How to use song structure (when there is meaning in more than just the lyrics)

Preface with some back story, in case you don’t know the story of Beethoven’s life

Fast forward some years after Mozart is dead, this guy is born. His father, a huge fan of classical music especially Mozart, decided that no matter what Beethoven was going to become a professional composer. When Ludwig wasn’t so successful l he wanted to quit. Because of this his dad verbally and physically abused him. Once Ludwig was old enough and his father had passed, he  began to write  music professionally. He wasn’t a child prodigy, it took him years of training and practice to become well known.  His first 4 symphonies were not as successful as he wanted. During this time he started to notice a ringing in his ears.  The doctor diagnosed that he was going deaf. Imagine having your hopes and dreams crushed in a single moment, knowing you will lose the one tool you need to make your dreams a reality. Imagine failing not only yourself, but your dead father who you so badly wanted to impress and now think you never will. What would you do? Beethoven contemplated suicide. Between losing his hearing and the inability to create the masterpiece he wanted, he found little meaning in his life. Then something amazing happened…

Everyone on earth knows this motive, DUN DUN DUN DUNNNNN    DUN DUN DUN DUNNNNNN

This motive represents “fate knocking at the door” as he described it, or the inevitability of his own hearing loss/thoughts of suicide. Notice that not only are the two melodic lines using this motive, but the entire ‘A’ section uses only this motive, moving around the orchestra on different pitches. Literally the whole thing is that same rhythm used in a different way until part B. Fate is knocking, and he’s not going to stop.

Then part B comes, (:55)and it is peaceful, beautiful, juxtaposing the first theme in part A. why did Beethoven do this? Parts A and B are supposed to be similar, often in the same key, same tempo, but this is totally different. Which is exactly what Beethoven wanted. This is a different emotion that you are supposed to feel at this point, this is Beethoven realizing, I may be going deaf, but listen to how beautiful music is! listen to what I can create! I will not let fate prevent me from this feeling. It follows a more typical format for a B section. Finally at 2:56…

DUN DUN DUN DUNNNNNN

Fate is still knocking, Beethoven is having conflicting feelings, he plays with the theme originally introduced in part A a lot more this time than was ever heard of in classical music at the time. It’s like a psychological battle within himself, on one hand he knows he is going deaf and that will ultimately lead to him being unable to hear his own music, but on the other hand he won’t let that stop him, he won’t commit suicide, he will follow his dreams. The piece was an instant masterpiece and the first movement is easily the most well known piece of classical music of all time, his motive from part A being recognized all around the world.

He didn’t necessarily change the structure, he still uses exposition, development, recapitulation. He revolutionized the world of music with his new improved use of song structure. He uses the structure to help the audience understand what feelings he is trying to portray and tell the story he needed to. This post is going to be about using song structure effectively. It doesn’t necessarily have to be different, it doesn’t even have to be very intricate (Beethoven’s 5th mvmt 1 is simply A B A B coda) but it is used to send a more powerful message than you can send with just lyrics or melodies.


For our first example, I’m using a band that is often looked down upon for “selling out.” their first album, is almost entirely screamo, and totally my kind of music. Over time they slowly developed more and more pop-like tendencies. Anyway…

The structure in this song is a bit more complex than those in the previous post. It starts with an A part, then a B, then C, then a D, finally coming to the chorus. There are many distinctive themes here, parts A through C are eerie and creepy, and as if telling the story of 2 lovers who are destined to fail, then part D and the chorus are more melancholy, as if regretful of the result of the relationship. The song goes through these parts again, then as per rock norm enters a bridge section, which goes back to the eerie foreboding feeling, before introducing a very dramatic and sad chord progression (and a female vocalist). The song goes back and forth between this theme of a evil-foreboding sound and a melancholy sad sound. Why do they do this?

The lyrics can help us understand here.
Parts A-C are from the voice of a more sinister protagonist, telling the story as it happened (“before the story begins…”) he seems to be pretty dark and angry, he tells us in the first verse that he, “ripped her heart out right before her eyes.” Once the sad feeling part D and the chorus begin again he seems to be regretful and mourning his decisions in the past, as he is looking back from the future. They use the different parts of the song to represent the protagonist at different points in his life to tell the story in this way. One voice is acting as he did during the relationship. He becomes resentful and breaks her heart with seemingly cruel intentions, but now that he has matured he realizes what they had was good but he can never get it back. The structure of the song  helps tell the story by making it clear to the listener which voice is speaking. If it wasn’t for the change in tone due to the structure of the song the listener would probably be confused, as the lyrics seem to change meaning and go back and forth between anger and sorrow. The next example also uses structure to portray two different voices.

Most people like this song for the sick guitar solo at the end, and probably haven’t heard many other Coheed songs (maybe the suffering). This song is not much like the rest of their work, but for this case a great use of structure for effect.

Long ass instrumental intro that repeats two times, not much to say here.

Ah at long last some lyrics. We can call this part A. The singer, and the progression that pounds itself into your head by the end, seems to be building up, angry towards his significant other, accusing them of being dishonest, not really loving him, using him, etc. Then we get to 1:54, the song changes, and so does the feeling of the singer. Now the lyrics seem to say that he is upset that the relationship is ending. Confusing when put together with part A but since the structure causes this change it makes more sense to the listener.

At 3:32, as per all the rock songs previously posted, and in expected fashion, after A B A B we here a bridge which leads into the guitar solo mentioned above. The lyrics end on a point of indecision, “please make up your mind girl, before I hope you die” then back into the angry, building chord progression that has been going on in the verses for the entire song. Here he uses the lyrics to transition WITH the structure back into the part A feeling. “…before i hope you die” is definitely an angry thing to say, but “please make up your mind girl” is more like the singer really wishing that he didn’t have to be left in the dark while his woman plays with his feelings, in a sad context.  The lyrics used in conjunction with the structural transitions really add to the effect of the song?.It tells how the narrator is both angry that she is playing with him, but also sad because he really wants to be with her, and he can’t quite decide what action to take as he waits for her to commit to him.

Now for something entirely different

Time to force my opinion on you, as this is one of my favorite songs by my favorite group The Dillinger Escape Plan. Lets stay focused on good use of song structure to enhance song meaning here, I feel this is an especially strong example as it pushes the boundaries of music theory to its limits (grain of salt again, I am very biased).

The song starts off right away, no intro, no anything, into its chaotic madness. This is part A. at :19, there is a brief interlude between parts, then they play part A once again. After this a new theme is introduced at :43, a fast descending line and constant snare hits. Then it changes again at 1:04 into a quarter note triplet feel part C,(used in almost all electronica during the build section, as this part is also a build section. just a fun fact)  At 1:13, after a huge snare hit, and a vocal pickup the song has a sort of ‘drop’ while retaining the triplet feel, then finally at a 1:21 all members of the band nonsensically pound on their instruments and slowly descend into calm nothing, before a piano (a piano?!) picks up at 1:51.

Due to the way DEP is, we will consider everything before this point as part A. While it splits up into a bunch of different themes, they have a way of randomly changing the groove to go along with the vocal line, not following any particular key of rhythmic patterns for an extended amount of time. At 1:51, this changes into a 4 chord progression as you are probably more comfortable listening to, this whole section will be part B, including the slight change at 2:50. Hopefully based on the previous 3 examples at this point you notice something has probably changed in what the song is about, even if you had no idea what he was saying pre-1:51. The structure lends itself to say that this is different than part A, and is probably representing something different. I’ll explain the meaning of the song after we finish chugging through the rest of the structure.

This part concludes at 3:15 on what in music theory is called an Inauthentic Cadence. My next post will be about Cadences and will go more in depth on what that means, but basically it leaves you feeling like this isn’t quite the end of the song, and you are prepared for something more. Even as someone who has never listened to something like this before, at this point you should expect the song to change once again into what we will call part C. Sure enough…

Wow, no matter how many times I listen to this song it catches me off guard every time. It is so incredibly chaotic,and angry, even more so than part A. Yet another, 3rd idea is being portrayed here. Every example discussed previously has gone back at this point to repeat part A, based on the exposition, development, recapitulation structure used by Mozart, but this seems to be an entirely different theme.

So what does it mean? its time for me to come clean. The lyrics in part A are by the singer looking back on when he believed in god, and how he had his doubts but he held onto his faith due to the teachings of popular religion (I know this is a slippery slope for some of you, I don’t mean to offend you this is just my interpretation of the lyrics) “backwards is your fascination myth” saying, that religion was not founded based on the stories in religious texts, but that the stories were created to justify the religions greater being, “it seems fiction is hard to break.” He ends part A at the point where he eventually does lose his faith, and a sonic representation of this feeling of finally giving up is the madness at 1:21. Then we get to part B

Part B is now the singer as himself just after losing his faith, questioning those who still believe. “How do I live without you?” “you are the ones who build up walls around yourselves to shield your lives from fear.” “if there was no consequence could you stay inside the lines, leave your guilt behind?” During this part he is not so much angry as he is trying to convince others to stop believing , as he now realizes he was in the wrong for all those years and they too can be saved from the fear of a greater beings consequences. Part A was him losing his faith, part B is a call to those who still have it, now we get to the finale part C
I’m sure if you are a fan of music (which everyone is let’s face it) you have a favorite set of lyrics. These in part C are mine. Grain of salt time, take it as you will. In this last part the singer is very angry with popular religion; “those lips, crooked sadistic words” meaning preachers try and convince the members of their religion to live in fear of a greater being. The final line is repeated “suffering is love” several times until the last time he changed it to “suffering is NOT love” meaning that living in fear, or suffering, due to a greater being, is not how you should live.

Part A is in voice  1, speaking of how he used to believe, part B is voice 2, questioning those who believe, with sympathy, part C is voice 3, directly calling out the leaders of popular religion in anger to stop their teachings. If the whole song was just a mindless mush of chaos like parts A and C are, the listener would have trouble interpreting what the lyrics mean, but due to the way they structured the song they can more easily understand that each part is representing a different idea.
Hopefully now when listening to a song, you will easily be able to identify the structure of the song and appreciate the way the artist uses it to assist in sending the message they wish to tell. In the next post we will learn about Cadences, or as you might think of it chord progressions, and get to the bottom of why every song just uses the same four chords over and over again.

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