VII. Popular Music

Introduction to Form in Popular Music

Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

  • This chapter addresses foundational concepts of form in pop music.
  • This chapter does not discuss specific forms. The following two chapters cover AABA and strophic form and verse-chorus form.
  • Pop forms can be related to one another through the concepts of and sections.
  • Sections can be defined through their formal and harmonic .


Sections within pop forms

In pop/rock music, a typically spans between 8 and 24 bars and includes 2–4 phrases. (Some auxiliary sections may contain a single phrase.) A section presents a single formal (such as , , prechorus, etc.) and presents a complete 2-, 3-, or 4-part pattern. Sections typically set a stanza of lyrics.

Section boundaries are usually made apparent by poetic structure (end of a group of rhyming lines—couplet or stanza) or surface features of the song (clear rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic arrival; change in instrumentation or volume; return to beginning of a previously heard section; etc.).

For instance, take the transition from a section to a section at 2:42 in U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love).” The section boundary is delineated by a number of features simultaneously:

  • The text closes out the verse’s with a (more-or-less) rhyming lyric (“sky”–”pride”) before beginning a new .
  • The end of the verse is signaled by a drum fill, a common end-of-phrase or end-of-section gesture.
  • The general dynamic gets louder very quickly.
  • The guitar becomes more active, and is doubled by a second guitar part.
  • The lead vocals rise in register.
  • Background vocals are added to the lead vocal part.

All of these features help delineate the boundary between sections, and most of them also give the new section (the chorus) a higher eneregy level than the previous section (the verse).

Terminology and basic concepts

The definitions used here are based on the research of Jay Summach.[1]

: Core sections form the main musical and poetic content of a song. Examples of core sections include verse, chorus, , or sections.

: Auxiliary modules help frame the core modules, introducing them, providing temporary relief from them, or winding down from them. They can include , , or sections.

: A section or phrase is lyric-variant if each time it appears it brings (mostly) different lyrics.

: A section 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 section or phrase is music-variant if each time it appears it brings (mostly) different music.

: A section or phrase is music-invariant if each time it appears it brings (mostly) the same music.

: A phrase or section is on-tonic when it begins with tonic harmony (I in root position).

: A phrase or section is off-tonic when it begins on a harmony other than tonic.

: A phrase or section is harmonically closed when it ends with tonic harmony (I in root position).

: A phrase or section is harmonically open when it ends on a harmony other than tonic.

: The use of a non-tonic chord (usually dominant) at the end of a harmonically closed unit to transition into the beginning of the following on-tonic unit. The song “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs contains a turnaround at the end of many of its strophes. One of these occur at 0:54 ― a simple V7 chord to prepare the return of I as the next strophe begins.[2]

: Closing rhetoric involves common patterns and techniques that signal that the end of the song is likely coming soon. Typical patterns and techniques include immediate repetition of a core section (except for the first core section) or part of a core section, thinning out of the texture, late-song intensification, fadeout, and bringing a previously harmonically open section to a point of harmonic closure. Closing rhetoric is typically found in outros, codas, and the last core section of a song (A or C).

Analytical notation

What follows are notational conventions for analyses of musical form.

Capital letters

Sections are labeled with capital letters according to function. A section that functions as a strophe is labeled with an “A”; a section that functions as a bridge, “B”; etc.

Lower-case letters

Phrases are labeled with lower-case letters according to their musical content and italicized. If two phrases use more-or-less the same musical framework (harmony, melody, and rhythm), they receive the same letter. Letters are assigned in the same manner as poetic rhymes: the first phrase is a and any phrase that follows based on the same music is also a (primes are used for slight variations, such as new text or altered instrumentation); the next phrase with new musical material is b; and so on. These letters do not correspond to functions.

The single exception to this convention is when phrases within a section demonstrate a sentential progression (srdc), in which case the first phrase (statement) is labeled s; restatement/response, r; departure, d; conclusion, c.

  1. Jason Summach, “Form in Top-20 Rock Music, 1955–89” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2012).
  2. Interestingly in this song, the guitarist doesn’t always remember the turnarounds. Notice that at 0:28 the bass and baritone saxophone play the dominant, but the guitarist keeps tonic. At 1:18, the singer yells, “Watch it now! Watch it! Watch it!” as if warning the guitarist not to miss the turnaround in the next bar. He does the same in 2:08. When the guitarist gets the turnaround with the rest of the band, the singer yells, “You got it! You got it!” as if congratulating the guitarist.


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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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