VII. Popular Music

Melody and phrasing

Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

Sections in pop/rock music typically consist of two, three, or four phrases. These phrases are usually organized as follows:

  • Two-part: aa’
  • Three-part: aa’b (often a twelve-bar blues)
  • Four-part: srdc

Phrase. A phrase is a musical unit that typically lasts for four bars and includes one line of poetry for its lyrical content. Phrases are designated by lower-case letters.

Section structures

What follows below is a discussion of the structure of song sections, that is, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, etc. Each section consists of at least two phrases.


A section is two-part when the phrases that make up the module can be grouped into a first half and a second half. In two-part modules, the second half is usually based on the same music as the first half, and thus it is labeled aa’. Often these two halves begin the same but have different endings, participating in an antecedent–consequent (weak → strong) relationship.

The chorus to “Livin’ on a Prayer” (1’33”) has an aa’ structure (Example 1). The first four-bar phrase (“Oh, we’re half-way there…”) and the second four-bar phrase (“Take my hand…”) have identical melody and harmony (hence the a), but different lyrics (hence the prime). Note that in many songs, this relationship is not as clear cut. However, if the two phrases begin with similar musical material, give them the same letter. New lyrics, new musical endings, or musical variations simply warrant a “prime.”

Very rarely a module’s phrases can be grouped into two clear halves based on different music. Such a module is labeled ab.

Lyrics Phrase
Woah, we're half way there
Woah, livin' on a prayer
Take my hand, we'll make it I swear
Woah, livin' on a prayer.

Example 1. “Livin’ on a Prayer.”


A section containing three phrases is a three-part section. If the first two phrases are based on the same music, the section is labeled aa’b.

12-bar blues progressions are the most common example of a three-part aa’b module. “Hound Dog”  contains aa’b strophes (Example 2).

Lyrics Phrase
You ain't nothin' but a hound dog
Cryin' all the time
You ain't nothin' but a hound dog
Cryin' all the time
Well, you ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine. b

Example 2. “Hound Dog.”


A section composed of four phrases often contains a sentential structure (presentation → continuation → cadential/conclusion). In pop/rock music, this often appears as a basic musical idea in the first phrase, a repetition or “response” to it in the second, contrasting material in the third phrase (often employing fragmentation, acceleration of harmonic rhythm, and movement away from tonic harmony), and a conclusion in the fourth phrase ― either with a return to the basic idea and tonic harmony or with still newer material that forms a strong melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic conclusion. Walter Everett has called such a four-phrase sentential structure in pop/rock music srdc (statement, restatement/response, departure, conclusion).

In conventional lettering, an srdc module could employ an aaba structure (with statement material returning as a restatement and again as the conclusion), or aabc structure (where the conclusion material is new). Occasionally abcd or abca are possible, but only if b is a clear response to a, not simply new material.

srdc structures tend to divide neatly into halves: sr and dc.

Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” (Example 3) provides a classic example of a four-part srdc phrase structure.

Lyrics Phrase
Every night I hope and pray
A dream lover will come my way
s (statement)
A girl to hold in my arms
And know the magic of her charms
r (repetition)
'Cause I want (yeah-yeah, yeah)
A girl (yeah-yeah, yeah)
To call (yeah-yeah, yeah)
My own (yeah-yeah)
d (departure)
I want a dream lover
So I don't have to dream alone
c (conclusion)

Example 3. “Dream Lover.”

  1. Worksheet on Section Structures (.pdf, .docx).



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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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