VII. Popular Music

Introduction to Form in Popular Music

Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

  • This chapter addresses foundational concepts of form in music. (For discussions of specific forms, see the following two chapters:  AABA and strophic form and verse-chorus form.)

  • Pop forms can be related to one another through the concepts of core and auxiliary sections.
  • Sections can be defined through their formal and harmonic functions.

Those interested in the connections between pop and classical forms may wish to cross-reference Formal Sections in General.

Sections within Pop Forms

In pop/rock music, a section 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 function (such as strophe, bridge, prechorus, etc.) and presents a complete two-, three-, or four-part pattern. A section typically sets a stanza of lyrics.

Section boundaries are usually made apparent by poetic structure (the end of a couplet or stanza) or by surface features of the song such as:

  • a clear rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic arrival
  • a change in instrumentation or volume
  • a return to the beginning of a previously heard section

For instance, take the transition from a verse section to a chorus 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 quatrain with a (more-or-less) rhyming lyric (“sky”–”pride”) before beginning a new stanza.
  • 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 energy level than the previous section (the verse).

Terminology and Basic Concepts

The definitions used here are based on the research of Jay Summach (2012).

core section: Core sections form the main musical and poetic content of a song. Examples of core sections in pop forms include verse, chorus, strophe, or bridge sections.

auxiliary section: Auxiliary modules help to frame the core modules, introducing them, providing temporary relief from them, or winding down from them. They can include introduction, outro, or coda sections.

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

lyric-invariant: 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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

turnaround: 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 “Woolly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs contains a turnaround at the end of many of its strophes. One of these occurs at 0:54 ― a simple V7 chord to prepare the return of I as the next strophe begins.[1]

closing rhetoric: 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 in this text.

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 is B
  • A verse is labeled V
  • A chorus is labeled C
  • And so on—more sections are introduced in the following chapters.

Lowercase letters

Phrases are labeled with bolded lowercase letters according to their musical content. 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.

Further Reading
  • Summach, Jason. 2012. “Form in Top-20 Rock Music, 1955–89.” Ph.D. diss., Yale University.

  1. 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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