Form in Rock and Popular Music

One way to look at a song more closely is to notice its shape through time. This is like noticing the composition of a painting: the arrangement and placement of various figures or shapes on the canvas. It is also like the form of a film: counting the number of scenes, noting their length in time, noticing how the various techniques of film making go into creating the structure around which the plot and story occur.

In music, you are probably already familiar with some terms that talk about form: verse, chorus, intro. These are terms that describe sections of a song. You already have a set of expectations about how a song might go before ever hearing it, because of your experience of listening to many songs over your lifetime. Songwriters know this, so they have built up a set of song shapes they can either use, bend, break, or discard to create different feelings and reactions to their songs.

Taking a close look at a song’s form can teach you about how the song was made, how well the song fits into the norms and practices of the songwriting community, as well as you give you further insight into the content or meaning of the song you might not notice otherwise.

We will talk about three basic song shapes that have endless possibilities and have been used throughout the history of rock and popular music. We won’t go into lots of specifics, but hopefully after reading this article, some activities in class, and continued attempts to listen to songs specifically to hear their form, you will be able to keep track of where you are in a song and to be able to describe its basic shape.

This post is heavily in debt to the work of Jason Summach, whose dissertation Form in Top-20 Rock Music, 1955-1989 is the first major attempt to describe how chart-topping songs of the 20th century playout in time. His purpose was to find musical conventions and general ways they were modified to create songs. Summach’s choice of time period focuses heavily on the period of the beginnings of rock and roll to before the rise of hip-hop and electronic dance music on the pop charts. Although he specifices “rock music,” his study includes, pop, funk, doo wop, soul, disco, and more. The popularity of EDM and hip-hop starting in the 90s has some different norms, which is one reason he cut off his study in the 80s. So, keep these time period and genre expectations in mind, if you decide to try to analyze the form of, say, Wu-Tang Clan with this framework.

Strophic Form (AAA)

The simplest song type is the strophic song. Here a way to construct one:

  1. You write a verse with specific music and lyrics. For form purposes, we can label this A1.
  2. Then you add another verse with the same music but different lyrics. This one is A2.
  3. And you continue to add verses, until you have finished your story. The third verse would be A3and so on.
  4. You can also bring back previous verses (A1 after A3), have an instrumental verse (Ai), extend or shorten a verse, and so on.

Actual strophic songs are more complex than this description, but this is the basic layout.

Summach uses the term strophe instead of verse to describe each section, in order to differentiate this basic shape from the verse we will talk about with verse-chorus form.

Smaller Shapes Inside Strophes

It is possible to label smaller shapes inside a strophe. I won’t focus on this here, but these shapes will take lower-case letters (a, b, etc.).

But a more important aspect of lyrics in songs is whether or not each strophe has text that happens each time. We will call this invariant text a refrain. (Some of you may be used to using the words refrain and chorus interchangeably, but for our purposes they are different, related things.)

It is common to have a tail refrain occur at the end of the strophe, while the less common head refrain occurs at the beginning of the strophe.

A good example of a strophic song is Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” This song includes a tail refrain and has six strophes (including an instrumental solo). Click on the timings below to start a youtube video at the beginning of each section.

A1 A2 A3 A4 Ai A2
0:00 0:20 0:40 1:00 1:21 1:42
“Since my baby left me” “Although its always crowded” “Now the bellhops tears keep flowing” “Well if your baby leaves you” Instrumental: guitar then piano solo “Although its always crowded”

In the history of music and song forms, strophic form is very common in earlier music, but becomes less common in rock and popular music as we get closer to the present.

32-Bar Song Form (AABA)

Another song type that was very common in the early 20th century but has become less common is the AABA song. One name for it is 32-bar song form, because of the number of measures (bars) used in Tin Pan Alley songs that were common throughout early 20th century music, theater, and films. Be aware that the shape of the song (AABA etc.) is more important than the number of measures in a given song.

Here is one way to describe this form.

  1. Start the same way you began a strophic song: a verse with specific music and lyrics. A1
  2. Continue with another verse with the same music but different lyrics. A2
  3. Now here is where things change. Write a contrasting section with different music and different lyrics that will clearly aim toward returning to the previous music. We will label this bridge asB.
  4. Return to A with either old or new lyrics. A1 or A3
  5. It is possible to end the song now, but many songwriters continue the song by repeating one or more parts of the song after the third A. For instance, AABA BA.
  6. All the modifications mentioned in the section on the strophic song apply here as well.
  7. It is also possible to have multiple bridges that have different music (B1 and B2, notice the non-subscript numbers here).

Refrains are also common in the strophes in an AABA song. A good example of this song type is “We Can Work It Out” by the Beatles. It includes a tail refrain in the strophes and a return of the bridge, a final strophe, and an outro (explained below).

A1 A2 B A3 B A3 OA
0:00 0:19 0:37 1:04 1:22 1:48 2:06
“Try to see it my way” “Think of what you’re saying” “Life is very short” “Try to see it my way” “Life is very short” “Try to see it my way” Extra ending music based on A.

Verse-Chorus Form (VC)

By far the most common song type of the three discussed here is the verse-chorus song. Although this song type will have some similarities with the previous two types, it is different in one important way. In both AAA and AABA songs, the main element are strophes that vary in lyrical content and tell the main story of the song. All other parts, especially the bridge, are ways of getting to and from or achieving contrast with these strophes. In VC songs however, the chorus with consistent lyric content is the goal, the place we want to get back to. This is why Summach chooses to call the section that varies here the verse while in previous sections we have talked about the strophe.

Here’s a good way to describe this song type.

  1. Write a verse telling a story, but this time avoid using a refrain. This is V1.
  2. Balanced this verse with a specific new section that has a clear lyrical/musical phrase that will stick in the listeners ear. This is the chorus that you will repeat multiple times this same way. C
  3. Now add a new verse with different text but using the same music from the first one. V2
  4. Do the chorus again. C
  5. Add verses followed by choruses to your heart’s content.
  6. It is also possible to add specific other sections. You extend your song by including a bridge just like the 32-bar song (B). There is another common section called a prechorus that I will explain later (P).
  7. You can also take your longer cycle of sections (VCB) and slowly remove sections to get to repeat the chorus ad infinitem (VCB VCB CB CB C C C C etc.)
  8. Sometimes the chorus is withheld letting two verses go by first (VVC).

This song form has lots of variations and possibilities, so look out for unexpected twists and turns. An example of a verse-chorus song is “What’s Love Got to Do with It” by Tina Turner. It includes a bridge, an instrumental chorus, an intro (explained below), and repeats the chorus four times and the end.

IV V1 C V2 C Ci B C C C C
0:00 0:20 0:52 1:12 1:44 2:03 2:22 2:42 3:00 3:18 3:37
Opening music based on V. “You must under-
stand”
“What’s love got to do with it” “It may seem to you” Instru-mental
solo on
chorus
“I’ve been taking on a new direction” Diff-erent
second line
Fade out begins

Other Song Sections (I, J, O, X, P, Z)

Some of the these other song sections are common and in regular lingo (intro, outro, prechorus). Others are specific to Summach’s study and label irregular, but interesting possibilities.

Introduction (I)

An introduction is music that occurs prior to the beginning of the first main section (A or V). Summach also uses this label any similar short section that leads into a return of previous section later in a song. Usually based on material heard in a major section of the song.

Janus (J)

A short section that overlaps two functions. It is both the ending of a major section and a transition passage that leads into the following section. Usually based on other material. Similar to an mid-songI, but elides with previous section.

Outro (O)

An outro is ending music that is separate from the final section but is based on previously heard material.

Coda (X)

A coda is similar to an outro, but is completely new material.

Prechorus (P)

A prechorus is a major section in a VC song that leads into and generates energy for the following chorus. Similar to a bridge and sometimes hard to distinguish from. Bridges are generally specific used for contrast.

Postchorus (X)

A possible but uncommon section that follows a chorus, but does not create expectation for the return of a previous section. Look to the Jackson 5’s “ABC.”

A VC Song with Prechorus

Bee Gees, “Tragedy”

This dark, yet danceable hit song contains a two-part introduction, a clear prechorus that gains energy to the chorus, and  a two part chorus that occurs with both parts every time (except during the fadeout). I have labeled both parts of each chorus.

I1C I2V V1 P1 C1 C2
0:00 0:20 0:28 0:44 1:04 1:20
A 2nd section of intro based on V. “Here I lie” “Going home” “Tragedy” some different words
I1C I2V V2 P2 C1 C2
1:36 1:56 2:04 2:21 2:40 2:56
“Night and day” “Down I go”
B C1 C2 C1 C2 C1
3:12 3:35 3:51 4:09 4:25 4:43
Starts like I, extension to lead back to C Extension to continue w/C Fadeout