Are there really differences between these three musical creations? And, if so, does it really matter what these differences are? Yes, there are differences… But to the casual listener, these differences don’t normally matter all that much, if at all.

If you’re a musician writing music for distribution of some sort, then the differences do come into play a little bit more. This article is not necessarily solely geared towards the working musician, but towards anyone who wants a better understanding of these three types of musical recordings.

The Song: Verse, Chorus, Verse Chorus, etc. …

The first thing most people think about when discussing the art of making music, is this person that sits down with a guitar (sits at the piano, etc. ….), starts strumming some chords, and writes a song with an intro, couple of versus, maybe a bridge, a chorus, etc. …

It can be very moving, make you laugh, cry, throw a brick at the radio, speed down the highway irresponsibly fast…. You get the idea … Bottom line, there’s some singing taking place with the singer attempting to tell (some sort of) a story for the listener.

There are different approaches as to how songs are structured, meaning that the number verses, choruses, and how often each are repeated differ in these approaches. Even the decision to include a bridge or not is dependent upon the song itself and whether or not one would be necessary, or helpful to the song’s structure.

Most songs you hear on the radio tend to follow this basic structure:

1) First, you may have an intro to the song – Maybe there’s an acoustic guitar strumming, or finger picking some notes with the lead vocal starting to tell the beginnings of the story. Or, the same thing, but with the piano or other instrument.

2) Next, there’s sometimes a pre-chorus – An introduction to the chorus that doesn’t “go all out” just yet. This pre chorus is usually shorter and less exciting than the first appearance of the “real” chorus – you basically get a “glimpse” of what’s coming.

3) Now you have the first verse – You kind of jump forward in time (sometimes) with pre-chorus, and now you’re being taken back to the very beginning with the first verse of the song (story). And, there are multiple versions of versus that a song can have – different measure counts, etc.

4) The chorus – Ok, now comes the big idea of what the song is really talking about. Sometimes the chorus is precluded by the pre-chorus again to build this first production of the chorus up a little bit more – gives it more power when the main chorus is finally heard.

And this process of: verse, chorus usually gets repeated at least once with slightly new elements (added harmonies, slight more instrumentation, etc.) added in…

5) Then there’s typically a bridge, or an instrumental lead of sorts – Here the song gets to “put on a new hat” without having to change its entire wardrobe. In the case of the bridge, the listener is made aware of an abrupt change in the story. New musical chords are sometimes first introduced here to help influence the listener’s heightened awareness.

In the case of an instrumental lead, lots of times the lead (will say, “guitar lead”) is meant to embellish the previously heard verses but can also cause an abrupt change in the story as a distinctive part of the bridge…

By this time, the song’s story tends to try a remind us of what the original intent was bringing us back in with another (perhaps, final) verse. If the character(s) has made any significant improvement / suffered even greater loss, etc. … we usually find out about it here.

Finally, an outgoing (usually extended) version of the chorus. It will normally be a much stronger version of the chorus adding multiple harmonies (or at least some) – the instrumentation sometimes gets heavier and a bit more involved – adding more instrumentational lead play, etc. …

And with a fade of the audio track channel, or a sudden stop (“button ending”) …. We’re done… At least, that’s the “typical” song (one version)…

However, there are different approaches to making music There’s the above example of a normal song. Wait a minute, maybe I shouldn’t say, “normal,” because deciding how normal a song is depends upon how its compared to similar songs in the same musical genre…. But, you get the idea – there’s probably a couple of versus, the chorus gets repeated a few times, etc. … Someone is “singing something.”…

Not a lot changes for an instrumental…

Then you have the instrumental. Here it’s the same thing minus the vocal melodies (good or bad). Basically, the instruments are telling the story of the song. And, the instrumental tends to build upon itself (in most cases) just like the standard song does. The types of instruments chosen can kind of help to tell certain types of stories as well…

With every passing “verse” the instruments responsible for the melodic portion(s) of the song add “a little” something extra the next time around, so the instrumental isn’t so boring and repetitive. What’s great about instrumentals is that the listener doesn’t have a preconceived idea of what the music is trying to portray – what story is trying to be told (unless they’ve watched / heard an interview with the musician who wrote and recorded it)… The listener is free to imagine… whatever… with no lyrics to guide them…

With a song, the music doesn’t have to carry it all the way because the focus usually tends to be on the singing and the lyrics; however, as we all know, “beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.” i.e. its usually a combination of all the elements (music and vocals, production, etc.) that speaks to us on an emotional level. All I’m saying is that in most cases the music doesn’t have to stand out as much as the vocal and lyrics…

But with an instrumental… the music itself has now taken center stage and must be able to deliver for the listeners. Every little element will be noticed and must be above average in most cases…

That being said… the same thing applies here as it does with a regular song… i.e. the music being played doesn’t necessarily have to “blow someone’s mind with incredible ability,” rather just have a good, unique kind of feel to it… A simple collection of just a few notes can sometimes tell a great, simple story…

Now, there’s the instrumental cue…

Cues are normally used in the background of a visual type of medium, like a reality TV show, or a quick scene in a movie or hour long television drama series. There are a couple of differences (however) between instrumental cues and regular instrumentals.

One, the cue is meant to “hang out” in the background of a video, meaning that it SHOULD NOT distract from the visual elements of the video. It’s meant to “enhance” the intended emotional feeling for the viewer.

Therefore, (number “two” here) a cue shouldn’t be “overly” musically expressive. It really depends upon the video piece that the cue is supposed to support. But in most cases, the cue needs to be less intrusive, less impressive when compared to an instrumental.

It doesn’t mean the musicians need only minimal talent to construct / record these cues. Lots of times it’s the opposite because it takes skill to know how to “lay off” when necessary. Many musicians (myself included) love an opportunity to just show you everything they’re capable of. But with a cue, the musician has to remember…. “It’s not about me.”…..

That being said, cues do offer musicians of lesser skill to take part in the professional music world – if they’re mature enough to “lay low” when necessary in their cue writing and production processes…

In Conclusion

Not that it matters to most people, but there are distinct differences between a song, an instrumental, and an instrumental cue. We are all familiar with the songs and instrumentals that ride across our local radio waves, but I encourage you take a closer listen to the next episode of your favorite TV show to see if you notice the subtle differences when it comes to cues in the mix… You’ll be surprised at how much the differences jump out at you.

Hope this helps . . .