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Nigel Powell: Attack the Blog!

Massively long pseudo intellectual discourse

Tuesday 29th October, 2013

I was intending my next blog to be another "Bloggin' The Shuffle", but something happened that took me elsewhere. A friend who is studying screenwriting asked me about musical structure. Most screenplays follow a three act format, roughly akin to sonata form in music, and her thought was to compare other musical forms to see if there was a way to employ them as frameworks for a screenplay.

I love films, and screenplays. I haven't studied remotely formally, but I've read a few books about it, and the question got my creative juices flowing. So rather than just give her a simple, easy answer, I ended up writing a bloody essay, and, despite it's pretentiousness, I thought I'd share it here.

One word of warning - it's mammoth. You should know before beginning. Trying to take the whole lot of it in at one sitting could be painful. I will have nothing but the utmost respect for anyone who can ingest it without gagging. But you be the judge -let the ponciness begin!


In order to start from a knowledge base on which I am sound and expert, I'm going to concentrate on the form of a pop or rock song. I know a bit about other areas of music, but I feel I would have most to contribute in this area due to long term exposure to and experience with this form. To give this analysis some depth from the musical side of the fence, I'm not going to restrict myself to just structure however. In pop and rock, over and above most other musical forms, the song arrangement is as important to the temporal 'journey' of the piece as the structure itself. I'll deal with definitions more thoroughly after this introduction. 

I am going to relate my deconstruction of song structure to my limited 'amateur' knowledge of screen writing, informed by much film viewing (like everyone) and the reading of a few basic popular texts on the matter (Story by Robert McKee, Adventures in the Screen Trade and What Lie Did I Tell by William Goldman, Bambi vs Godzilla by David Mamet, screenplays by Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, The Cohen Brothers and Lawrence Kasdan. I would love to quote from these sources, but sadly my reference works are all at home and I am on a bus in Minneapolis).

Structure and Arrangement

Rock and pop are instinctive disciplines with no formalised structural requirements. Indeed, in rock music (nowadays an extremely broad term that can cover a huge range of styles) a bewildering myriad of song structures can be found, ranging from a single section repeated from beginning to end (employed by Philip Glass-inspired art rockers such as Laurie Anderson, for instance, or techno artist such as Leftfield whose music can still be said to fall under the umbrella of 'rock') to structures that meander or barely repeat themes or ideas at all (progressive rockers such as Yes have employed this approach from time to time, or techno or EDM artists at the more extreme end of the scale such as mu-ziq, Squarepusher or Aphex Twin). Pop music also deviates in structures often and creatively, although within the confines of 'pop' music (that music which is made for the sole aim of broad-based appeal and commercial success) the structural possibilities are somewhat more restricted.

However there can be said to be a generalised accepted form, with some options, which is adhered to by a majority of songs from these genres. Two of these options would be:

  • Introduction (intro)

  • Verse

  • Chorus

  • Verse

  • Chorus

  • Middle 8 (M8)

  • Chorus

  • (Chorus)

  • Intro

  • Verse

  • Chorus

  • Verse

  • Chorus

  • M8

  • Verse

  • Chorus

  • (Chorus)

(an important semantic note to be made here - some terms are different on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The terms I'm using are the accepted British usage. Particularly within the US you will find a confusion in the uses of 'bridge', and other terms that are used in different ways such as 'middle 8' and 'turnaround'. I'm sticking with what I know best, so there)

Another very commonly used adjustment to either of these structures is the addition of bridges - small sections that act as a link between verse and chorus, or between chorus back to verse. Once more it is important to stress that there is no prescribed language that is used here, and many bands and artist develop their own short-form way of identifying sections. I am using what I believe to be language that in general is familiar to the majority of musicians, but it will equally not be uncommon to come across those whose vernacular is entirely removed from this.

For the sake of clarity of purpose however I am going to eliminate bridges from my consideration here, and concentrate on the possibilities generated from the two very close examples given above.

As mentioned in the introduction, in pop and rock music, over and above most other musical forms, arrangement is as important to the effectiveness of the final effect as structure. Structure and arrangement can be usefully divided such:

Structure - musical sections consisting usually of chords and a melody, organised into a format determining when each section should happen and for how long

Arrangement - what the different instrumentation employed by the ensemble performing the song will do in each section, including the sounds used and the way the music is performed

It would be the subject of a whole other long (and possibly contentious) essay, but it is my absolute belief that what people perceive as pop music is as much reliant on how the arrangement is employed as it is on the chords, melody, lyrics and sequence of sections. Two brief examples to illustrate:

Dancing Queen / ABBA. It is possible to play the chords to this song and sing the words and melody and it to be easily recognisable as Dancing Queen. However to be the "Dancing Queen" that is popularly accepted as definitive the arrangement must be present and correct from the word go - the sweeping string melody of the intro overlaying the almost lazy disco-esque rhythm track, punctuated by the grandiose piano chords is inherently welded to the existence of the song, as much as the actual chords and vocal melody

Born Slippy - Underworld. I will be at risk of repetition here, but utilising a very stylistically different example. The basic chords and rhythmic, almost rapped vocal 'melody' could be played on piano. But to prick someones ears hearing it across a crowded restaurant where a radio is playing, the echoed keyboard chords, using exactly that sound, chased out of existence by an unmistakably insistent kick drum must be present and correct. The structure, songwriting and arrangement are absolutely reliant on each other in the most empirical form to create the desired effect.

So now, finally (jeez, finally), I'll go through the structure of a song and relate it to my meagre screenwriting knowledge.

Song and Screenplay Structure Compared and Contrasted


While this may be an unrelated piece of composition, more often than not it will be sourced from two possibilities: an instrumental play-through of the chorus or verse, shorn of vocals, possibly with an instrument taking the dominant vocal melody. Arrangement-wise this will often be kept simple and frill-free to act as a simple and undaunting gateway into the song for the listener, while stating clearly some of what to expect - getting people into the right mood for the rest of the song, so to speak.

The obvious movie structure parallel to the 'chorus first' intro comes from action movies, with the initial, sometimes pre-credit, action sequence. James Bond movies have been particularly dogged in their use of this trope, from the first to the last, and cleverly modulating that expectation over the more recent films. Casino Royale for instance had a pre-credits sequence much more downbeat than that of any of its predecessors, and in a single expert piece of screenwriting set the stage ('got people in the mood') for the rebooted Bond - there is still going to be action, but it will be more brutal and grounded in reality, and you are going to be faced with a new James Bond who allows self-doubt and seriousness to be part of his makeup. Without this nuanced short section it would have been quite possible the jarring of audience expectation and what the movie was delivering would have taken much of the first act to get through, by which time trying to re-engage the audience would have been an uphill struggle.

Outside of action genres the 'verse as intro' structure is much more easily identifiable. A short scene, often character based, that hooks the audience in with some story elements, but far more importantly emphatically sets the tone for what is to come. The level of camp, how much suspension of disbelief will be necessary, whether the screenwriter wants to bring the audience in on ironic self-awareness or affect them from afar with dramatic frigidity. And of course ever other option and possibility in-between or unmentioned.

The credits sequence of Silence Of The Lambs is masterful in this regard. Wordless for the most part, between the simplicity of the script combined with precise editing, direction and cinematography we as the audience already instinctively know, and are prepared for, important parts of the story. There is a sense of mystery and ominous danger; our main character (whom we will soon find out is named Clarice Starling) is a slight woman whose face instantly betrays steely determination overlaying a vulnerability we can't quite yet put our finger on; she's part of a team (all of the identically dressed joggers) but yet somehow stands apart. And simpler signposts - we're dealing with the FBI; it's autumn; Clarice is physically strong, which effectively reaches all the way to the end of the film, pre-empting and underpinning her final confrontation.

At a far simpler and lower-budget end of the scale we find similar 'this is what you're going to get' scenes opening Clerks and Primer. Clerks is simplicity itself, acting like an establishing shot of the convenience store which is almost the only setting in the movie, while simultaneously providing a simple explanation for the total lack of daylight throughout the internal scenes of the movie (caused as I'm sure you know by Kevin Smith only being able to shoot through the night in the store he worked at) and pre-figuring the multitude of creative (and, let's be honest, badly line-read) swearing that is one of the backbones of the movie. Primer is almost simpler still, saying "here are the main characters, there will be questions, it will be mysterious, and you may not have a clue what's going on at some points. But it's OK - we know what's going on and you're in safe hands. Trust us".

Verse One

Almost too simple to describe in songwriting terms. Something will empty out from the arrangement of the intro to provide space into which the vocals will step, with the initial lyrics hopefully pulling people in, beginning the setup of the 'story' of the song and further emphasising what to expect as things go on. To contrast - Invisible Touch by Genesis, we have come through the 'chorus as intro', much of the aggressive guitar and keyboard has disappeared to open up the verse which now relies on small rhythmic guitar work and a warm synthesiser chord bed. The vocal begins, spacious and with a simple unadorned melody. We're in a pop song, it's not going to demand overly of you, you can enjoy it if you want.

Over the page we have Recovery by Frank Turner (I know, using examples I'm familiar with - shoot me). Dispensing entirely with any intro it plunges straight into the first verse, slightly conflating the both sections by using a stripped down arrangement that suggests a precursor to the song, despite the fact that it's already begun. And the words are instantly a barrage, with the melody climbing up and down like a spider monkey who has missed his Ritalin dose. So this verse one says: this is going to be fast, and complicated, and you'd best employ at least some of your brain power in trying to keep up. A challenge of a verse.

This seems to chime nicely with the traditional Act 1 opening of most screenplays. You find telling scenes that establish your characters and their motivations while laying out the first cogs of the plot engine, most of the time pacing yourself so that you have somewhere left to go later on, unless you judge that the film requires a hell for leather approach. I always loved the merciless approach of the screenplay to Speed, starting so in media res that it almost seemed like the Act 2 (or even Act 3) climax was happening within the first few pages. That said it did seem to write itself somewhat into a corner, with the final chase through the subway seeming almost tacked on, and a slightly anti-climactic way to tie the loose plot ends into a neat bow.

However, tracking the song structure analogy pulls us away from the 'verse one as act one' possibility, since we don't want to finish our verse on the dramatic pivot point of an Act 1 climax. It wants to rise up certainly, but the burst of song energy that most closely relates to the conclusion of an Act is saved for our next section.

Chorus 1

Finally the tension of the song releases itself, if only temporarily, for the bit that people recognise from the radio, or want to sing along to, or want to bathe in emotionally. Quite often the listener won't even consciously realise they are being teased, but within the song that is often what is happening - Invisible Touch rises back up to the grand sound of the intro that people are pleased to have back, and the intro / verse 1 of Recovery finally explodes into life, trumpeted before it's entry by a magnificent drum break.

In many arrangements the tension / release is made far more obvious - Pixies (and indebted to them, Nirvana) made a point of the quiet verse stretching out the tension as the listener waited for the rock explosion that they knew was to come. No musicologist has ever put it better than Beavis and Butthead commenting on the video for Creep by Radiohead

Beavis: Why do we have to have the bit that sucks? Why can't we just have the bit that's cool?
Butthead (sagely): Because, Beavis, without the bit that sucks, the bit that's cool wouldn't be as cool.

So far, so three act structure - this is essentially the Act 1 climax. In our action paradigm you roll out your first big set piece, into which you stir the beginnings of your conflict or difficulty to carry us through Act 2, harking back to the 'intro' action beat, but hopefully upping the ante satisfyingly. In other genres, you bring together all the characters and dramatic beats that have been developing through 'verse one' and watch the sparks fly, be they sadness, drama, fucking, whatever.

Verse 2

When done expertly, now the lyrics will start enriching and rounding the 'story' of the song, over the same melody (although often with additional inflections and adornments) and chords as verse 1 (this is not always the case, but for the purposes of this verbose pile of blah we'll keep it simple). A skilful ensemble will adjust the arrangement to hold interest while keeping the section recognisably related to the first verse. For Invisible Touch, this means an identical arrangement to verse 1; in Recovery it's a much simpler approach; since the first verse did double duty as an intro, this is the first time the 'true' verse arrangement appears.

If one was to base a screenplay structurally on this approach this is where the difficulty would lie, in terms of skilful writing to hold audience attention. Normally at this point we would wish for the tentacles of fate and difficulty to begin entangling and impeding our protagonist(s), forcing them to dig ever deeper to keep moving towards their goal. However this is 'verse 2' - a restatement of verse 1 while shifting the chess pieces of the plot gently up their ranks, and stirring in subtly different flavours and spices. It's not impossible of course, but reading first draft screenplays and comparing with final shooting scripts this is the area where you often find extensive editing, moving important beats into Act 1 and losing others, combining characters so that more can be dealt with in a shorter space of time without having to restate anything. In screenwriting terms it would be far too easy for 'verse 2' to become an unnecessary exposition of 'verse 1' while adding too little to be of intrinsic value as a stand alone structural element. And, as William Goldman says, screenplays ARE structure.

Chorus 2

Very often identical to chorus one. Indeed pop music will often copy and paste many (or all) of the elements from one to the next. Although I don't believe it employs that copy and paste method, listened to in isolation one would be hard pressed indeed to differentiate chorus 1 and chorus 2 of Invisible Touch, outside of the last two notes of the vocal melody. Recovery, despite being played throughout, also is all-but identical in these two sections.

Maybe I'm too traditionalist but once again we hit a problem with drawing analogies between this and screenwriting. Unless it's an arty movie where one can defy convention and have identical, or nearly identical scenes (perhaps though flashback or change of perspective), then we would have to translate this chorus as an Act 2 climax, the final conflagration of the steepening odds being faced and the impetus for the protagonist to step outside themselves and become something other than what they were, simultaneously bursting the bonds of difficulty for them and the audience, and providing a satisfying character arc for the struggling screenwriter sweating over every last syllable and beat.

But without the additional complexity provided by a traditional Act 2, rather than the more flaccid 'verse 2', such a climax would seem out of step, an orgasm before the foreplay.

Middle 8

They come in many forms in songs, including someone just playing a guitar solo over an instrumental verse. But for the purposes of 'academic' simplicity we'll concentrate on middle 8s that are distinct sections.

A good middle 8 can be an elusive thing. Your ideal is something that is sufficiently in keeping with the rest of the song that you're not jarring your listener out of the 'moment', but something distinct enough that it informs and enriches what has come before, and leads smoothly to what comes after. Continuing to use our two examples, which I randomly picked way back when, and now kind of wish I'd thought of something better, especially since neither of them actually follow the first structure I was talking about - Invisible Touch jumps up a key unexpectedly, and while it hangs onto this one chord that has not previously been heard in the song the keyboard parts 'fantasia'. Continuity with the rest of the song is maintained through the rhythm track which remains constant, give or take a couple of drum breaks. Recovery is a little more involved. At the front of the middle 8 it gives the first breather of the song, the listener having been battered alternately with the verse's barrage of lyrics and the bombast of the chorus. It then jumps back into type, this time with the rhythm track deviating from it's previous comfort zone while the vocal delivery stays true to the machine-gun style of the verses, as the lyrics introduce a new sympathetic character to the story in preparation for the final verse.

The middle 8 then is the traditional Act 2, where complications abound, generating a forward momentum to carry the viewer into Act 3, while still staying thematically and tonally true to what has come before. Unless you're watching From Dusk 'Til Dawn, when the beginning of Act 2 is the time to completely change the theme and tone of the first act as a way of pulling the carpet out from under the audience. And again tradition pushes against the possibility of using this song structure in traditional story telling - the story turning of the Act 2 climax has already happened, and whether consciously or not the audience will now be willing the protagonist to begin the process of mastering his opposition. Ladling more onto him / her / it at this point would unsettle or confuse the audience perhaps, which may be a desirable effect, but it runs the risk of divorcing them from the forward momentum of the storytelling (or, to paraphrase, bore them) which is very rarely a screenwriting aim, as far as I know.

Verse 3

In the two structural options given above the adjustments noted here are usually moved to verse 2, but most of the same applies. It's time for another verse, but this time we need something different (apart from the lyrics) to represent the arc of the song. Often this will be arrangement, for instance leaving out instruments to give room for dynamic upshifts later, or adding an additional counter-melody to the vocal to colourise it. These two approaches are obvious in our examples - Recovery pulls out every instrument except the acoustic guitar and then builds back in to prepare for the final onslaught; Invisible Touch adds a keyboard counter melody that adds an extra air of mournfulness to the vocal melody, that has continued unchanged from verses one and two. There are a litany of tricks, but you'll hear many of them used again and again - a punk band dropping down to just bass and vocals on the second verse for a dynamic change (Green Day, often), a guitar or keyboard line disappearing so as to make a dramatic reappearance.

Of course sometimes, as noted by both The Ramones and The Violent Femmes, it's quite adequate to have "third verse, same as the first!".

This idea does have a scenic, if not act, parallel in many screenplays, acting as the 'quiet before the storm'. Before the dramatic upheaval of Act 3, where momentum will become paramount, you can draw together personal and character threads to emphasise theme or arc, so they can be dealt with subtly without affecting the forward motion of the final act. But after that, it's time to grab your audience, and, as Radiohead used to say, put your heads down to batter towards the end.

Chorus 3 (and 4, and etc)

The dramatic and final release of tension of the song, and the moment you want to push all of the listeners' buttons. The tension built up either in verse 3, or in the immediately preceding middle 8 in our other structural option, is detonated in the bit the audience wants to hear. Invisible Touch deftly avoids having to bring the dynamic down in verse 3 (not a good thing to do in a track blatantly designed for radio play) by instead jumping up a key the moment it hits the final chorus (a common trick), with the subconscious realisation in the listener that the same one tone jump for the middle 8 was actually prefiguring this much more important moment. With the extra leeway afforded by a less commercial rock song, Recovery has been able to drop the dynamic down almost to nothing so the final chorus can be for the most part a restatement of previous visits. That said, the tension and release is well handled (sorry if it sounds like I'm being big headed - it wasn't down to me so I'm kind of talking objectively!) as the vocal rises to a crescendo and the verse extends by one extra bar over normal, with a call back to the drum break that introduced the first verse.

In most modern pop and rock songs the final chorus repeats, sometimes one extra repeat, or more. The chorus to fade approach is employed by Invisible Touch, with the vocal melody deviating into one final sing along refrain. Recovery only repeats the sequence of chorus chords once (again with the vocal melody deviating into one final sing along refrain - a familiar songwriting trope) but is still unmistakably there to increase the impact of the last chorus.

So here is the short-sharp-shock beat-the-ticking-clock of Act 3, where everything is restated boldly and bombastically, taking all the seeds that have been planted and hopefully encouraging them into a fearsome bloom of colour. The big final action set piece, boy finally gets girl, the mystery is unravelled, or the final epiphany of character. The story / screenplay and song are happily in sync by this point, pandering (for want of a less pejorative word) to the sense of conclusion that most people desire from their popular art.


1) I'm not cut out to be an academic
2) Unless you're writing a self-consciously arty screen play with an entirely non-traditional narrative structure, it would be hard to slavishly follow or adapt a traditional pop / rock song form into a workable structure
3) I'm very traditional, and because people have been pumping movies into my eyes in a three act format since I could see it's hard to envisage anything else.

Analisa, Sat 2nd November 2013, 06:50:40 PM
As someone who has never written a proper song (I would lean towards not counting the rap about essay-writing I composed for my students), this was all new territory to me. That said, I'd like to thank you for the well-placed comic relief right in the middle, i.e. the Beavis and Butthead reference. Perfectly relevant, too.
Brandon Phillips, Thu 31st October 2013, 07:54:55 AM
So here are some random thoughts in no particular order of importance:
1. As a writer of both songs and screenplays/teleplays, I am always checking my work against the yard stick of structure and always looking for a way to creatively bend it's rules. With screenwriting, I love the circular narrative. It's absurdly difficult to pull off with real aplomb but when done well it blows the doors off the theatre. The example that springs to mind is Pulp Fiction - the opening scene introduces two characters who we expect to be crucial (despite not knowing how exactly) to the story and sets the tone of the film by placing extremely unseemly dialogue alongside really mundane dialogue in the alarmingly familiar context of a coffeeshop. One hundred fifteen minutes later (or so) we have forgotten about the characters, the setting and the implicit promise that these two deranged lovebirds are going to be important to the story. Thus, when the world of the "main story" suddenly intersects, it is a revelation that honestly made me shake in my seat the first time I saw it. Truly brilliant slight of hand.
With songwriting there are a lot of great rule-breaking examples from all over...but for the sake of continuity, let's start with Jimmy Webb's "By the time I get to Phoenix" or "The Highwayman" both of which come as close as any song I can think of to circularizing the narrative of the song by saving the "big reveal" for the last verse. In "By the time I get to Phoenix" the listener is tricked into thinking that the singer is on his way home to the woman he loves and does not find out until the last verse that he's actually *just left* his woman in the middle of the night. In "The Highwayman" the listener believes that he/she is hearing from several different characters until the last verse when it is revealed that the song is sung from the perspective of a single "spirit" that has lived many lives. Neither of these are actually "structure" tricks...but they do have more in common with Pulp Fiction than say....Run DMC...
Run DMC's "It's Tricky" has one of the most effective and memorable intros of all time. Structurally, it is a 1/4 verse breakdown that runs into a chorus. Textually, it is just a brilliant setup for the rest of the tune: "This speech is my recital. I think it's very vital to rock a rhyme that's right on time..."
2. I will now deftly pivot this into a speechwriting trope. The three essential parts of an effective oration are: a.) Tell them what you are going to tell them. b.) Tell them. c.) Tell them what you told them. If one wanted to really boil most film/tv writing down to an oversimplified formula (and why wouldn't one?) it could be argued that the speechwriters' three pillars and the Rom-com's three acts make the exact same demands of the writer on behalf of the audience. Now, from that perspective, Run DMC's intro to "It's Tricky" is almost pitch perfect.
3. With both songwriting and screenwriting I frequently resort to "reverse engineering". Simply, for screen I write the ending I want to see first and then work backwards into the story and for song, I write the chorus I want to hear first and work backwards into the verses.
4. Exceptions to rules - While both pop songs and popular film are structured to within an inch of their lives under pain of banishment or death for the foolish writer who dares tempt the fates, the great leveler is the same for both: feel. If it feels good, it's right. Artists like LMFAO prove that a chorus can be a single atonal lyrical line under two bars, followed by a 32-64 bar instrumental section and still be "pop". Films like Psycho prove that you can kill the heroine in the first act and still have audiences climbing the walls.
5. If a writer could successfully adapt a narrative device like "The ticking clock" into a song, I'd be inclined to worship said writer.
Hannah H., Tue 29th October 2013, 06:59:18 AM
The piece of this essay I found most interesting was the bit about "chorus first" introductions. Though you did not go into this, the consistent use of this style in TV shows is striking to me. Television shows tend to start with an easily recognizable scene (at least character and situation-wise, not as in a repetition) and precipitate the action immediately as a "hook." Songs which lead with the chorus draw in their listeners similarly, commencing with the action.
In other words, I appreciate your theory to the extent that I've gone off on a tangent of my own. This is a beautiful thing. Additionally, your concise conclusion is wonderfully sardonic and makes me smile. Thank you.

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Literary Pretensions

Saturday 9th March, 2013

So, the thing is, when I was on tour a couple of years back I wrote a 'book'. It's definitely a 'book' and not a book though. It's an autobiography with the initial intention of a certain angle on the subject, although as it went along the focus drifted a bit. I...   read

Hey Self Defeater

Monday 4th March, 2013

We started a tour in Northampton, MA on 2nd March and, being as it was not far from his hometown of Springfield, I had the pleasure of hanging out with my friend Mark Mulcahy. His name is not familiar to many, but anyone out there who knows him or his work probably...   read

Talking about myself

Saturday 2nd March, 2013

I don't really talk about myself much. Not just on the internet, but in life. I have an English paranoia about being seen to complain, or about troubling anyone else ("a friend troubled is a problem doubled", as someone once said to me). But I don't think that it's healthy. Don't me...   read