When listening to a song, you might notice a section that stands out.
A shift in mood, a change in perspective, maybe a bit off-kilter.
It’s probably the bridge!
A microhistory of the bridge
Before the 60s, it was common for songs to follow the verse/refrain form, where each verse ended with a repeated phrase called the “refrain” (this was often the title). The core of the song was that repeated verse/refrain.
A section called the “bridge” provided a way to break up the repetition. Instead of songs being stuck in an AAAA form (4 verse/refrains in a row), the bridge made possible a more varied AABA form (where B is the bridge).
As verse/chorus songs became more popular, the bridge became less necessary. Often an instrumental section took its place, with interest driven by the alternation between separate verse and chorus sections.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a verse/chorus song even more interesting! Adding a bridge can add even more depth to the song.
The bridge in verse/chorus form
When a bridge shows up in a verse/chorus song, it’s normally near the end, right before the final choruses (or sometimes before an instrumental before the choruses). Here’s a common structure:
V - V - C - V - C - B - C - C
This is normally heard as a succession of 4 higher level sections: VVC-VC-B-CC.
Probably the best way to describe the bridge is as a “contrast section”.
The bridge provides us with another perspective on the song. That might be the point of view of a different person. Or a change in time (like returning to the past). Or just another way of looking at the theme.
It can serve to clarify the lyrical meaning of the song, and intensify the effect of the chorus when it returns (whether harmonically, emotionally, lyrically, or whatever).
It might be the part of the song you enjoy most. And it can feel more freeform and less predictable than the other sections.
Normally this part needs lyrics to count as a bridge. Otherwise, it’s just called an instrumental section.
How does the bridge create these effects?
There are a number of ways to create the shifting effect of the bridge. In many cases, this effect builds emotional intensity in the song.
I’ve mentioned lyrical change in perspective. If a song is about heartbreak right now, the bridge might be about what things were like in better times. If it’s about one person’s perspective on a relationship, the bridge might step into the perspective of their partner.
This change in perspective is often reinforced by lyrical structure. Perhaps the lines are longer, or there’s a different rhyme scheme. Anything that sets it apart.
Harmonically, the bridge is often a place for more experimentation.
There is normally a clearer move away from the tonic (home) chord. This move can be subtle, but modulation to a different key is a possibility (and more common in a bridge than other sections).
You might find more borrowed chords in a bridge, which can create unique harmonic effects.
It’s also common for a bridge to end on a chord that prepares a return to the chorus (or an instrumental version of the verse). There are a number of “cadence” chords that are candidates here, V and IV being common. But it could also be a secondary dominant, like the V of ii.
Another possibility is that this final chord sets up a modulation to a different key in the chorus. For example, if the earlier choruses of the song were in C major, then it’s possible the final chorus/es will be in D major. An A7 at the end of a bridge could set that up (since it’s the V7 of II, and D major is the II in this case).
Advice on writing a bridge
We’ve discussed a variety of ways a bridge can stand out. This doesn’t mean you need to use any particular techniques in your own songs.
The most important thing is the overall effect and balance of the song.
You should be careful when making the bridge too different. It should still feel like part of the same song.
One way to create this sense of unity is to reuse or reinterpret some of the material from the verse, but in a new context.
The extent of change should also depend on the larger context of the song. In many cases a subtler contrast can still stand out.
Starting on another chord in the key might be enough. And including just one borrowed chord can already have a strong effect.
As with everything in songwriting, it’s a matter of experimenting and relying on your ears. It’s worth trying all different kinds of shifts, from subtle to extreme, and seeing what works best.
If you come up with an idea you like that doesn’t fit the song, it can act as the basis for another one! Just add it to your backlog.