200 Years of Songwriting Terminology

200 Years of Songwriting Terminology

A Rough Guide To The History Of Songwriting Language

There is ambiguity and confusion around a lot of songwriting terminology. Many of the common songwriting terms have more than one meaning. Some say the differences is between musician on one hand and lyricist on the other but, whatever shade of truth might lie behind such an assertion, I think more practical and helpful illumination can be shed from taking a historical perspective.

Songwriting terminology

Table of Contents

And so, with absolutely no regard at all for any of the european art-song tradition, the following is a brutally abridged broad-brush history of popular song over the last couple of hundred years.

19TH Century Strophic Forms

In terms of song-form, the most commonly used C19th structure is one known as strophic.

This is a term with deep roots way back in the performing arts traditions of ancient Greece, where a strophe was the particular section of an ode which the chorus chanted in unison. Much later, through more modern times and useage, the word developed increasingly broader and looser application until becoming most commonly associated with the notion of the poetic stanza. And nowadays, strophe is consequently just an important-sounding name for “an identifiable section” or “a recognizably distinct chunk”.

And so, transferred into the context of song, “strophic form” means that it is built out of sections.

1. Simple Verse Form

The simplest strophic form has just one musical section. Words may vary and develop, but that one single basic musical unit, or strophe – usually of eight or sixteen measures – gets repeated. And repeated. And repeated. As in, for example, the traditional story-telling narrative ballad Barbara Allen.

The term verse (from the old vers of Occitanian troubadours) had also come to be commonly associated with the notion of the poetic stanza – just like the word strophe – and so this Barbara Allen style of strophic form is often referred to as the “simple verse form”.

2. Simple Verse-Chorus Form

Another style of strophic form is one which alternates two different lyrical sections – there are first the sequence of those stanzas (as in Barbara Allen) which continue and develop the story-telling narrative and then, in between these, another strophic section which uses the same repeated lyric each time it occurs.

The illustrative example chosen by Philip Furia (in the American Song Lyricists section of the “Dictionary of Literary Biography”) is “My Darling Clementine”. We’ll use the same one:


In a cavern in a canyon

Excavating for a mine

Lived a miner, forty-niner

And his darling Clementine


Oh my darling, oh my darling

Oh my darling Clementine

You are lost and gone forever

Oh my darling Clementine


Light she was and like a fairy

And her shoes were number nine

Herring boxes without topses

Sandals were for Clementine


Oh my darling, oh my darling

Oh my darling Clementine

You are lost and gone forever

Oh my darling Clementine



In that same ancient tradition which gave us the term strophe, the “greek chorus” was a group of actors who would punctuate the main performance with commentary which they sang or chanted in unison. It makes sense then, that these regular repeated sections like “Oh my darling, oh my darling”. etc.. , easy for the audience to learn and join in, should also come to be known as “the chorus”.

But from the language of France, where there is an extensive and profound troubadour tradition, and in which the verb refraindre means “to repeat”, “the chorus” came also to be known widely as “the refrain”,

And there was yet another practice of referring to this same chorus/refrain section as the burthern – this time from an old Saxon word meaning “burden”, used by mariners as a measure of merchandise a ship could carry. The burthen was considered to be the “weight” of the song.

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Still, whether the chorus is labelled burthern or refrain, this alternating style of strophic form is regularly known as a “simple verse-chorus form” – with the “simple” being there to remind us that, while the alternating verse and chorus sections of “My Darling Clementine” are identifiably different in terms of their lyrics, each section is musically exactly the same as the next (just like Barbara Allen).

3. Contrasting Verse-Chorus Form

Where verse and chorus are musically different and contrasting, that structure then gets to be described as a “contrasting verse-chorus form”. Which makes a good deal of immediate sense. But whatever we call it, I seem to be short on actual 19th Century examples. There may well be some others around somewhere, but I have found no significantly contrasting verse-chorus forms happening until the great Stephen Foster begins weaving an authentically American fabric from the old folk cloth in the late 1800s. It is more common in contemporary pop, of course.

First Half Of The C20TH

By the dawn of the new century, songwriters and publishers in New York had clustered in offices on the few blocks of West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues which came to be known as Tin Pan Alley. They supplied repertoire to travelling vaudeville entertainers whose performances would popularise songs and stimulate sales of the sheet music to ordinary folk with pianos at home and to amateur bands in local communities. Musical entertainment was the major social diversion of the era – with popular song and dance theatre “review” shows in the big cities, a professional touring circuit for vaudevillians, numerous local musicians and bands scattered across the entire country, and an awful lot of pianos at home.

The big money was in sheet music sales – “the song”.

Then, in the ’20s, came the age of electricity: radio moved into homes alongside the piano; music could be effectively recorded and reproduced; and sound added a powerful new dimension to cinema. These were suddenly the “new media” of the day – radio, film, and record sales – a confluence establishing the foundations of a show-biz star-making machinery which sells “the singer” as opposed to “the song”.

Tin Pan Alley and Broadway still had “the song”.

And the new media wanted more of them. Whenever a live entertainment stage show became popular, movie studios would want to to produce a lavish film version for the screen. The market for musicals, revues, and operettas, big and growing bigger. And the demand was happily met by a bunch of very nifty and talented musos & writers from the crucible of Broadway musical theatre – people like George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Vincent Youmans, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter.

From the mid ’20s and on into the ’50s, these were the type of guys who forged that special stylistic marriage of musical and lyrical sophistication which produced the catalogue known in song-writing circles as “The Great American Songbook” – full of smart, witty, insouciantly urbane lyrics, memorable melodies, and great harmonic subtlety – all factors which account for their songs’ enduring popularity.

The structures were a little more extensively intricate, too.

The Modern Structure

Most of the songs in the Great American Songbook are still written in “verse-chorus form”, but with a significant shift in the way the two segments are treated: It is now the chorus which becomes the central focus, while the verse not only becomes secondary but fades away in importance often as far as non-existence.

1. The Verse

In the dramatic context of musical theatre, where most of the Great American Songbook originated, the verse became a transitional section leading us from dialogue and action into the more artificial world of song and dance. It works like an intro or set-up for the song proper, and typically has a free musical structure, speech-like rhythms and rubato delivery.

For an illustration, take a listen to the verse at the beginning of our Coleman-Lazzerini song Totally”.

Where it exists, the verse of the Modern Structure is singular and secondary. Singular because it only happens once at the very beginning of the song. And extremely secondary because, when performed as a song in its own right, outside of any originating stage-show context, it is overlooked and omitted so often as to be almost completely forgotten.

Take the following, for example:

Behold the way our fine feathered-friend

His virtue doth parade.

Thou knowest not, my dim witted friend,

The picture thou hast made.

Thy vacant brow and thy tousled hair

Conceal thy good intent.

Thou, noble upright, truthful, sincere

And slightly dopey gent,- you are…

If we were to hear those words being sung, hardly anyone would recognise them as the introductory verse of “My Funny Valentine” ( by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart) – but everyone would know the song once the chorus started.

Of course, there are always exceptions (it is impossible to imagine Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” ever being performed without its verse, for example, and our own little intro for “Totally” is intended to be similarly integral) but hardly anyone sings the introductory sections for any of those other great old standards any more. With so many cutting out the starter and heading directly for the main course, they largely fade away.

2. The Chorus

In the modern formula, the chorus becomes the main course, the central core of the song, and the primary focus of the composer’s creativity and inventiveness.

The structure of the modern chorus might sometimes be out of the ordinary. “Totally”, for instance, follows its 12 bars of rubato verse with a 44-bar AABA chorus structure and a 6 bar coda. And Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust”, to pick another example, has its own uniquely loose and complex pattern which, in the words of Oscar Hammerstein II, “rambles and roams like a truant schoolboy in a meadow”. But then Oscar also describes songs like these, which ignore the basic principles, as “freaks and anomalies” and warns that one “doesn’t learn much” from them.

Better to consider the common standard chorus of 32 bars.

3. The Standard 32-Bar Chorus

The modern chorus can be as complicated as the composer wishes but, while other patterns may be adopted from time to time, it is almost always 32 measures divided into four 8-bar sections – AABA.

The first eight bars (A) is a statement of melodic theme so catchy, so cool and lovely, that we want to hear it again. And so the second eight bars (A) repeats it. Then, before such repetition has a chance to become cloying or boring, the third eight bars introduces harmonic variation and another melody (B), which leads right back to a welcome return of the original melodic phrase (A) as the final eight bars of the chorus.

A 8 bars

A 8 bars

B 8 bars

A 8 bars

This pattern is so pleasing and effective that it became a standard model favoured not only by those great old dead guys like the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, et al, but also by Lennon and McCartney (heck – I have even found one commentator on the web who refers to this form as “Beatles-style”) as well as seminal rock ‘n’ roll songsmiths from the Brill Building through Motown and on to Steely Dan.

4. Other Terms for “Chorus”

Manuscripts from the Gershwins, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, etcetera, show us that this chorus section was also still regularly labelled “the refrain”, while Jerome Kern – who had spent time in the UK working on English operettas – persisted in the archaic practice of calling it “the burthen” – which Ira Gershwin, especially, regarded as very twee and pretentious.

The chorus – just as in the earlier folk forms – is still conventionally the section which gets repeated.

Especially in jazz performance – where the standard repertoire continues to thrive.

5. Other Terms for the “B Section”

The modern chorus form also gives us the bridge, or the release, or the middle eight

The eight bars of (B) is known as “the bridge” because of the way it joins one (A) to another

It is also known as “the middle eight” because it fits in between one (A) and another

And known as “the release” for the way it so often offers welcome contrast to (A)

A is just called A.

Second Half Of The C20TH

By the second half of the C20th – things were set to change again.

And here’s what had happened to make that possible:

For all that Stephen Foster may be regarded as the “father of American music”, at the time of his death he had just 37 years under his belt and only 37 cents in his pocket. He had seen little personal profit from his songs because of the infancy of copyright protection. Forewarned, the writers and publishers of New York’s Tin Pan Alley established the “American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers” (ASCAP) in 1914 to protect the compositions of a membership made up of the era’s prominent songwriters.

Tin Pan Alley had at first been quick to embrace radio as a convenient promotional device for driving sheet-music sales, but ASCAP soon expected a license fee for broadcasts of their members’ songs. Between 1931 and 1939 this fee increased over 400%. When in 1940 ASCAP sought renewals at double again, the radio networks took exception and began to square-up against them.

The stand-off lasted from January 1 to October 29 1941, during which time not one of the 1.25 million songs licensed with ASCAP was broadcast by any NBC or CBS network station. The rebellious radio stations – who all still depended on music, of course – instead formed as a rival licensing organisation called Broadcast Music International (BMI) for an alternative roster of songwriters they had sought out – writers and performers who came primarily from the midwest and the south and played more regional music styles traditionally overlooked by ASCAP, like country and rhythm ‘n’ blues.

By the ’50s, where country music met the blues, the scene was set for the rise of rock ‘n’ roll.

The onset of rock ‘n’ roll is sometimes regarded as a seismic shift in the style of popular music but, at least in the early days, the shape of the business continued the established separation between singer and song. There were exceptions to this general rule – Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly were writing their own material, for example – but while the star-building industries continued to make and market performers, it was still pretty largely Tin Pan Alley writers and publishers who delivered the tunes.

During the ’60s, however, the growing popularity of young singer-songwriter balladeers began to make the old Tin Pan Alley craftsmen redundant. Superfluous to the times. Increasingly, over subsequent decades, a wide variety of artists and groups began writing and performing their own music. As a result, demand for the professional songwriter faded away.

In terms of form, these circumstances heralded a widespread return to the old simple strophic verse-chorus folk-models of the narrative ballad styles

And introduced a few new tangles to terminology.

1. The Verse

The verse has largely been restored to its C19th strophic folk-form incarnation of stanzas, and generally with the same traditional narrative story-telling function.

2. The Pop-Chorus

Like the Modern Chorus of the previous era, the pop-chorus is the central focus of the song.

Unlike its predecessor, however, it eschews the more complex sophistications of structure in favour of a straight return to the single distinctive repeated and repeatable strophic section of yore, at least eight bars in length, but containing an essential ability to repeat a hook with high frequency inside the standard three or four minutes of a pop-song.

The successful pop-chorus expresses a song’s core identity.

3. The Hook

This is a relatively recent concept.

It is a musical idea used to catch the listener’s ear and hook their attention. As such, we have to admit it’s certainly not a completely new thing. I mean, even old dead classical music guys used phrases and figures intentionally to do the same. And surely the simpler folk-forms worked that way, too. What is relatively recent is that it has been given a special new name and elevated to a major principle in pop.

You have to have a hook.

The hook is “what you’re selling”, an overt recognition of pop’s commercial imperative.

The hook is your tag-line for the song.

It could be a motif like Keith Richards’ dirty guitar riff on “Satisfaction” or the theremin melody which opens the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibration”. It can equally be the title, like the shout-out and join-in “We Are The Champions” from Queen, or some other key lyric Iine or image. As often as not, the hook will be found right there in the pop-chorus. And sometimes the hook is the chorus – as in Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”. It can be any thing in any place and in any fashion you choose – just as long as it happens. And whatever it is, it will happen more than merely once or twice.

4. The Bridge

The term “bridge” in pop useage seems to have been completely severed from its roots in the standard 32-bar AABA chorus and is now applied much more casually to describe pretty much any linking passage at all between one section and another. It’s a looser and less specific use of the term than before, but has the advantage of being readily understood as an identifier for a separate and intervening section of song which is neither “verse” nor “chorus”.

5. The Pre-Chorus

The “pre-chorus” is a particular style of bridge.

Designed with specific intent of lifting the level of intensity up and into the climax of a final triumphant pop-chorus – an emotional effect achieved through the use of musical devices like harmony, tempo, melody, instrumentation, arrangement and production – sometimes something as simple and effective as a change of key.

  1. It’s called a “pre-chorus” because it precedes the chorus.
  2. It’s called a “climb” because it rises towards a higher level of emotion.
  3. It’s called a “build” because it increases the intensity.
  4. It’s called a”rise” or a “lift” for the same reasons.

6. The Refrain

This is a fun one.

During the first half of the twentieth century the refrain was the chorus (see Part 2).

In the arena of contemporary pop, however, the common attempt to translate useage direct from the previous era’s notion of “the chorus” over to the current model of “the pop-chorus” causes problems.

This trouble becomes especially apparent in strophic “simple verse forms” such as that used, for example, by Bob Dylan in “Blowin’ In The Wind”, in which each 16-bar verse contains the same closing 4-bar statement:

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind;

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Many people, given the lay vocabulary of song with which they are likely to be familiar, are keen to label those repeated lines – “the chorus”. It’s the bit that gets repeated. And it’s memorable. So the mistake is readily understandable. Similar argument may even support calling it “the hook” but clearly, given that the song is witten in “simple verse form”, it cannot possibly be “the chorus”.

It is this type of conundrum which leads Sheila Davis in “Successful Lyric Writing” to attempt a distinction that “a refrain musically and lyrically resolves a verse, and therefore ends it, whereas a chorus is a separate and new section of at least eight bars” , while Wikipedia, equally baffled, concludes that “In summary, the refrain belongs to an earlier tradition of song-writing, e.g. the folk-song, sea-shanty or hymn”.

A simple way out of the confusion, for which I claim no originality, is to recognise that these concepts of song elements can be thought of as either structural or functional. The terms “verse”, “chorus”, “bridge”, and “pre-chorus”, define structural elements of strophic pop-song architecture. The “hook” and the “refrain”, on the other hand, are perhaps today most usefully understood as elements we can identify because of their function, because of what they do.

Being on the very cusp of cultural developments as we are here at Songstuff, we are obviously hip to the way more modern philosophising theorists – of the semiological persuasion in particular , naturally French, and grown from the soil of structural-functionalist traditions – have evolved their use of the term “refrain” to identify what I perhaps might best attempt to describe as “the signature melody”. Those continental geezers have been busy applying the concept to artefacts like film and literature as well as advertising and popular entertainment. But they recognise it as borrowed from the world of song where, whatever shape it takes and wherever it may occur within the structure, it is the part which captures and carries the essence – the symbol – the significant sonic image burned onto the retina of musical memory.

So while the “hook” catches our attention, it’s the “refrain” which gives us something to remember.

By this standard, going back to “Satisfaction” again, while Keef’s signature buzz-saw riff is unavoidably “the hook”, it is these core lyric lines which surely perform that refrain function:

I can’t get no satisfaction

I can’t get no girl reaction

‘Tho I try and I try and I try and I try

I can’t get no satisfaction

Significantly enough, this is also the chorus – and perfectly in accordance with our definition, above, being the central focus of the song and a strophic pop-chorus section (of 16-bars at my count) which expresses its core identity. Oh, and please note, at the same time, that it contains handily within it both the song-title and that incessant guitar-riff hook. Quite the full-meal deal, I’d say.

So the refrain can in fact be the chorus, in contradiction of Davis and Wikipedia, and it can equally be a 4-bar phrase which resolves each stanza of a “simple verse form” like “Blowin’ In The Wind”, just as they said it was.

Like “the hook”, it doesn’t matter where it is, or what shape it takes, it’s what it does that’s important.

Concluding Thoughts

The Folk & The Modern

Purely for reasons of practicality, my personal tendency is to split songwriting concepts into two broad language-modes which I call “the folk” and “the modern”. I don’t know anybody else who does this – and you certainly don’t have to – but I think it serves a useful purpose.

It might seem oxymoronic to call something “modern” when it refers to practices rooted in a period identified by song historians as “the golden age” which occurred back before the 1950s, but that was when popular song became clever and complex and sophisticated – so it works ok for me.

Similarly, “folk” may sound an incongruous rubric to use in reference to contemporary pop and rock forms, but I think it should be clear by now that their simpler “strophic” structures have traditional folk roots. So it makes sense without too much trouble. Come to that, though, with the very idea of strophe having origins in ancient Greece, we could also fairly get away with calling it “classic”.

I happen to have chosen “the folk” and “the modern”.

Whatever you choose to call them, both language-modes co-exist in parallel and at the very same time in the songwriter’s lexicon. Think of it like our two dominant theories of light. Physics has two ways of looking at the phenomenon, neither of which can actually explain everything about it. In some cases the “wave” theory works best, and in others the “particle” theory works better. It all comes down to picking the one which is most effective and appropriate for whatever we’re dealing with at the time.

And the same is true for songwriting language.

When you’re working within the idiom of a classic 32-bar AABA structure, for example – like stuff by Cole Porter or the Gershwins, like some Lennon-McCartney songs, like several Donald Fagen pieces – then “the folk” contemporary pop style concepts of verse-bridge-chorus aren’t the most appropriate ones to be using. And they sure won’t help anyone understand what you are talking about.

But when working to the pattern of the hook and the pop-chorus, it is obviously going to be much more sensible to follow the labelling conventions commonly established within that form. Trying to apply the notions of “the modern chorus” to a song by Neil Young or Bob Dylan or R Kelly or All Saints, for example, is going to be a pretty useless endeavour and a complete a waste of time.

When in Rome, as they say, it’s horses for courses.

So to talk about songwriting successfully, we have to be bi-lingual.

Soon, we may need to be tri-lingual. With a mix of different influences from minimalism and serial music, from the cut-up and collage techniques of sonic landscape artists, and from structural stretching and dislocations of rave & dance & urban hip-hop, we now have a new universe of people approaching their use of sound in styles that are outside either of those two song traditions. Instead of verse and chorus, core elements can be “beats” and “breaks”, drum machine settings and samples.

Or perhaps any notion of shared language will ultimately fragment and fade away before the new consumer generations who have their own technology in their own bedrooms, their iPod and their cell-phone, portable individuated networks centred on the personal – all symptoms of the technologically-driven privatisation of culture. And the home-made music which hits it big through Twitter and YouTube and MySpace and spreads like wildfire across the land is now often as not completely dislocated from the traditions of tradesmen-tunesmiths and modern structures like the 32-bar chorus or even blues forms or the other 8-bar or 16-bar folk-models revived by rock ‘n’ roll.

Tin Pan Alley is dead and songwriting history is limited to the most recent chart-hits. Industry succeeds through “branding” and the focus moves from craft to charisma, everyone is an artist and writes their own original material and songs are indelibly linked to a single performer.

These days, the singer IS the song. And so maybe, in the future, the song will be dead too. Certainly the folk roots of many contemporary lyricists seem to keep them blithely unaware of the history of their own craft – which I think that is a great pity and a damn shame – but then, I am just a grouchy old-school songwriting geezer who hopes you had some fun reading his ramble, and hopes you might find it useful in shedding light on the confusions of terminology wherever you run into it.

About Colin Lazzerini

ColinLColin Lazzerini is an experienced Jazz lyricist and an artist with Road House Records.

Colin works primarily with song-writing collaborator, Pat Coleman.

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