How To Write a Folk Song: Song Structure

There are a lot of kinds of music that hits the airwaves nowadays and among the many types that gain popularity are the folk songs. While there are those who believe only music dating back to the 1960s would count as real folk songs, many others believe that musicians such as Leadbelly, Ani DiFranco and Alison Krause are as authentic a folk singer as Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie. The popularity of folk songs comes from the heart the song tends to have. Similar to country and bluegrass (both of whom can be said to have descended from folk tradition), Folk songs tend to have a story or in other cases were used as protest music.

  • Think verse, then title… verse, then title. When it comes to the structure of the song, consider following the structure used generally for folk songs. To represent structure, the letter “A” is used to represent verses in a song. The letter “B” then represents the presence of a chorus. And the letter “C” represents where the bridge occurs. Folk songs tend to use the AAA song form (which is also known as the one-part song form). Such songs consist of several verses which actually contain a repeated line, if not the title of the song itself, as the last line of each verse. Consider for example the classic song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and compare it to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. While Lady Gaga’s song repeats a chorus and refrain at different parts of her song, Simon&Garfunkel’s song goes through numerous verses, but ends each set of verses with a similar line.
  • A verse tends to be four-bar phrases of eight, twelve, sixteen or twenty-four. This is not, however, a formal rule and can be broken to accommodate any length necessary when it comes to the lyrics of a song. Typically, however, the number of bar phrases in a verse before the repeated title/theme hits tends to be equal in number, giving the song an easy to follow feel once the first repeat title/theme occurs.
  •  The Struggle is at the heart of the song. Folk songs are songs born from songwriters who wanted to give a voice to a people’s struggle. Be it a statement that is politically charged or a personal struggle to find faith and hope, folk songs speak of pain with all five senses and voice out the fight to rise above it. Bear in mind that the words do not have to be too direct. The story of your song may be veiled in metaphor or mixed with analogies. But the closer you keep it to an emotional honesty the better. Folk songs tend to be more true than flashy, after all.

Simply memorable. Lastly, remember that folk songs are the very example of simplicity that retains being memorable in one’s head. While a song’s full lyrics might not be remembered, simply knowing the title Kum Baya or Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, one can easily hum the tune of the song due to its repeating aspect. To avoid writing a song that sounds monotonous, however, consider shifting the key between some of the later verses. A shift up or down might even further push the emotive feel of the story you want to tell through song.


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