I’m not sure why, but I rarely hear pop creators talk about the bridge. Verses and choruses come up regularly, but the bridge seems to be an afterthought for many. I, on the other hand, get unreasonably excited on the rare occasion that it does come up because the bridge is possibly my favorite section. It’s where the twist in the musical plot happens, which is interesting enough, but what’s even more interesting to me is how the approach to creating this twist has changed over the years.
Songwriters and producers usually create the bridge with two functional goals in mind: providing contrast and generating tension. Until a decade or two ago, the norm was to create contrast by introducing a new melody and chord progression, and tension by ending the chord progression on a dominant chord (V), or at times a different chord that could have a similar effect, like bVII or IV.
In recent years, though, as pop has become more and more influenced by EDM, the role of functional harmony has been weakened to make way for sound production magic. Producers generate tension and release through risers, drum acceleration, strategic filtering, and various other techniques. There is no need for harmonic progressions to define sections in the song, and in fact it's very common to maintain the same chord loop throughout a song, including in the bridge.
This isn’t to say that modern songs never change the chord progression or melody in the bridge, just that doing these things is no longer “obligatory” like it used to be. The sonic traits that I describe below are much stronger indicators of a bridge when it comes to pop songs in the 2010s.
The Fall and Rise
The sound-production-driven bridge has two functional stages, which I call the fall and rise. Here’s what they do:
- The fall is usually the clearest sign that the bridge has arrived. There is a sharp drop in sonic energy and density, usually to the lowest level since the intro, and this thinner texture lingers there for a while.
- The rise comes next—a buildup of sonic energy and density, culminating in the highest peak of the song.
Here are some examples of how the fall and rise can be organized:
Demi Lovato – Sorry Not Sorry
Fall (2:28-2:41): The heavy low end (kick and 808) from the chorus drops out, leaving a much thinner texture made up of mostly piano and vocals.
Rise (2:41-2:55): Claps are added to add rhythmic energy, as well as a layer of white noise to fill up the higher part of the frequency spectrum. Demi contributes to the buildup by going higher and higher in her vocal range, and a very high adlib/shout (2:54) gives the final accent before the final chorus drops.
Britney Spears - Till the World Ends:
Fall (2:50-3:08): There’s a breakdown following the postchorus. The drums and high end drop out; Britney’s vocals are fragmented; and toward the end of this subsection there is a pseudo-buildup, but it’s tamed enough to give the next subsection space to act as the “real” buildup.
Rise (3:08-3:23): The chorus is recycled with a low-pass filter sweep on the entire mix (including the vocals).
Taylor Swift - Ready For It:
This bridge is not split into subsections. Instead, there is a drop in energy (fall) at its beginning (2:36), and the rise function is fulfilled by the break at 2:45 and the powerful vocals that bring back the chorus.
Ariana Grande - One Last Time:
This bridge is split into three subsections:
Fall (2:53-3:01): Several elements drop out, most notably the toms.
"Deceptive" rise (3:01-3:09): The toms return, creating the impression that the buildup toward the chorus has begun.
Another fall and quick rise (3:09-3:17): Instead of a chorus, the bridge is extended by dropping to an even-lower energy level than the first part of the bridge, and quickly rising with a reverse cymbal and Ariana’s adlib.
There are more ways to do this, but the important thing to remember is that the fall and rise are functions—and not necessarily subsections--though in a lot of cases they are both.
So What About the Chords and Topline?
Since the melody and harmony in the bridge do not have to fill a functional role, the songwriter/producer has a lot of creative freedom when it comes to the pitch material.
With regards to the harmony, some bridges stay on the same loop as the rest of the song and others go with a new chord progression. If you are writing a bridge, the main thing to consider is what’s more important—if you’re doing something really cool with sound production, a new chord progression might take some attention away from that. But if you think the song would be better overall with a new progression, go for it.
When it comes to the topline, the bridge can be a great creative opportunity, but there are certainly conventions that many songs follow. The most common ones are:
- Recycling: Using a stripped-down version of a previous section, transforming its sonic function
- Fragmentation: using fragments of previous melodic material as the vocal part
- The "traditional" approach: adding new melody and lyrics
- Combo: using a different approach in each section
Here are some examples of each of these conventions:
Charlie Puth – Attention: Recycling the prechorus (2:24-2:46)
Hey Violet – Guys My Age: Recycling the chorus (2:25-2:41)
Selena Gomez – Same Old Love (2:46-3:06)
Julia Michaels – Issues (2:03-2:20)
Taylor Swift – Blank Space (2:53-3:13)
Flume ft. Kai – Never Be Like You (2:16-2:47)
Daya – Sit Still, Look Pretty (2:03-2:24)
Demi Lovato – Cool for the Summer:
Recycling part of the verse (2:29-248)
Flume ft. Tove Lo – Say It:
Recycling the prechorus (3:28-3:53)
The Chainsmokers & Coldplay – Something Just Like This:
Recycling chorus (2:20-2:38)
Recycling the prechorus (2:38-2:57)
Instrumental buildup (2:57-3:16)
Using These Techniques
Both the sonic and the tonal techniques I described in this article are currently the most common conventions. If you are a pop creator, it's important to be familiar with them and to at least practice using them so that they can become tools in your arsenal. However, if there is any section that's fertile ground for experimentation, it's the bridge. This doesn't mean you should throw out these conventions, but you can think of them as a starting point for creating something new and unique.