MUS202 music appreciation

Song forms


Strophic – A melody is repeated, each time with different words.  Sheila Davis calls this “AAA” form, since we often get just 3 repetitions in popular music, although in traditional music, many repetitions may be used.


Verse-Chorus or Verse-Refrain – a series of verses (changing lyrics) alternates with an unchanging refrain.  The refrain is often called the “chorus,” because it is common for verses to be sung by a soloist and the soloist to be joined by multiple voices (the “chorus”) singing in the refrain.   Either term is acceptable.  Davis prefers the term “refrain” to refer to the ending phrase of the chorus.   Sometimes there is an intervening section after the verse but before what is clearly, in musical and lyrical terms, the chorus.  This type of section is called the pre-chorus, the climb, or the rise.


Verse1-refrain- verse2-refrain-[instrumental verse-refrain]-verse3-refrain

(the “instrumental verse-refrain” is shown in brackets since it is an option that is not always taken.)


Blues – 12-bar most common; AAB pattern in lyrics and melody (often a “question-question-answer” pattern).  Three 4-bar phrases.  Blues variants – 8-bar, 16-bar; balanced phrases (music and lyrics).


32-bar AABA form.   In songs from the 20s, 30s & 40s, many songs have rambling introductions which lead to 32-bar AABA structures.  The introductions can be quite involved.  Confusingly, these long introductions are called “the verse,” a term that has a different meaning in later decades.  “Introductory verse” would be a better term, but, hey, I’m not in charge of these things.  The A phrases often come to harmonic closure; the B or bridge phrase often provides harmonic, rhythmic, melodic or textural contrast.  Often extended or expanded (for example, AABAA or AABABA) or with a coda (or “outro”).  Allen Forte’s Listening to Classic American Popular Songs explores this form in detail.


Hybrid or compound forms.  The AABA formula is often combined with the verse-refrain idea:


Verse1-refrain- verse2-refrain-BRIDGE-verse3-refrain


The third verse is often omitted:


Verse1-refrain- verse2-refrain-BRIDGE-refrain


Either of these versions is sometimes called “AABA form,” rather than “hybrid-AABA form.”  John Covach makes the distinction in his article “Form in Rock Music: A Primer,” in Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis.


Some songs, particularly in the art-song tradition (epitomized by Schubert), are “through-composed,” meaning that there are no unvaried repeats of musical ideas.  This is very rare in popular music, but would be quite interesting if you find an example.

Listening for Form

How to figure out what form you are dealing with? 

1. the lyrics are the most obvious guide. 

2.  Listen for 4-bar phrases, and listen for closure (cadences) 

3.  Listen for melodic recurrence.

Interpreting Form

You’ve identified some sort of form.  So what?  If your song follows all the rules of a particular form but its lyrics are about “breakin’ all the rules,” well, that is a disappointment.  But if the lyrics are about simplicity and “bein’ true,” well, maybe this is a good point to make.  The artist is reinforcing the message with the form.  Unusual things (such as unusual phrase lengths such as 6 bars or 4 ½ bars) often are not obvious but they can be what keep us coming back to our favorites. 


A suggestion for an analysis project:  find a song recorded by an artist or a group in studio and live versions that differ.  Compare differences in form.  Does the live version extend particular sections or add sections?


References:  John Covach, “Form in Rock Music: A Primer,” in Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, Deborah Stein, ed., Oxford University Press, 2005.

Sheila Davis, The Craft of Lyric Writing. 


1 Oct 2006

DC Meckler