VII. Popular Music
- consists only of repeated . Its form would be abbreviated as AAA.
- , also known as 32-bar song form, consists of a twice-repeated strophe (AA), followed by a contrasting (B), followed by another repetition of the initial strophe (A).
- AABA and strophic form were especially common in older pop music (1960s and earlier).
- AABA and strophic form both have strophe sections as the main section, which features the primary lyrical and musical content of the song.
Songs that repeat the same basic multi-phrase unit throughout are in (sometimes abbreviated AAA because the same basic material, A, is repeated), and the basic unit that is repeated is called a . Strophic form is more common in blues, early hip hop, and early rock-and-roll; verse-chorus form took over many pop genres after around 1970.
uses “School Day (Ring Ring Goes the Bell)” by Chuck Berry as an exemplar of strophic form. This song contains multiple , all of which have the same basic underlying music. These sections are the . Though the lyrics change, the section beginning at 0:24 contains the same—or, at least, very similar—melody, harmony, and phrase structure as the prior and following sections. Even the instrumental sections at 0:41 and 1:21 have the same underlying pattern, just a different melody in the form of a guitar solo. The entire song is a repetition of this same basic pattern, or slight variations of it, modeled at 0:19–0:41.
While “School Day” is composed entirely of , it is important to note that strophic songs can also contain so-called such as , , and . An example of a strophic song with auxiliary sections is “Faded Love” by Patsy Cline. Follow the form chart in as you listen to this song, and notice that the intro, outro, and interlude do not change the fundamental strophic form significantly.
However, if a song has more than one main musical idea other than strophes and auxiliary sections, it is not strophic. It could be AABA form, which is discussed below, or , discussed in the next chapter.
“Faded Love” also incorporates a in its strophes, which is an important component of many strophic songs. A refrain is a recurring lyric and musical motive within a strophe (or any larger section that has varying lyric material). The refrain often contains the title lyric of a song, as it does here.
Another formal structure that is more common in early rock-and-roll is , also called 32-bar song form because in earlier “Golden Age” songs that make use of this structure, each section is eight measures long. AABA form, like strophic form, relies on the to communicate the main lyric and musical ideas of the song, but it adds a contrasting section in the middle.
As an example, listen to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles (). After a brief introduction, the song begins with two strophes. However, where “Blue Suede Shoes” followed this with an instrumental strophe, the Beatles move to a at 0:52. This new section builds tension by contrasting and withholding the main strophe theme before it returns at 1:11. Note that the song begins and ends with the , and the strophe contains the title lyrics. For many people, it’s also the the more memorable part of the song. Thus, the strophe is still the primary section. But now it has a secondary section to add interest and tension: the bridge (and an auxiliary section, the , to help get the song off the ground).
After the initial AABA cycle, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” repeats B and A again. This is typical for an AABA song—in almost all cases, they have a complete AABA cycle followed by either another complete cycle (AABA) or an incomplete one (typically BA). Once the first AABA cycle is complete, there tend not to be any new lyrics, only repetition of the whole or the end of the main cycle.
The pop form terminology used here and throughout OMT is based on the research of Jay Summach (2012).
As a , the function of a section is to present the primary lyric and musical content and to provide a point at which the song might satisfyingly end.
In (AAA), strophes are the only . Each strophe tends to set a stanza of text, with music that is self-contained and .
In , the strophe’s functions—holding primary music/text and providing harmonic stability—are elevated through contrast with the bridge section. In AABA songs, strophe function often involves the of tonic harmony. Strophes tend to be shorter in AABA songs than in strophic songs.
In both forms, is by far the most common internal pattern for strophes. For three-part strophes, the is the most common pattern.
Bridges are , and share many traits with the of classical form. tend to play a transitional role (neither the point from which to depart nor the point of arrival) in the formal cycle. This generates heightened expectation for the return of A by contrasting with A and temporarily withholding it. A bridge section “must be followed by [the primary section] in order for its function to be satisfied” (Summach 2012, 79). Bridge sections tend to emphasize non-tonic harmonies and commonly end on dominant harmony.
As the next chapter discusses, in , bridge sections are more free than in AABA form to contrast verse and chorus sections without a strong need to build expectation for the return of the chorus. In an AABA song, building expectation for the return of the strophe and arriving on dominant harmony in preparation of that return are essential to bridge function.
sections transition from the unmetered silence that precedes the song to the musical activity of the first core section. They tend to be short and untexted/instrumental, and they tend to present musical material from one or more core sections to come. This is often accomplished by the building up of musical material, perhaps through layering (e.g., one instrument at a time) or through a more generic building of energy.
Occasionally intros include non-core material. Such intros often correspond to an outro based on the same material, and together they create a “bookend” effect. It is also possible to have multiple intro sections in a row, with each based on different music.
Outros (O) and Codas (X)
function as a transition from song back to silence, and thus decrease energy. Often this is accomplished in the recording studio by way of a fadeout. When an outro section is present, it is almost always based on material from the last core section that preceded it. Otherwise, outros tend to draw material from the intro, creating a “bookend” effect. Outros exhibit .
A is a song-ending section that presents new material—in other words, it is an outro not based on music previously heard. Like outros, codas exhibit .
Muse’s “Resistance” is useful for distinguishing between these two terms, since it has both a coda and an outro. The coda, which contains new musical and narrative material, begins at 4:05, following the final chorus. This new section, which brings something of a conclusion (if an open-ended one) to the narrative, gives way to a song-ending outro at 4:54. Aside from the clear change in content and texture at 4:54, the outro is recognizable as an outro (versus a coda) by the return of material from the introduction, creating the “bookend” effect.
Instrumental interludes are common in pop forms. They are shorter than a full section and clearly serve to simply link and provide contrast between two more important sections. But be careful not to overuse this label! Before simply calling something an “interlude,” ensure there is no better, more descriptive label (such as , , etc.).
A is a passage within a section that is otherwise . A refrain is too short to form its own section—typically a single phrase or even less.
A refrain is most often the last line or so of a section’s text (); occasionally, it is the material at the beginning of a section’s text (). “Cathedrals” by Jump, Little Children (1998) contains a head refrain. Each strophe begins with the same line: “In the shadows of tall buildings.…” “Faded Love” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” each discussed in this chapter, both contain tail refrains at the ends of their strophes, emphasizing the title lyrics.
Duinker, Ben. 2020. “Song Form and the Mainstreaming of Hip-Hop Music.” Current Musicology 107: 93–135. https://doi.org/10.52214/cm.v107i.7177.
- Summach, Jason. 2012. “Form in Top-20 Rock Music, 1955–89.” Ph.D. diss., Yale University.
- AABA and Strophic Form (.pdf, .docx). Uses BriFormer web app to create form diagrams of pop songs in AABA or strophic form.
- Strophic form in hip-hop can be related to the "cypher," a live performance tradition in which various rappers (MCs) took turns improvising verses over a repeating beat (Duinker 2020). ↵
- Dexys Midnight Runners’s “Come On Eileen” contains several different intro sections with different musical content. ↵
A large-scale song structure, in which the same basic multi-phrase unit is repeated throughout (AAA). The basic unit that is repeated is called a strophe. Strophic form is more common in early rock-and-roll (1950s–1960s) than in the 1970s and beyond.
A basic multi-phrase unit. In pop music, a strophe is a focal module within strophic-form and AABA-form songs.
Also called 32-bar song form. AABA consists of at least four sections. It begins by repeating two strophes, moving to a contrasting bridge section, and then repeating the primary strophe again. AABA forms typically then include another repetition of BA, making the entire form AABABA.
A type of contrasting section that tends to function transitionally in the formal cycle. Bridges tend to emphasize non-tonic harmonies and commonly end on dominant harmony.
The highest-level division of the overall form of the piece. Examples include the exposition in sonata form, the first part of a binary form, or the chorus of a pop song.
Auxiliary sections help frame the core sections: introducing them, providing temporary relief from them, or winding down from them.
Introduction sections transition from the unmetered silence that precedes the song to the musical activity of the first core section. They tend to be short and untexted (i.e., instrumental) and tend to present musical material from one or more core sections to come.
Outros function as a transition from song back to silence, and thus decrease energy. Often this is accomplished in the recording studio by way of a fadeout.
A coda is a song-ending section that presents new material. Like outros, codas exhibit closing rhetoric.
The most common form of pop songs today, consisting of lyric-variant verses and lyric- and music-invariant choruses that deliver the primary narrative material of the song.
A lyric-invariant passage within a section that is otherwise lyric-variant. A refrain is too short to form its own section—typically a phrase or less.
A section that presents the work's primary musical ideas. Usually, the main section is the first core section of the work. Examples include primary themes, refrains, expositions, choruses, or strophes.
Core sections comprise the main musical and poetic content of a song. Core sections include strophe (AABA and strophic form only), bridge, verse, chorus, prechorus, and postchorus.
A phrase or module is harmonically closed when it ends with tonic harmony (I in root position).
When a given harmony’s influence lasts longer than a single chord. Usually this is accomplished by alternating the prolonged chord with other, less important chords.
A four-part phrase structure in popular music: statement, restatement, departure, and conclusion. An srdc structure shares many features with the Classical sentence.
Typically comprises three phrases of four bars each. The first phrase is entirely tonic harmony (I). The second phrase contains two bars of subdominant (IV) and two bars of tonic (I). The final phrase begins with one bar of dominant (V) followed by one bar of subdominant (IV) and two bars of tonic (I). The third phrase may or may not end with a turnaround.
A core section that provides contrast with the main section. May be stable or unstable.
A subphrase that features a mix of any of the following: fragmentation, increase in harmonic rhythm, increase in surface rhythm, or sequences. Continuations end with a cadence and are usually found in the second half of a theme.
Closing rhetoric involves common patterns and techniques that signal that the end of the song is likely coming soon.
A short section that follows a chorus and serves only to close the cycle—does not introduce or transition to the beginning of the next cycle.
A module or phrase is lyric-invariant if each time it appears it brings (mostly) the same lyrics. Lyric invariance tends to come at points of formal closure (tail refrains at the ends of strophes, choruses at the end of a verse-chorus song’s formal cycle).
A module or phrase is lyric-variant if each time it appears it brings (mostly) different lyrics.
A refrain that is the last line or so of a section's text.
A refrain that is the first line or so of the section's text.