Why a Middle 8 isn’t a Bridge.

I was working on a mix recently, and exchanging with the artist by email. All was going well, but we hit a bit of a snag when his references to tracks that needed modification didn’t match what I was seeing in the session. Eventually we sorted it out: what he meant by the Bridge wasn’t what I understood by the Bridge.

When it comes to talking about music, it’s important that we all use the same terminology, and nowhere moreso than in regards to the sections of a song. And here, there’s one section that constantly causes confusion: the Middle 8.

The Middle 8 is the section which comes between the second Chorus and the third and final Chorus in verse-chorus form. There might be something else in there as well, perhaps a return to a part of a Verse before the last Chorus, or a repeat of the introduction. But basically, what we’re talking about is the part of the song around 2/3 of the way in that isn’t a solo, but where the song launches out into a new direction. An actual Middle 8 isn’t just an instrumental section over a Verse, it’s a new, separate section with different chords and arrangement, and can be either sung or instrumental. Often there’s a modulation, perhaps to the sub-dominant, plus other changes which I’ll be looking at elsewhere on these pages … eventually. But today, I just want to talk about names and nomenclature.

Before launching into this, we should acknowledge that there is of course a slight misnomer here, as a) the Middle 8 doesn’t quite come in the middle, it generally comes a little later and b) it’s not necessarily 8 bars long. But calling it the two-thirds 12 was never going to catch on!

There are plenty of examples of great Middle 8’s: Otis Redding, Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay: “… Looks like, nothing’s gonna change …”. Beach Boys, Good Vibrations: “… Gotta keep those love good, vibrations …”  Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run: “ …. Beyond the palace, hemi-powered drones …”.

These and others are covered here as well as other places around the net, most notably this one, which has a great introduction summing up the confusion around Middle 8’s:

Putting aside discussion as to what a Middle 8 is, we’d probably all agree on what it sounds like as it’s something we’ve grown up with as musicians and listeners. But I have a real problem with calling this section a Bridge. Not only is it confusing, it’s unhelpful to us as musicians.

In the non-musical world, a bridge is what we use to get over a river, or a road, or even in the case of those multi-way flyovers, another bridge. It can be high or low, long or short, built-up or suspended down etc. We all know what a bridge is. It gets us from A to B, usually when there’s some kind of obstacle stopping us from doing so.

And this is my issue with using “Bridge” for the Middle 8. The Middle 8 invariably comes between two Choruses, so it doesn’t get us from A to B at all. It gets us from A back to A again. It’s the link between two identical sections, not between two different sections. (note here that these letters could be anything you choose. If you think of your Choruses as the B section, then a Middle 8 goes from B back to B.)

Starting from one point, going somewhere for a short while, then returning to the point of origin is NOT what a bridge does.

And that’s my problem with the nomenclature. The Middle 8 does not function like a (real) bridge as it’s not a transition, it’s an interlude, a “hang on a minute” moment. Why use the word “bridge” when the section we’re referring to is not functioning as a bridge?

This is not just nit-picking. If we agreed on the terminology, I wouldn’t have wasted an hour trying to make corrections to a Bridge when I needed to be looking elsewhere. But more importantly, it’s important that when we’re working on a song, whether it’s as composers, arrangers, musicians, or even as engineers, we have a sense of what each part of the song is doing and what role it plays. If you think of a Middle 8 as a kind of “going nowhere” section, you’re not going to be using guitar lines that drive the song forward, as that’s not what we need the Middle 8 to do. Same with the other elements. A Middle 8 is perfect for a moment of reflection or digression in the lyrics, and it’s the place in the song where the arrangement can be more atmospheric or textural. A Bridge does pretty much the opposite: it’s the moment to be looking for ideas that will move us forward. A to B as opposed to A to A.

Not all songs have or need an actual sung Middle 8, though historically they generally include a lead vocal. These days, it’s common to find a Middle 8 as a contrasting, mainly instrumental section, often a kind of breakdown, perhaps with some vocals thrown in. This might be a slower or more open section, or it might recycle earlier material in a more stripped-down or even “spaced-out” variation: big reverbs and delays to the rescue!

A good example of this kind of approach is Korn’s “Never Never”. Their (mainly) instrumental Middle 8 starts at 2:11 with a short interlude, then hits the Middle section proper at 2:22. It’s actually 13 bars long in total, which might seem a bit odd, but it’s because it’s a very logical and readable, 4 + 12 bars, and they then throw in a 1 bar suspension before hitting the last Chorus – a not uncommon device in a Middle 8, and a great trick to build tension and get more impact going into the final Chorus. (see my analysis of Highway to Hell to see how AC/DC use a similar trick.)

While we don’t always use Middle 8’s, many songs use Bridges, sections that function like real-life bridges in getting us from A to B. You most often find Bridges as a transition between the Verse (A) and the Chorus (B). If this is the case, it’s because going straight from a Verse to a Chorus doesn’t work. Usually that’s either because the two sections are too similar, especially harmonically, or because the material in the Verse won’t sustain for the 16+ bars we need between Choruses, so we introduce another section. If you read through my “Definition of a Chorus” entry, you’ll see that generally we’ll need a Bridge when our Verse isn’t “anti-chorus” enough and doesn’t fulfil enough of the difference criteria we need moving into a Chorus. A Bridge can help address a lot of these problems, especially as a Bridge usually shifts the tonal centre, which gives us the contrasting material to make it all work.

An example of great use of a Bridge is Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”, covered elsewhere on this site. Bob doesn’t use a Middle 8, or even a solo. Though heh, with lyrics like his, who needs one! However, he does have a little instrumental passage after each Chorus to help break things up, but apart from that, the song just repeats the same structural sequence throughout.

In reality, about the only place you’ll find a Bridge is between the Verse and the Chorus. Any later and it’s more likely that what you needed was a Middle 8. The only other possible place for a bridge, between a Chorus and a Verse, risks becoming unnecessary padding – you generally need to return to the Verse as directly as possible after a Chorus.

Songs can also contain both Bridges and Middle 8’s. But they’re rare. That’s because by the time you get a Verse plus a Bridge plus a Chorus, adding a Middle 8 starts to make for a lot of different ideas, and the song can collapse under its own weight. Having so many different sections can also get complicated and confusing. One example that does work well is Lenny Kravitz’ “I’ll be Waiting”, where the Middle 8 comes in with the strings on “You are the only one” at 2:52. He needs that fourth section, the Middle 8, because the other elements, are fairly simple, even minimal, which means that there’s not quite enough material to sustain the song with just Verse, Bridge, Chorus. He could have used a solo, but soloing over this kind of backing, at this tempo, isn’t really his bag. Also, as the song is fairly slow, it’s harder to get a contrasting breakdown section to work, as to some extent we’re already there: the whole song is open and textural, and you can’t really pull back from what’s already pulled back.

So, to conclude: The Middle 8 is the bit in the middle of the song, after the second Chorus in verse-chorus form. It’s not a bridge, and doesn’t work like a bridge, it’s a kind of interlude, often with a key change. On the other hand, a Bridge is the bit in the song that works like a real-life bridge, “bridging” between different sections and moving the song forwards. It usually comes between the Verse and Chorus.

Try thinking about these sections like that, and see what happens to your writing and arrangements. It all helps.

And, just a small postlude if you want to explore this further: The Middle 8 in Verse/Chorus form functions almost identically to the B section of AABA form, which is sometimes even referred to as the Middle 8 in those songs. So if you’re looking for some more on the what/why/how of Middle 8’s, check out my AABA entry.

© Peter Crosbie 2016. All rights reserved.