remembering to always choose chords which are compatible with that original melody.

Problem #2:

Verse sounds way too different from the Chorus. You've got some interesting chords and tons of chordal changes in the Verse; but they've gone a bit wild. Our imaginary Verse groove is sounding like salsa, with lots of latin jazz hybrid chords. The trouble is that you've got the Chorus sounding like electronic groove-based music.... with only one chord being used over the whole chorus and a completely different groove than the bridge.

Solution #2:

Use an instrumental bridge to break things up... starting with breaking down into the salsa drum groove you've just left - but with no more than the percussion and bass going, then finally just percussion. Now, slowly change the drum groove into the electronica-disco format, and re-introduce the bass - this time over only two or three chord changes, then synth and guitar.... NOW you're ready to go to the electronica format you've chosen for the chorus.

Remember, incorporating a Bridge can sometimes be your ONLY solution to saving a song that you might have found yourself otherwise tossing out, or throwing in the songbin recycler. Finally, don't be afraid to add a bridge at the end of a song, as a wonderful surprize to your audience. Listen to Sting's and Paul Simon's songwriting - they do this all the time!!!

Have fun!

copyright 2006 Cheryl Hodge

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About Cheryl Hodge

Cheryl_Hodge_2_300Cheryl Hodge has been in the music and songwriting business for well over 30 years; recording on several labels; among them Atco Records (Raindogs, 1990), and has released 4 CDs of her own; on her own label: Jazzboulevard.com Records.

She has performed her music for the last 10 years with noted jazz guitarist John Stowell (amongst many others), and they are about to release a CD of co-written originals. She has been private instructor to many; including the gifted Paula Cole. She is also the author of "A Singer's Guide to the Well-Trained and Powerful Voice", and is a published vocal arranger.

Cheryl is currently the head of the vocal dept. at Nelson, BC's: Selkirk College Music Program. There, she teaches Songwriting and Advanced Songwriting, Business of Music, Arranging and Vocals.

She continues to write and produce her original materials, and has just released "Cheryl Hodge: Original Article" - a compilation of her favourites.

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Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
Victor Hugo