Understanding Song Structure With Nija Charles, Andrew Watt, Ali Tamposi, Victoria Monét, and Asaf Peres

Chris Mench / December 3, 2021
Learn tips and tricks for each step of the songwriting process from industry experts in our Song Start series.

Everything in the music industry comes back to the song. Not only are songs vehicles for artistic expression and storytelling, they’re also the commercial product the industry markets and sells. Each element of a song needs its own care and attention, and there are many theories on how to tackle each to maximize your chances of creating a hit.

As part of our new Song Start series, Spotify sat down with accomplished songwriters Victoria Monét, Ali Tamposi, Andrew Watt, Nija Charles, and Asaf Peres to gain insight into their diverse approaches to songwriting. We broke down what they had to say about each structural element of songwriting below.

Verse:

Whether they come before or after a hook, verses serve as the meat of any song, and are often where artists have the most room to express themselves lyrically. “It's the ‘once upon a time’ of the song to me,” Monét said, referring to verses as the “details” that give color to the artist’s narrative.

“Lyrics should be conversational,” advised Watt, saying relatability is key. “It has to be something that people would do.” Tamposi concurred, adding that although lyrics will change between the different verses of a song, elements of repetition are still important. “Repetition is everything when writing a song,” she said.

Peres pointed to the verse as a perfect place to execute what he calls “melodic preview,” where a songwriter inserts a small element of the hook into another part of the song to cultivate a sense of familiarity.

“What you want is by the time the chorus hits, you feel like you've heard it before, even if you haven't,” he said. “The purpose of a melodic preview is to make you feel that way the first time you listen to a song… You immediately feel that connection.”

Pre-Chorus:

A pre-chorus typically follows the verse and leads into the song’s hook, offering a repeated element that draws listeners in. Charles advised songwriters to think of the pre-chorus as akin to the “supporting facts” in an essay. “You definitely want to lay out the reason why you’re saying whatever you’re saying,” she said, noting that pre-choruses often add new instrumentation in the build-up to the hook.

Monét, meanwhile, often repurposes hooks as pre-choruses in her songwriting process. “I'll try to start with the hook, and then use that as the pre and try to top that to make the actual hook so that it feels like it just has a bunch of sections that are very catchy,” she said, describing this section of the song as the “uphill” that leads to its hook centerpiece.

Hook:

The hook is the most important element of any song, acting as the thesis statement for a composition. “You want the lyrics to be as simple as possible in the chorus, but complex enough to evoke the right emotions,” Tamposi explained. She advised looking at a hook in three parts: lyrical, melodic, and instrumental. “They all need to come together to create the song,” she said.

Monét told writers to look for different ways to express an idea in the hook, especially if it’s a common lyrical theme. “What would make this one different from the other one by the lyric choice?” she asked. “What's a different way to describe heartbreak? What's a different way to describe euphoria? Pick that word that would make the title feel new and refreshing.”

The songwriters touched on several hook-writing techniques. Watt said he and Tamposi often utilize an A-A-B-A hook structure. “You do a line, then the same line melodically but maybe slightly different lyrics. [That’s] A-A,” he said. “And then the B jumps up to this other place where it could be completely different, it could be similar, but it’s just higher notes. And then you’ve heard that, you’re lifted, and then we bring you back to old faithful with the A.”

Peres spoke about a concept he refers to as “fuel core,” where he breaks a hook into two components that feed into each other.

“The core of the hook, that's the part that most people are going to remember,” he said. “That's just like the heart of the hook. The fuel is a part of the hook that energizes the core. [That’s] the part that maybe casual fans of a song will just mumble, but they won't remember the exact lyrics.”

He pointed to Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” as a classic example. The repeated title serves as the core, while the faster, denser section where she sings “I’m so f—ing grateful for my ex” is the fuel that adds “tension” to the song.

Post-Chorus:

Not every song has a post-chorus, but it can be an effective tool for bridging the gap between the hook and verses. It’s “something that’s gonna ring in your head,” Charles said of an effective post-chorus. “It’s stickier than the hook sometimes, [and] keeps the momentum. It’s just taking you to a whole other world of the song.”

Monét outlined several ways to approach a post-chorus, including repeating the song’s title, creating a small break in the music, or adding new instruments into the production. “Summarize the hook the same way, like picking that little word and repeating it,” she said. “And just make sure that it feels vastly different from the verse, so that when that second verse comes in, you feel back into the details [of the song].”

Bridge:

A bridge appears towards the end of a song. In a traditional A-B-A-B-C-B song structure, it comes after the second repetition of the chorus, and is meant to add a new element to a track before wrapping it up with the hook. “I feel like the listener is very smart, and also very easily bored,” Monét said. “So I think the bridge is another way to be like, ‘Oh a new part. I like this.’”

Although a song’s main hook typically appears in the chorus, bridges are also a standalone hook in their own way. “An instrumental hook can be everywhere in the song,” Watt said, noting that a hooky bridge is a great place to draw listeners in even further.

When approaching songwriting as a whole, Peres advised artists to make bold stylistic choices.

“When people think about trying to write a hit song, they think about trying to write something that sounds like a hit song someone's already put out,” he said. “I think that's the wrong approach. I think you should write something that only you could write. That's the hard part – you have to get rid of all that noise. But I think having [a songwriting] toolbox really helps. Because you can write something completely out there, and then use that toolbox to mold it into something that's very catchy. Go with your gut and use your craft to enhance your gut.”

To learn more about the nuances of songwriting, check out the Song Start episodes below:

Nija Charles - Song Structure

Ali Tamposi & Andrew Watt - Songwriting and Hooks

Victoria Monét - Demystifying Song Structure

Asaf Peres / Top40 Theory - Dissecting Popular Song Structures

Click here for more videos and podcasts from Song Start.

Spotify for Artists helps you to develop the fanbase you need to reach your goals.

Chris Mench / December 3, 2021
Share this story