Song Bridges

Bridge is a musical term that refers to a particular section of a song.  The term is used variously.  Today, when musicians speak of a bridge, they are likely referring to a section later in a song, where a dramatic shift in mood occasions a reconsideration or development of the song’s established ideas.  

I want to focus on this usage because it illuminates an important technique employed not only by musicians but also by artists working in other forms. In order to get to that conversation (a few posts from now), I want to nail down the idea of how a bridge works in music.

A Crisis

You can think of a bridge as a song’s midlife crisis, the point at which the song says “I need to think things over, and try new things.” The song must pass through that crisis to find its deepest meaning.

 Imagine a person going through a midlife crisis.

  •  She questions what she’s done with her life, her career choices, her values, her relationships. 
  •  Her questioning might demand that she find a change of scenery so she can think things through—a trek through the desert and mountains.  (Okay, just go read Wild by Cheryl Strayed.)  The change in scene helps her process the questions she is asking herself. 
  •  When she returns from journey, she finds that she is not another person, but perhaps has a deeper understanding of who she has always been.

 A bridge does something similar.

  • It questions the song’s assumptions and/or discovers a new way of looking at things. 
  • It accompanies this questioning by traveling through new musical terrain.  It has to get away from where it has been in order to gain perspective.  Think of standing on an actual bridge and taking in the view.  That's the idea.

  • As a result of this questioning and travel through new musical terrain, a song gains a deeper understanding of what it has always been.

And just as we don’t think of a midlife crisis happening at age fifteen, a bridge must wait for the main ideas and musical landscape to be established.  Only then can a song go away and have its midlife crisis.

Example 1, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)

The bridge here begins at 2:03.  Notice how the song shifts from sass to something heavier.  You can hear this in the musical setting and also in the lyrics:

Don't treat me to these things of the world
I'm not that kind of girl
Your love is what I prefer, what I deserve

Note how this dual shift (musical and lyrical) expands the meaning of the refrain “If you wanted it you should’ve put a ring on it” when the song returns to the chorus.  Up until the bridge, the refrain has suggested “Too bad for you.”  After the bridge, however, it means “too bad for us.  I wanted you too, but you blew it and now we both have to pay.”

 In this sense, the bridge expands the song’s sense of itself.

Example 2, "Beautiful Day"

The bridge here begins at the 2:15 mark.  Again, notice the dual dimensions of this shift—musical and lyrical.

Musically, the drums disappear and clouds of synthesizers rise over the mix.  The bridge leaves behind the familiar melodic motif of the verses and choruses and establishes something new, over a new chord progression.

Lyrically, the images are seen from a new angle.  The scenes in the verses are local and happen at street level:

The heart is a bloom, shoots up through stony ground
But there's no room, no space to rent in this town
You're out of luck and the reason that you had to care,
The traffic is stuck and you're not moving anywhere.

The bridge lyrics, however, are global and suggest a perspective higher up, a helicopter or perhaps a satellite.

See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
See the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colours came out

Note also the references to images of destruction, the ransacking of the oceans and plundering of the earth.  Time is running out.

 As the song returns to the final choruses, the stakes have thus been raised and “It’s a beautiful day, don’t let it slip away” takes on greater urgency.

Example 3 — "A Day in the Life"

“A Day in the Life” is a good illustration of the fact that bridges are often written because a songwriter says, “it needs something here.”  The rest of the song had been written, but the Beatles felt it needed more.  When they recorded the song, they left a gap for the bridge, which they created after the fact and edited into the body of the song.  The story is related in various places, including Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Recording Sessions (pages 96-97).

After a long transition from the main body of the song, the bridge begins at around 2:15.  Again, you can note two shifts, musical and lyrical.

Musically, the song shifts to new terrain—a new key (E major), a new rhythmic feel (double-time), and a different audio environment (the mix now sounds as if we are in a small room as opposed to the vast expanse suggested in the body of the song).  Also, we’ve got a new singer, Paul instead of John.

The lyrical shift moves us from someone caught in reflection —“I read the news today oh boy” — to someone caught in the rat race — “Found my coat and grabbed my hat / Made the bus in seconds flat.”  And whereas the verses evoke the sense of camera slowly panning across distant happenings, the bridge suggests a handheld camera rushing through scenes at close range.

Again, these contrasts, musical and lyrical, return us to the final verse with a deepened sense of the song’s dimensions and meaning.  After the breathless folly depicted in the bridge, the voice addressing us in the final verse feels wiser.

Thank you for reading and listening.  The next post will explore a particular type of bridge known as a middle eight.