There are plenty of songs out there without a bridge that survive quite well, thank you very much. However, let’s look at this special part of the song form and get an idea of how to make the best use of it in your songwriting.
First of all we need to identify what a bridge actually is, and one of the best ways to do that is by pointing out some more “famous” bridges in popular songs. Think about the song from The Wizard of Oz called “If I Only Had a Brain”.
I could wile away the hours
Conferring with the flowers
Consulting with the rain
And my head I’d be scratchin’
While my thoughts were busy hatchin’
If I only had a brain
There are three couplets or rhymes in the verses: hours/flowers, scratchin’/hatchin’ and rain/brain, and six lines in the verses, with shorter, more punctuated notes.
In the bridge, the notes are longer and the chord structure changes, even including a slight modulation or key change before going back to the original key:
Oh I-I-I could tell you why-y-y-y
The ocean’s near the sho-o-o-re
I could think of things I’d never thunk befo-o-ore
And then I’d stop and think some mo-o-ore
Although not as significant in this particular song, quite often the bridge creates a whole different perspective or “step back” from the rest of the song.
This is a typical “break up” song:
I woke up and called this morning
The tone of your voice was a warning
That you don’t care for me anymore
Most of the verses detail the events that are taking place, the singer pointing out the evidence of an impending break up. The bridge, in contrast, is more philosophical.
Well maybe nothing lasts forever
Even when you stay together
I don’t need forever after
But it’s your laughter won’t let me go
So I’m holding on this way
In this particular bridge, not only is it quite distinctive musically, but it’s a great example of how the lyrics take a step back and give a over all view of the rest of the song. However, bridges don’t have to have lyrics either. Sometimes a musical bridge that takes off in a new direction has the same effect as a lyrical bridge. One example of a music-only bridge is in Coldplay‘s song “Viva La Vida“. It changes chord progressions and then the only vocal you hear is “oh, oh, oh, oh, oh”. (Well, they’re NOT lyrics :-)). Then it comes back to the last chorus. And the famous song “Dust In The Wind” has a musical bridge featuring a string section!
So the main purpose of a bridge is to provide musical and lyrical contrast, and sometimes to set things up lyrically for the end of the song.
Years ago I took a weekend songwriting workshop through The Songwriter’s Association of Canada where one of the workshop leaders, a songwriter who had had success on his own and with a band, said he hated bridges and didn’t see the point of using them. Many songs do just fine by having a middle-eight or musical break using the same chord progression as the verses or chorus. And while many famous bands and artists over the years have only rarely used bridges in their songwriting, I think they can be quite effective in the right song.
If your song is feeling a little repetitive after a couple of verse and choruses, try to experiment with a change in chord progressions and lyrics (if you like!) and see if you can come up with your own bridge.