From the September 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS
Think of the timeless ballad “Something,” from the Beatles’ Abbey Road. In it, George Harrison muses on his lover’s allure over a wistful chord progression in the key of C. He sings a verse and loops back for another by way of the song’s signature guitar line, but the second time he lands not on a C chord, the I, but on an A major—a striking change, especially after the appearance of A minor a couple bars before. And with that, “Something” launches into another zone—it’s in a different key, with a new drum groove, harmony vocals enter (“You’re asking me will my love grow . . . .”), the lyrics darken, and the melody soars above the verse. The intensity and tension build . . . and then release as Harrison drops back into the original key of C, taking us out with a sweet guitar solo and a closing verse.
That dramatic departure in the middle—just eight bars long—is the bridge, also known as the middle eight. The bridge creates a welcome contrast to the repeating verse-chorus sections of a song, and is a short break about two-thirds of the way through that refreshes our ears for the ending. It’s not the centerpiece of the song—it doesn’t usually contain the hook or title—but often the bridge provides a great song with its most sublime moments. Just think of the beautiful harmonic, melodic, and lyrical turns in the bridges in “Over the Rainbow” (“One day I wish upon a star . . . ”), “Crazy” (“Worry, why do I let myself worry . . . ”), or “Yesterday” (“Why she had to go . . . ”).
For songwriters, the question is: How do you create these kinds of transporting moments in your own songs? As with everything in songwriting, there’s no formula for constructing a bridge, but taking a close look inside some classic songs can help you get started. Here are seven ideas to try, with examples from the pop and rock canon.
Move from the I
In most songs, the verses and chorus center on and resolve to the I chord—the tonic. A simple way to structure a bridge is to switch to another diatonic chord (a chord that occurs naturally in the song’s key) and hold off fully resolving to the I until you return to the verse or chorus.
A common choice in a major key is to go to the IV or V chord in the bridge—you also might try the ii, iii, or vi. In a minor key, diatonic options include the IV or V (which could be major or minor), bIII, bVI, or bVII. (For more on how this number system works, see the Acoustic Guitar multimedia guide Songwriting Basics for Guitarists at store.AcousticGuitar.com.)
A straightforward example is the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” in which the bridge (“Got two reasons . . . ”) starts on the V—the song is in the key of G, and the V is a D chord. As shown in Example 1, the bridge hangs on the V and IV, only resolving to the I with the return to the verse.
In the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” written by Boudleaux Bryant, the bridge (“I could make you mine . . .”) kicks off on the IV—an A in the song’s key of E. For harmonic context, Example 2 shows the last measure of the verse progression before going into the eight-bar bridge.
Reach outside the key
For a more attention-getting contrast in a bridge, grab a non-diatonic chord—that is, a chord outside the key. That’s what James Taylor does in the bridge in “Country Road” (“I guess my feet know . . .”). The song is in D major, but as shown in bar 2 of Example 3, he opens the bridge with a Dm7—a quick change in harmony that makes a big impact.
Another example is Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” in which the bridge (“Laughing on the bus . . . ”) starts on a surprising Bbmaj7—the song is in C, so that’s the non-diatonic bVIImaj7. (I’m disregarding the capo he used on the second fret, which raises the key to D, and going by the shapes he uses.) Check it out in Example 4.
One good place to look for non-diatonic chords is in the parallel minor or major key, which has the same tonic root but a different set of chords. If the song is in a major key, for instance, you could borrow the i, bIII, bVI, or bVII from the parallel minor key for a cool contrast in the bridge.
A bridge should offer some kind of contrasting point of view to the song. . . . Try to look at the events or emotions in the song from another angle.
A bolder way to set the bridge apart is by modulating to another key—when you do this, the whole section feels like it has a different home chord. Here are a few possibilities, with examples from the Beatles songbook. One easy modulation is from a major key to its relative minor (vi), or from a minor key to its relative major (bIII). “We Can Work It Out,” which is in D major, modulates to the relative minor (Bm) in the bridge (“Life is very short . . . ”), as shown in Example 5, before returning to the happier sounding verse in D.
Another common modulation is to the parallel minor or major key. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” does this, modulating from A minor in the verses to A major in the bridge (“I don’t know why . . . ”). Example 6 includes the C-to-E chord sequence that sets up the key change in the bridge. Similarly, in “Here, There, and Everywhere,” the verses are in G major, and then the bridge (“I want her everywhere . . . ”) shifts to G minor. The new key center is less obvious because the bridge’s first chord is not Gm but Bb (the bIII). Example 7 shows the progression behind this brief but stunning four-bar bridge.
The aforementioned Beatles’ “Something” makes a harmonic leap from C major in the verses to A major in the bridge. Example 8 includes the turnaround chords that Harrison uses to transition into the new key for the bridge.
To make these kinds of modulations, you’ll often need to use a pivot chord—a chord that works in both the old key and the new one. The V of the original key is a likely choice. All the Beatles modulations just mentioned (“We Can Work It Out,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Here, There, and Everywhere,” and “Something”) use the V to help transition into the new key.
On the melodic side, one way to create contrast in the bridge is by changing register—that is, the range of notes you’re using. In one of my all-time favorite bridges, from Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” the bridge melody (starting with “Four in the morning”) soars noticeably higher than in the verse. This change, too, is coupled with a move to the non-diatonic IImaj7 chord—in this case, Amaj7 in the key of G.
The bridge melodies in several other songs already cited shift into a higher register too—in “Crazy,” “Friend of the Devil,” and “Something,” for example.
Vary the phrasing
To differentiate the bridge melody, you also might work with its phrasing. Try starting or ending the main phrases on a different beat than in the rest of the song. In “America,” for example, each phrase through the verse starts on beat 1, while in the bridge the first line (“Laughing on the bus . . . ”) starts halfway through the measure—that space helps draw a listener’s attention.
You can enhance the contrast by changing up the rhythms and shape of the melody too. Consider “We Can Work It Out.” In contrast with the chipper verse, the bridge melody slows down and hangs on one note—a change that’s perfectly in-sync with the modulation to the minor key.
Switch up the groove
Another way to set the bridge apart is by changing its whole rhythmic feel. Think of the bridge in Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” in which the drums get funkier and the other instruments drop out—while Withers chants “I know” (26 times!). Then, after a quick break, the verse groove returns.
In the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the drums drop out almost completely on the bridge (“Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray . . . ”), in keeping with the daydream-y lyrics and major-seventh-colored chord progression. And in the bridge of Don McLean’s “Vincent” (“For they could not love you . . . ”), the tempo pauses on the lines “And when no hope was left inside / on that starry starry night”—the song’s dramatic climax.
Shift the lyrical perspective
Along with all the musical changes, a bridge should offer some kind of contrasting point of view to the song. Don’t write words that simply continue the narrative in the verse or that recap the idea in the chorus. Try to look at the events or emotions in the song from another angle.
In the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’,” for instance, the crowd-pleasing bridge (“Sometimes the light’s all shining on me . . . ”) breaks from the song’s travelogue to ponder, famously, “. . . what a long strange trip it’s been.”
Sometimes the bridge brings a sort of catharsis, as in “Still Crazy,” in which the matter-of-fact reflections of the verses give way to the anguish of “Four in the morning / Crapped out, yawning / Longing my life away.” In the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” the bridge (“Since you’ve gone . . . ”) releases the emotions that seem like they’ve been suppressed in the verses—and a potent change to the bVI helps drive it home.
The bridge lyrics may even express an idea or attitude counter to what’s in the verses. In “Something,” the bridge introduces questioning and doubt to a relationship that until then seemed blissful.
To bridge or not to bridge
Of course not all songs need bridges—they may be better served with a simpler structure, and today’s pop charts are full of bridge-less songs. But when you’re working on a song and the cycle of verses and choruses starts to sound too predictable, a bridge may be just what the song doctor ordered. Make it different from the rest of the song, but still clearly connected—so it can transport the listener from one shore to another, providing a new view of the landscape along the way.
To get a handle on the function of the bridge, it’s helpful to note that the term had a somewhat different meaning in the Tin Pan Alley era, when popular songs typically followed the 32-bar AABA form—the A sections are verses and B is the bridge. This form has no repeating chorus—the song’s hook and title are found in the verses. “Something” is actually an AABA song (or, technically, AABAA, since there’s a guitar solo over the verse progression before the closing verse), as are “Over the Rainbow” (with a coda added) and “Yesterday” (in which the bridge repeats, so it’s AABABA).
Use of the AABA form diminished with the birth of rock ’n’ roll and a shift toward emphasizing choruses. Songwriters continued to write bridges, of course, but often as part of larger structures, such as ABABCAB, in which A is the verse, B the chorus, and C the bridge. Though this form is longer, the bridge serves the same purpose—providing a break from the repetition and setting up the big finish.
You can listen to the songs mentioned in this article here.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, Acoustic Guitar’s founding editor, is author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter, recently published in an expanded second edition, and the video series Learn Seven Grateful Dead Classics for Acoustic Guitar. jeffreypepperrodgers.com
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.