Everybody knows that part of The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done.” The chorus cuts out, and only guitars remain. Brandon Flowers comes in with a tentative “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier,” and he slowly gets louder until a gospel choir accompanies him. It’s perhaps one of the most iconic bridges next to the Golden Gate Bridge, and, as both a songwriter and a music writer, I’ve always marveled at the weirdest section of any song: the infamous bridge.
The bridge’s purpose is to transition smoothly from one section of a song into another, hence its name. In most cases, it leads out of one chorus, into a bridge, and then back into yet another chorus. It smooths over the song to make it less jarring from a transitional standpoint, and it also ensures that the song itself doesn’t become too tedious.
Verses and choruses are fairly standard fare. They each repeat at least twice in most songs, but the bridge is its own beast to tackle. It’s there only one time, and it’s often the most confounding part of a song to write. But it’s also the one that comes with the most room for creativity. Sometimes, verses and choruses feel like they’re copied and pasted, but when the bridge comes up, who knows what’s going to happen?
For classic rock acts, this is usually where they’d work a guitar solo in. I’d argue, though, that while a guitar solo isn’t inherently boring, it’s repetitive and unoriginal when every single band uses the bridge as the guitar solo section. Rock is no longer the zeitgeist, so now bands use this space however they please. Whenever I listen to a song for the first time, I’m always curious to hear what artists end up doing for this section. It also inspired the topic of my first Buttondown piece: what makes a bridge “good?”
Like any reputable writer, I did some reporting (tweeted a prompt) that examined how bridges serve a greater purpose in music (asked people what bridges they like). I made a playlist that consists of every song people mentioned titled “Great Bridges” for qualitative research methods. Simply browsing this showcases the absolute range of bridges that stand out to people. I listened to each and every one of them, some of which I’d already heard and some of which I had not, trying to determine what can make the least memorable part of a song so compelling. In total, there were roughly 70 different songs.
Before I dive into writing about others’ responses, I thought about some of my own favorites. One is The Strokes’ “Reptilia,” and, yes, I understand that I said guitar-solo bridges are boring exactly two paragraphs ago, but this one rips. A lot. So, I’ll make an exception. My Chemical Romance’s “Helena” also sprang to my mind, which combines a rolling-tom drum pattern and tremolo-drenched vocals courtesy of emo legend Gerard Way. There’s also the incredibly simple bridge in Bloc Party’s “Helicopter” that’s two guitar notes and a rhythm section, and it gradually builds to its cathartic final section. Embarrassingly, these are the only ones I could think of, so that’s why I asked people on Twitter for their favorites, hoping that someone else would mention one I should have thought of myself.
Expectedly, they did. Bridges that people included range from Avail’s “Connection” to One Direction’s “No Control” and Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” to Third Eye Blind’s “Motorcycle Drive By.” Somehow, Craig Thomas, one of the co-creators of the popular TV sit-com How I Met Your Mother, saw my prompt and said The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” has one of his favorite bridges, however chaotic of a choice that may be. There were also a handful of artists with more than one song mentioned, such as Bruce Springsteen (“Thunder Road” and “Dancing in the Dark”), Taylor Swift (“Last Kiss” and “All Too Well”), Interpol (“PDA” and “Say Hello to the Angels”), Beyonce (“Deja Vu” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”), and Radiohead (“Karma Police” and “Sit Down, Stand Up”).
As stated previously, I listened to approximately 70 different songs, which is nearly five hours of music, for this highly important piece. Along the way, I started noticing patterns in these bridges and the different categories of bridges that exist. The first of these is the notorious guitar-solo bridge, and, as anticipated, these mostly came from standard rock songs. Shredding solos in Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Pink Floyd’s “Mother,” and Metallica’s “The Memory Remains” are all examples of this. Look, I think it’s great to showcase your technical skills and talent, but these get old after a while for me. It seems like an excuse to not think of a bona fide bridge; it’s filler more than it is genuinely interesting. Essentially, they’re overdone and trite. But I’ll give an exception to The Strokes’ “Reptilia” and Talk Talk’s “I Don’t Believe in You” because those solos objectively rule.
There’s also the early-aughts’ indie-rock variation of this: the guitar break. This is different from a guitar solo because these guitar breaks usually comprise eighth-note repetitions of two or three guitar notes. Although that may sound much more insipid than a guitar solo, I actually prefer this because I think it’s less showy and serves the song to a greater extent. Interpol’s “PDA” is a wonderful example, and the way the guitars harmonize with Carlos D’s bassline is just exquisite. Someone also mentioned The Killers’ 2006 Sam’s Town hit, “When You Were Young.” This is another guitar break disguised as a guitar solo. This isn’t a solo. Don’t be fooled. There are roughly five notes played throughout the whole thing, and they’re nearly all eighth-notes. The bridge in “When You Were Young” is unequivocally a guitar break.
Of course, there’s also the type of bridge that strips everything back only to build back up to the chorus. This is a common technique employed in emo and pop-punk, almost as famous as the halftime breakdown, which is also popularly used as the second half of a chorus (see All Time Low’s “Dear Maria, Count Me In”). The Hotelier’s “Discomfort Revisited” is the perfect example of this variation. It goes straight from its boisterous chorus into a quiet bridge replete with melodic guitar and rim-click percussion, and it slowly crescendoes back into a tempestuous burst.
Some bridges may as well just be choruses themselves. These are the ones with a deeply rooted identity crisis, but it’s in the best way possible because this usually makes for a fantastic bridge. These are bridges that are so iconic or memorable that they often stand out as the best part of the song. Radiohead’s “Karma Police” was brought up multiple times, and I think it’s for this particular reason. Hail to the Thief cut “Sit Down, Stand Up” also fits nicely into this category. The whole song leads up to this moment with brisk, programmed drums that propel the song at a blistering rate. It’s always the point of the track I look forward to the most. And it’s not my fault Radiohead writes great bridges!
My MTV News editor, Patrick Hosken, jokingly added Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge.” He didn’t realize I was actually asking, but the wonderful part of this is that the song creates a whole new category: songs that build to the bridge (get it?) instead of the chorus. “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” fittingly titled, leads to its bridge. Both Taylor Swift songs that were mentioned, “All Too Well” and “Last Kiss,” accomplish the same feat. I’m not incredibly familiar with Taylor Swift’s music, but whenever I do listen to her, it seems that her bridges are always something to look forward to.
Now, we make our way to the most commonplace bridges of the bunch. The first of these is what I call “standard variation.” This is not to be conflated with the intro-level statistics term, “standard deviation.” These bridges maintain the energy level of the chorus while mostly adhering to its chord progression with some slight variations here and there. For instance, Nirvana’s “Lithium,” Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” and Stereophonics’ “Dakota” all do this. Jimmy Eat World uses this method, too, particularly in songs like “Polaris” and “Dizzy.”
Then we have everything that falls outside of the aforementioned categories, and it’s what I’m cleverly going to refer to as “other.” These bridges either do something completely different or combine different bridge techniques into one. The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” accomplishes a cut-out and a standard variation simultaneously. My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” is a guitar solo, standard variation, build-up, and impostor-syndrome bridge all in one package.
These are all of the types of bridges I observed, although I’m certain there are plenty more. Throughout this rigorous investigation, I’ve learned that great bridges come in many shapes and forms. It’s the strangest part of most songs, and it’s where songwriters can take artistic liberty. Bridges are designed to get you from one place to another, and that’s how they function in songs, as well. They often carry the listener seamlessly from chorus to chorus, and they frequently fall into the background, building anticipation.
This is all to say that we should appreciate the craft of bridges more. They’re difficult to write because there are endless ways to approach it. The intro, first verse, and chorus are the stars of the show, but they wouldn’t be so popular without the necessary supporting cast that is the bridge. Imagine how repetitive and motonous songs could become without them. Even if it’s not an iconic bridge like in “Karma Police” or “All These Things That I’ve Done,” it’s still serving the song’s greater purpose, and for that we should all show a little gratitude for the bridge.