Song forms are generally made up of a number of sections that may or may not be repeated within the same song. Popular music is generally based on the use of traditional sectional song forms, or song structures that are derived from those traditional song forms. Derived song forms are often based upon strophic form (AAA song form), 32-bar form (AABA song form), verse-chorus form (AB song form) and 12-bar blues form (AAB song form). Songs with a different melody and chord progression for each stanza, in other words there are no repeated sections (called ‘through composed form’), are far less common in western popular music.
This article gives an overview of the different fundamental song forms, and where those song forms are currently being used in popular songs. It provides a basic understanding of common modern song forms, although, for simplicity, some of the root musical forms or classifications of musical forms have only been referenced rather than explored completely.
Song Form describes the structure of songs in an easy to understand framework. When using song form letters are assigned to the different sections of a song, where repeated sections are assigned the same letter as was assigned on the first occurrence of that section. The letters then create a map of the overall song, or the song architecture of the key feature of that type of song. Thinking of song form helps song writers retain an overview of songs and how the sections of music that make up the song are organized.
It should be noted that the meaning of some terms such as "verse" and "chorus" has changed over the years.
Some confusion exists, partly due to changes in terminology over the years, and partly due to one word meaning different things in different contexts, such as what the word means in the context of genre, location and what that word means to different groups of people.
"Chorus" originally derives from the notion of "multiple-voices" singing a particular section of the song, while the name "chorus" is used for music sections where multiple voices sang together. In classical music the massed voices in opera, or massed voices accompanying an orchestra in any setting, is still termed "the chorus". The second main use of the name "chorus" is the modern understanding of the section of a song called "a chorus", which may or may not be sung by multiple voices.
Refrain lines can be sung by multiple voices, and using older terminology it is a chorus, in the sense that it can be performed by multiple voices, but can also be sung by a solo voice. However, a refrain is not the chorus section from the verse-chorus song form that we all know and love.
A refrain is part of a verse that is repeated from verse to verse. Commonly the refrain is in the last line of the verse, but it doesn't need to be. It could just as easily be the first line of the verse or, far less commonly, any other line.
To make it even more confusing, "the verse" hasn't always meant what we now understand it to mean. "Verse" used to be the name for a 32 bar introduction, before getting to the main piece of music, which was typically AABA in structure (ie a second 32 bar section).
Conflicts in terminology come from a variety of reasons. For example, classical musicians interpreting a term in one way and popular musicians using the term for something different. Or, simply musicians in one area calling a section of music with a name that was already used for another section of music elsewhere. Time passing also brings about change in the meaning of a term as new generations apply the term to something new, or use it in a new, derived way.
Root Musical Forms
There are many other terms used for musical forms and classifications of musical forms that are not a song form, or that are musical predecessors to modern song forms, or are classifications of song forms rather than an individual song form. As this article is focused on song forms this is not the place to explore these musical forms in any detail, however for completeness it is worth at least making you aware that musical forms exist outside of song forms. These include:
- Single Forms
- Sectional Forms
- Binary Form, Two Part form, AB, AABB etc.
- Ternary Form, Three Part form, ABA, or Ternary Form is original the root of the AABA 32-bar Song Form.
- Rondo Form. This form is based on a recurring theme alternating with other contrasting themes such as ABACABA
- Medley or Chain Form
- Variational Form
- Developmental Form
- Sonata Form
- Sectional Forms
- Cyclic Forms
- Song Cycle - A set or group of songs intended to be played in a set sequence. A 1970's concept album would be a good example of this in contemporary music.
The Common Song Forms And Their Uses
Single Form and Sectional Form
Most modern Western popular music is a type of Single Form, known collectively as Sectional Forms, in that Sectional Forms are built upon a sequence of distinct sections that can be referred to by letter labels. These sections often have a more specific name. You will probably be familiar with most of them, for example:
- Introduction (Intro)
- Coda (Outro)
Sectional forms include:
- Strophic or AAA Song Form
- AABA Song Form
- AB or Verse/Chorus Song Form
- Verse/Chorus/Bridge Song Form
- ABAB Song Form
- ABAC Song Form
- ABCD Song Form
- 12-Bar Song Form
- 8-Bar Song Form
- 16-Bar Song Form
- Hybrid / Compound Song Forms
Strophic / AAA / One-Part Song Form
Strophic Song Form is also called AAA Form or One-Part Song Form. AAA song form is one of the oldest sectional song forms. It originates in the adaption of poems, with composers setting the poems to music to perform them for the entertainment of the royal courts of Europe.
The melody is repeated, in Strophic Song Form, and each time the melody repeats different words are sung to the melody. This makes it an ideal song form for story telling.
AAA songs are comprised of several verses. Sometimes a refrain is included at the end of each verse. The refrain is a line (often the line is also the title of the song) that is repeated in the same place in every repetition of the verse section melody.
To find out the details on AAA Song Form please read our article A Guide To Song Forms - AAA Song Form.
AAB Form - 12 Bar Blues
The 12-bar form used in the AAB song form is strongly associated with the blues. Many Blues songs are in the AAB format. 12-bar" relates to the number of bars of music, or measures, making up the theme of typical Blues songs. Almost all Blues music is written in a 4/4 time signature, i.e. there are four beats in every measure or bar with each quarter note (crotchet) being equal to one beat.
The fundamental structure of 12 Bar Blues is three four-bar lines or sub-sections. Often the first two and a half bars of each 4 bar section are vocal melody, while the last one and a half bars contains an instrumental melodic hook that gives a sense of completion for the line.
The common variants for 12-Bar blues are 8-Bar form and 16-Bar form.
To find out the details on AAB Song Form please read our article A Guide To Song Forms - AAB Song Form
AABA Song Form / American Popular Song Form
This is one of the most commonly used forms in both jazz and early to mid-twentieth century popular music. The AABA format was the song form of choice for Tin Pan Alley songwriters of American popular music, an East Coast USA songwriter scene based in New York City, in the first half of the 20th century. Tin Pan Alley song writers included song writing greats like Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Sammy Cahn, Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, Johnny Mercer, George and Ira Gershwin.
The dominance of the AABA song form faded during the 1960s. The rise in popularity of rock 'n' roll and the rise of groups like The Beatles changed the popular music landscape. Before The Beatles broke off into other song writing formats, they heavily used AABA song form in many songs.
This song form is used in several music genres including pop, jazz and gospel.
To find out the details on AABA Song Form read our article A Guide To Song Forms - AABA Song Form
AB or Verse/Chorus Song Form and ABC Song Form or Verse/Chorus/Bridge Song Form
AB format has been the song writing format of choice for modern popular music since the 1960s. It is often used in love songs, pop, country, rap and rock music. Unlike the AABA form or AAA, which both highlight the verse, AB format puts emphasis entirely on the chorus. Although the AB Song Form has been around since the mid-nineteenth century, most popular songs from the classic rock period forward are written in the AB Song Form.
Most popular songs from the classic rock period forward are written in the AB Song Form that has been around since the mid-nineteenth century. The AB Song Form consists of two or three verses that alternate with a second musical section referred to as the chorus. The chorus usually contains the song’s main message and title. It is differentiated from a bridge in that it sounds complete on a stand-alone basis. As with blues progressions, not all AB Song Form songs are found in the typical 32-bar length. Verses and choruses can be any length, however, most are four, eight, twelve, sixteen, or twenty-four bars long.
The first and most obvious form derived from AB is that of ABC Song Form, also called VERSE/CHORUS/BRIDGE Song Form. This is essentially AB song form with the addition of another third section, a bridge.
To find out the details on AB Song Form, ABC Song Form and other AB derived song forms, please read our article A Guide To Song Forms - AB Song Form and ABC Song Form.
Extended Song Forms And More
Extended song forms build upon one of the root "whole song" song forms. For example AABA song form is often extended to an AABABA song structure.
There are also less commonly used song structures, such as ABAB and ABAC.
Mainly used in art-song tradition songs in classical music, when a song is "through-composed" it means that no musical ideas are repeated without variation. Also called ABCD, this form is highly uncommon in popular music.
To find out the details on extended song forms and other song forms, including ABCD song form (through composed) read our article A Guide To Song Forms - Extended Common Song Forms And More.
Compound Song Forms.
Compound song forms are also sometimes called hybrid song forms. They use a blend of two or more song forms together within one song. This is a combination of two or more song form structural concepts where a base song form is used to describe the overall song architecture, and the structural concept of other song forms are is inserted into the base song form, replacing one of the existing named sections.
To find out the details about compound song forms please read our article A Guide To Song Forms - Compound Song Forms.
Song Building Blocks
A number of common structural elements of a song have been mentioned during this article.
The most common building blocks are:
- PRE-CHORUS / RISE / CLIMB
- MIDDLE EIGHT
- SOLO / INSTRUMENTAL BREAK
- CODA / OUTRO
- AD LIB (OFTEN IN CODA / OUTRO)
For details about these common song building blocks, how and why they are used, please read our article, "Song Building Blocks".
Song Form Tips For Songwriters
It is usually a good idea to consider the genre you are writing for and choose a song form that best suits the genre.
- Develop Your Awareness Of Current Song Writing Trends - Listen to songs currently on top of the Billboard charts and work out the structure that each song follows.
- Experiment With Song Form - Try out different song forms, learning how they work, and how they work together. This is a worthwhile learning exercise, even if you don't plan on doing anything with the specific song.
- Variation - It pays to vary the song forms you use, and it can also help you break out of a song writing rut, where the songs you create are feeling too similar, too predictable.
- Genre - Some song forms are used heavily for specific genres of music. Some are obvious, such as AAB being used in blues, but the dominance of specific song forms within a genre is not always so easy to spot. Developing your awareness of both historical use, and current usage trends will help you to select the most appropriate song forms when you are writing with a target genre in mind.
Working Out What Song Form Has Been Used
Some song forms are very distinctive, such as AAB, because of the musical scales used in the melody is a blues scale. They are very easy to spot. Others are far less obvious.
How do you know which song form is being used?
When you listen to a song, break it down into sections. There are a number of ways you can work out the structure of a song:
- Lyrics are a good guide to the overall structure of a song. Look for:
- The placement of repeated phrases
- Changes in meter
- Changes in the rhyme scheme
- How the title is used and where the song title is used
- Listen for:
- 4-bar phrases, 8-bar phrases, 16-bar phrases
- The feeling of closure or resolution(Cadence)
- Melodic repeats
Once you have worked out what sections the song uses, you can assign the individual sections letters, with strongly similar sections being assigned the same letter. The map of the song si then outlined using these letters as section names.
Song forms are an important aspect of song writing. They are not a solution to all song writing problems, but they are a very useful tool for songwriters to use.
There is no value in re-inventing the wheel. What you can do, however, is learn from generations of songwriters, and then use what you have learned in your own creative process. Song forms give you an ideal way to do just that.
By learning about common song forms you also learn a way to quickly and effectively discuss songs with other song writers, you gain a greater understanding of songs that have gone before, and gain an insight into the thoughts and considerations of the songwriters who penned classic and current hits. You also gain an understanding of just how you can easily vary the structure of your own songs, and how you can improve the songs you still have to write.
Not a bad pay off for learning a couple of basic concepts and a few common ways those concepts are applied.
Like most learning, starting tomorrow is good, but starting today is even better.
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