Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
We all know the bridge of a song when we hear it. It’s not the verse. It’s not the chorus. It’s not the pre-chorus. It’s a transitional moment when the chords and often the rhythm suddenly change to keep things from getting stale. It’s almost a mini song-within-a-song.
But what makes for a good bridge? What are elements/chords that we commonly hear in bridges and why does it resonate with listeners? Should bridges have lyrics or be instrumental to make an impact? Explore these songwriting tips to write the best bridge for a song that matches your vision.
What is a bridge in a song?
A bridge, also known as the middle-eight, is a section of a song that provides contrast and variety. It should feel and sound different from every other part of the song.
To achieve this effect, bridges often feature a different time signature, chords, and/or key changes.
One of the most famous bridges in music, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” by James Brown, features a simple key change from D# to G#. Actually, the bridge itself isn’t anything special, it’s the whole call-and-response between James and his band leading up to it (“Shall I take ‘em to the bridge?”) that makes it so much fun.
Many bridges feature a change in meter — usually to half-time or double-time. “Victoria” by the Kinks offers up a classic example of a bridge that features both a key change (from G major in the verse and chorus to E minor in the bridge) and a meter change, going to half-time in the bridge. These changes give the listener some relief from what is otherwise a pretty-straightforward rock song.
Bridges can build tension and drama
Great bridges often build tension, propelling the listener to the final verse and chorus. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” does this as well as any song. This bridge begins building tension right from the start by hanging on a single chord and changing to double-time (about 1:18 in the video below). It then features a key change (from B minor to C minor) that launches us to the grand finale.
Bridges are also great for adding drama, musically and lyrically. A classic example of this can be found in Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” The bridge, which begins at 2:11 in the video below, comes in right after one of Clarence Clemons’ greatest jump-on-the-table sax solos. Bruce brings the energy down a notch in the bridge, painting a picture of kids out cruising, professing boundless love for each other, and culminating in that all-time-great line “I wanna die with you, Wendy, on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss. Huh!”
The band then launches into one of the more chaotic and exhilarating instrumental breaks of the ‘70s before exploding into that final verse and chorus. Without the simmering drama of the bridge, the last half of the song wouldn’t be nearly as effective.
Speaking of lyrics, the bridge can also offer you a chance to change up the perspective. Perhaps the most famous example of this can be found in “We Can Work It Out” by The Beatles. Paul’s verses and choruses are so hopeful, John’s bridge adds some dark pragmatism that gives the song gravitas. (This bridge also features a key change — B minor from the song’s key of D — and a fun time signature change from 4/4 to 3/4.
Where should you place the bridge in a song?
A bridge will never appear at the beginning (that would be an intro) or end of a song (where it would be considered an outro). As the word suggests, it occurs in the middle of a song.
In pop music, the listener is usually ready to hear a bridge after two repetitions of the verse and chorus, or two repetitions of the verse, pre-chorus, and chorus. When writing out song structures, we often replace each section with letters, so a typical pop song has a structure of ABABCAB, where A is the verse, B is the chorus, and C is the bridge. (If your song has a pre-chorus, you might have a structure like this: ABCABCDBC, with A as the verse, B as the pre-chorus, C as the chorus, and D as the bridge).
Can a song not have a bridge?
There are plenty of songs that don’t have bridges. In fact, in many musical genres — including folk, blues, gospel, punk, and hardcore hip hop — bridges are the exception rather than the rule.
Bridges are most common in pop music, something that has been true since the Tin Pan Alley days. However, there’s been a recent trend in pop music to leave bridges out of songs. This has led to much handwringing by older artists and pop purists who are worried about “the death of the bridge” and people bemoaning the dumbing down of songwriting.
Interestingly, one of the only hit songs of the past two years to feature a distinct bridge is Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” — a 1985 single that had a surprising second life in 2022 thanks to its use in season four of Stranger Things.
Although today the percentage of pop songs without bridges may be higher than at any time in history, there have been plenty of incredibly popular songs without bridges, going back to the ‘40s. In fact, Bing Crosby’s 1942 single “White Christmas,” is the greatest-selling song in history, and it is bridge-free.
The evergreen gem “Jolene” by Dolly Parton also has no bridge, nor would it benefit from one.
Did streaming kill musical bridges?
The reason why so many recent hits lack a bridge is often attributed to how important TikTok and streaming services have become in breaking new songs. The thinking is that shorter songs are more TikTok- and streaming-friendly, which means there is often no room for a bridge. How true this is, I don’t know, since many hit songs of the ‘60s clock in at 2:30 and they typically have a bridge section.
Either way, all this handwringing is ridiculous. Every song doesn’t need a bridge, and the lack of a bridge does not signify the lack of creativity or the “dumbing down” of songwriting. Plus, there are still plenty of examples of recent pop hits that not only feature bridges, but where the bridge is arguably the best part of the song.
The most replayed part of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License” is the bridge. What’s more, the bridge lasts for a quarter of the song’s four-minute run time.
So, although we’re seeing fewer songs with bridges now, the middle-eight of a song isn’t going away any time soon.
How do you write a bridge of a song?
First, you need to decide if your song needs a bridge. As we mentioned above, many songs don’t. So, listen to the verses and choruses you have so far and determine if things are starting to get stale. If they are, simply changing the arrangement of the third verse might be the smooth transition you need.
But if you feel like you need to add some drama or tension, or you want to explore things from a different perspective, then a bridge might be just the ticket. Here are some tips on how to approach writing the bridge of a song.
We’ve already cited some examples of this, but a classic technique for writing the bridge is to modulate to the relative major or minor key. If your verse and chorus are in the key of C major, try starting your bridge on A minor. The opposite works just as well. These modulations sound great, they’re easy to pull off, and it’s just as easy to transition back to your tonic when the bridge is over.
This key change isn’t just cool for technical reasons, it also changes the mood of your song, which we have seen (e.g., “Victoria”) can be just what the song needs. Going from a major key to a minor key will change the mood of your song to something more somber. Going from minor to major will brighten things up.
If you aren’t sure what the relative major or minor is for each chord, here is a simple chart. Again, you can start from the minor and go to the major or vice versa.
|Relative major||Relative minor|
Other kinds of key changes work well, too. Like with the James Brown example, try modulating up a fourth or a fifth, which might inject some much-needed energy. Or, you can go old school and modulate to the parallel major or minor key (e.g., going from C major to C minor or vice versa).
We’ve seen several examples of this already, but try going to half-time, double-time, or even a new time signature altogether. Have a verse and chorus in 4/4 time? Try going to 3/4 or something more unusual like 5/4 or 7/8.
Change the chord pattern
If you are changing chords every two or four beats, try changing that up in your bridge. We saw how this worked to great effect in the beginning of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” when that first chord sticks around for eight measures instead of four.
What elements can make your bridge unique?
The above suggestions are all tried-and-true methods that have been used in countless songs. That doesn’t make them clichéd, by the way, it just makes them effective. But if you want to try something different here are some ideas.
Although most bridges feature lyrics, they certainly don’t have to. The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” features not one but two instrumental bridges, each of which is different. In both cases, the bridges are in a key one step up from the tonic, raising the energy.
Jeff Buckley’s “The Last Goodbye” offers up a nice example of an instrumental bridge (not counting Jeff singing “ooooh”) that significantly builds up the tension.
Although bridges usually only show up once, there are some fine examples of popular songs that feature two bridges. “I Melt With You” by Modern English features two bridges. Both bridges feature a key change and a change of rhythm. The second time around, the music drops out, so we have the singer doing an a capella version of the song’s iconic riff.
Although we could spend the entire article discussing Beatles’ bridges, I wanted to bring up “I’ll Be Back,” which features three bridges, the middle one of which is musically different from the other two.
Deftones’ “Change (In the House of Flies)” is a classic bridge. It comes after the second chorus and is in the song’s relative major key of Eb. What makes it an interesting choice for our purposes, is that they return to it for the outro.
Why stop at the bridge?
Of course, some songs throw out the very concept of verses, choruses, and bridges. These songs are throughly composed, meaning they just go from one part to another part to yet another, and so on. We featured a post on Roy Orbison and Kendrick Lamar, two artists who made great use of songs with unusual structures, but there are plenty of other great examples, including this classic track from The Who.
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