The bridge. The widely hated, yet equally revered section in the song format (usually after the second or third chorus) that typically departs from the existing song format and does something new and exciting. Or, at least, that’s the idea.
Practically speaking, there’s a lot of problems with bridges. Some people over-complicate them. Some don’t complicate them enough. And you tend to either love them or hate them. It can make or break the song for you. I, for one, think that the hackneyed “rap break” has become SUCH a cliche in pop music that I willfully avoid listening to songs with rap breaks in them.
I knew a girl once who had such contempt and loathing for “the bridge” of a song, as a concept, that any time she listened to ANY song, she would only listen to the first maybe 2 minutes, and then, when it reached the end of the second chorus, skip straight away to the next song, even if she’d never heard the song before. And she did this EVERY time I was in the car with her. It was particularly frustrating when my music was playing. As you can probably guess, it didn’t last very long.
Obviously, her opinion was rather extreme, and most people wouldn’t do that, but it still highlights a common problem that many of us, when we are first starting out, wonder: What is the exact purpose of the bridge in a song? Do you even need one? What can you use instead of a bridge/rap break to give your song variety?
Today, we’re going to go through the top 5 things you can do in your song instead of a bridge.
1) Guitar solo.
If you’re in a band with a decent guitarist, an awesome guitar solo might already be your go-to form of bridge over the standard “subverted” vocal one most of us expect, but what about a more standard pop song? Can you still use a guitar solo in a studio pop song built mostly with synth sounds?
Heck yes, you can!
70’s and 80’s rock was built upon blurring the lines between guitar effects and synths. Or, in terms of more modern technopop examples, Daft Punk do it all the time and it’s awesome. Don’t believe me? Just listen to Digital Love. It all comes down to two main things. Firstly, it needs to be really powerfully melodic. Unless you have a genius guitarist, you don’t do a Clapton and improvise it, you plan it, you craft it, you design it to fulfill the specific purpose of improving your song. And secondly, you need to use the right sort of guitar sound effects to balance with the sound of the other instruments in your song.
But guitar solos don’t just mix with techno either. P!nk loves her guitar solos. You don’t get much more mainstream pop than that. But really, you still see them everywhere. Michael Jackson. Jason Derulo. Prince. Coldplay. Maroon 5. Ed Sheeran. Because guitar solos are just occurring a little less frequently in Top 40 music over the last few years than they used to, most songwriters not already attached to a band have stopped even seeing them as a valid option. But if there’s one thing that Carlos Santana taught us about 20 years ago now with the Supernatural album, it’s that you can play guitar solos over any song and make it even better.
I also mentioned in a previous article that my personal preference is using guitar solos in conjunction with bridges in my own songs. I think when used together well, it removes the cliched aspect of a bridge. In fact all 5 of these suggestions can be used in conjunction with a bridge also, but the main purpose of the article is to give you all the tools so you can choose which one (or combination thereof) your song needs, especially when your bridge is cliched. .
2) Key change.
This is another one that used to be a fair bit more common before the turn of the millennium. Most of us, I think, remember all those exemplary key-changes, like Whitney Housten’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, Michael Jackson’s Man In The Mirror, Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer, The Beach Boys’ Wouldn’t It Be Nice, The Beatles’ Penny Lane, etc. Key changes were used quite iconically to take an already awesome song up another notch.
We’ve seen a small revival of key changes in recent years in songs such as Beyonce’s Love On Top, Adele’s All I Ask and Lady Gaga’s Perfect Illusion, but the majority of singer/songwriters still seem to shy away from most of the time. Perhaps this is because key changes can quickly become passe if you use exactly the same type of key change every time, but you have at least 23 (12 major and 12 minor, minus whichever key you began in) options to change to. Yes, some of them sound better than others, but Beethoven and several other composers successfully managed to use every single one of them effectively across their compositional careers. You can too.
In fact, one of my best-received songs began with the simple idea that I wanted to write a song that only used 4 chords, but still had a key change. So I built the whole song around the 3 chords Dm, Bb and F, which made it the key of F major/D minor. Then I key-changed in the bridge to the key of Bb major with the chords Eb, Bb and F. It probably doesn’t look like a huge change on paper, but it certainly sounded significant at that point in the song, and that was exactly what I was going for. And then it transitions nicely back into the original key for the final chorus, which sounds more epic than before because it key changes to get back there.
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3) Extended/alternate pre-chorus.
This one obviously doesn’t work if you don’t have a pre-chorus to begin with, so that’s kind of a prerequisite here. But it all ultimately comes back to an old novel-writing principle that you should dig deeper into the plot/characters/setting you’ve already got on the page before adding new ones. If you’ve already created 3 unique elements in your song; verse, pre-chorus and chorus, then why add a 4th one if you can recycle the pre-chorus in such a way that it makes it new again yet familiar for the listener?
A couple of examples of this from the past 5 years are John Legend’s All Of Me, Ed Sheeran’s Photograph and Coldplay’s Paradise. In All Of Me, Legend’s bridge is just the pre-chorus but with different lyrics, and he sings it up in a higher register. This way it has that familiar element but also provides contrast and elevates the intensity as the song drives towards climax.
In Photograph, Ed Sheeran takes the chord structure from his pre-chorus and uses it as a bridge, singing a single line over it, “wait for me to come home,” again and again, using the spinning repetition of the refrain to drive home a more satisfying return to the chorus.
Coldplay is a bit little trickier, and I’ll explain why in a minute, so let’s look at the breakdown:
Coldplay – Paradise
When she was just a girl she expected the world
But it flew away from her reach
So she ran away in her sleep and dreamed of
Everytime she closed her eyes
When she was just a girl she expected the world
But it flew away from her reach
And the bullets catch in her teeth
Life goes on, it gets so heavy
The wheel breaks the butterfly every tear a waterfall
In the night the stormy night she’ll close her eyes
In the night the stormy night away she’d fly
And dream of para-para-paradise
Repeat x 1
And so lying underneath those stormy skies
She’d say, “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
I know the sun must set to rise”
This could be para-para-paradise
This could be para-para-paradise
Repeat x 2
There are several interesting things about the structure of this song. Firstly, I’ve called it a refrain instead of a chorus because, well, that’s what it is. Despite the changing chords underneath, the refrain is “para-para-paradise”. Because there’s not much more to the chorus than that, it’s technically a refrain. An effective refrain is catchy, simple and easily memorable. Now, the refrain first appears at the end of the 1st verse and hooks the listener in.
The second verse transitions into a pre-chorus, which is made up of 2 different motivic halves. This longer pre-chorus helps delay the catchy refrain a little bit longer, which allows them to repeat it more times towards the end because they’ve made you wait for it more in the beginning.
The bridge section takes the second pre-chorus motif, restructures all the words, but uses the same, melody, chords, rhyme scheme and the word “stormy”, but elevates it with added instrumentation, harmony and enhanced lyrical depth and hope.
In my own songs, I’ve used this pre-chorus/bridge technique a few times. My personal preferred method is taking a 2-line pre-chorus pattern and turning it into a 6-line bridge while building it up lyrically, melodically and with instrumentation towards a greater crescendo. Neither John Legend, Ed Sheeran nor Coldplay actually extended the bridge any longer than the regular pre-chorus in these instances, but I know it’s not a unique idea to do so.
4) Alternate third verse.
Speaking of Photograph by Ed Sheeran, he actually uses an alternate third verse to finish off the song. In the same way that an alternate pre-chorus is a form of bridge that doesn’t sound bridgy because it’s based on chords and melody already introduced in a pre-chorus, an alternate 3rd verse uses the premise of a 3rd verse, but subverts it because the audience needs something to change again by this point in the song.
In Photograph, Ed subverts the verse format by doing 4 main things: he alters the melody bringing most of it down an octave, he pulls back the instrumentation to single strummed chords, he adds new lyrical depth to finish the song on a poetically poignant note, and ends with the final line from the chorus, which is also the single refrain repeated in the actual bridge.
In this same “outro” manner, Coldplay finished Yellow on a reimagined 1st verse, with some chord subversion to help “wind down” the song to a close. I have also used this technique several times for an outro, but never actually for a bridge. The times I’ve used a legitimate 3rd verse, it was usually following a bridge or guitar solo and right before the final chorus. But it isn’t hard to imagine that if you took that “wind-down” verse and put it in place of the bridge and then gave the chorus a final hurrah, it would still work admirably.
The truest example of something like I’m talking about here that I can think of off the top of my head is Fin by Anberlin. It goes verse, chorus, verse, chorus, alternate third verse that changes and evolves into this big build up into the, guitar solo, bridge, outro.
5) Altered First Verse
This one is distinct from the third verse option above, because you generally repeat the lyrics of the first verse verbatim, but alter it in some other way, such as pulling it right back to single chords and hushed vocals or just the drumbeat, like Truly Madly Deeply by Savage Garden, or actually intensifying it and throwing it up the octave, like Overkill by Men At Work. Although, it should be noted that both of these examples follow guitar solos.
Repeating the first verse again is actually a relatively common technique, whether you’re just repeating it verbatim like The Beatles in Eight Days A Week or Oasis in Champagne Supernova , or using it as your outro, once again like Oasis in Champagne Supernova (yes, again), or bringing it down to a single audience clap like Sister Hazel in All For You. Although Sister Hazel actually have a sung bridge, then guitar solo, then hushed repeat 1st verse then 2 more choruses with more guitar solos. It sounds lengthy, but it’s really not, it’s just a 90s classic.
Anyway, you can probably see that most of these different sections and options are often used coinciding with a bridge and/or guitar solo. Such tricks actually alleviate some of the pressure off the regularly sung bridge to carry all the weight for variety in the song, but all can be used individually or in conjunction with each other to replace the bridge altogether if you feel like your song calls for it.
In the end, just remember to follow author Brandon Sanderson’s golden rule: Always err on the side of awesome.