VIII. Popular Music
- is a versatile song form that rapidly took over rock-and-roll in the 1960s and has dominated the genre ever since.
- In verse-chorus form, the title lyrics, the most memorable music, and the main narrative are split between two : the and the .
Verse-chorus form is so named because the two most important sections are the and the . Other possible sections in verse-chorus form are , , and .
As an example, look at the form of Bon Jovi’s song “Livin’ on a Prayer,” given in Example 1.
|2:59||bridge (guitar solo)|
|3:24||chorus||modulation, repeat and fade out to end|
"Livin' on a Prayer" is in verse-chorus form, and uses many types of core and auxiliary sections in a typical way.
“Livin’ on a Prayer” follows a typical verse-chorus form. It also illustrates common usage of five in verse-chorus forms (and a bonus truck driver’s modulation!).
Notice that the sections used in “Livin’ on a Prayer” recur, and always come back in the same order. Sections within a verse-chorus form have certain prototypical orderings and groupings. The verse, prechorus, chorus, and postchorus sections, for example, always progress in this order (though not all need be present). These groupings are referred to as . In “Livin’ on a Prayer”:
- After an extended intro, the first cycle begins with a at 0:47.
- Then at 1:18 a increases energy and tension…
- …into the at 1:34.
- After a brief interlude, this cycle is repeated beginning at 1:54, with the addition of a at 2:56.
- A final cycle at 3:00 is atypical and abbreviated, and if followed by a repetition of its final chorus multiple times, during which a fadeout ends the song.
A prototypical verse-chorus form song is illustrated in Example 2.
Terms, concepts, definitions, and notational guidelines are taken either from common convention and a combination of the resources listed below under Further Reading.
- Verse sections are lyric-variant and often contain lyrics that advance the narrative.
- Until the 1960s, verse sections tended to be harmonically closed.
- Beginning in the 1960s, verse sections became more and more likely to be harmonically open.
- Verses (like ) tend to begin on-tonic.
- Prechorus sections can be recognized most easily by .
- They bear many of the functional characteristics of the d phrase in srdc—fragmentation, acceleration of harmonic rhythm, movement away from tonic harmony, and harmonic openness.
- Chorus sections are lyric-invariant and contain the primary lyrical material of the song (the title lyrics and/or lyrical hook).
- Chorus function is also typified by heightened musical intensity relative to the verse, including features like “a more dense or active instrumental texture; prominent background vocals; and/or a higher register melody.”
- Choruses most frequently (but not exclusively) begin on-tonic.
- Although colloquially, the terms chorus and are used interchangeably, when discussing music theory, you should take care to keep them separate. Chorus sections are distinct from refrains primarily by virtue of their being sections in and of themselves, where refrains are contained within a section.
- A postchorus is a short section that follows a chorus and serves only to close the cycle (not to introduce or transition to the beginning of the next cycle).
- A clear postchorus can be heard in “Independent Women, Pt. 1” by Destiny’s Child at 1:18, beginning with the lyric “Girl, I didn’t know you could get down like that.”
sections are a flexible section type in verse-chorus form.
- In verse-chorus form songs, the bridge tends to appear once, followed by the last chorus, or the last prechorus and chorus, of the song.
- Within a cycle, bridges will replace the verse and/or prechorus sections, instead of being added in as an extra element. Thus, you will not usually see all five types in a single cycle.
- A verse-chorus song may not have a bridge at all.
Each of these points contrasts with the way bridges are used in AABA form.
While are primarily associated with AABA form and strophic form, they can occasionally be used within sections of a verse-chorus form song. However, take note that refrains are distinct from choruses—refrains are a lyric within a section, whereas a chorus is an entire standalone section.
A climb is a phrase that has function, but is too short to function as its own independent section. The climb is always the last phrase of a verse section.
“Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners contains a one-phrase climb at the end of its verses and bridge (“Tu-ra-lu-ra…”), as heard at 0:48.
Barna, Alyssa. 2018. “The Dance Chorus in Recent Top-40 Music.” SMT-V 6 (4). https://vimeo.com/societymusictheory/smtv06-4barna.
- Covach, John. 2005. “Form in Rock Music: A Primer.” Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, 65–76.
- Everett, Walter. 1999. The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Spicer, Mark. 2011. “(Per)Form in(g) Rock: A Response.” Music Theory Online 17 (3). http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.11.17.3/mto.11.17.3.spicer.html.
- Stroud, Cara. 2014. “The Postchorus in Millennial Dance Pop.” Paper presented at the Graduate Association of Musicologists und Theorists Conference, Denton, TX.
Summach, Jay. 2011. “The Structure, Function, and Genesis of the Prechorus.” Music Theory Online 17 (3). http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.11.17.3/mto.11.17.3.summach.html.
- Summach, Jason. 2012. “Form in Top-20 Rock Music, 1955–89.” Ph.D. diss., New Haven: Yale University.
- Pop Music Form — The Shape of Music Around You (.pdf). Writing assignment which students to find songs on their own; identify them as strophic, AABA, or verse-chorus; name the sections of the song; and justify their analyses using form vocabulary.
- Listening to Pop Forms (.pdf, .docx). This worksheet uses two unusual verse-chorus form songs to challenge students’ analytical abilities. Uses Audacity to have students mark the form of .mp3s. Purchase “Terrified” and purchase “Broken Clocks” as .mp3s.
- verse chorus form © Megan Lavengood is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Jason Summach, “Form in Top-20 Rock Music, 1955–89” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2012), 114. ↵
- This is because prechorus sections originate historically in the d section of an srdc pattern. Think of an srdc strophe becoming longer until sr forms its own two-part verse section, d forms its own prechorus section, and c forms its own chorus section. ↵
- Jason Summach, “Form in Top-20 Rock Music, 1955–89” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2012), 106. ↵
- Mark Spicer, “(Per)Form in(g) Rock: A Response,” Music Theory Online 17, no. 3 (October 1, 2011), http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.11.17.3/mto.11.17.3.spicer.html, paragraph 9. ↵
- Jason Summach, “Form in Top-20 Rock Music, 1955–89” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2012), 321. ↵
The most common form of pop songs today. The song is built of lyric-variant verses and lyric- and music-invariant choruses that deliver the primary narrative material of the song.
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.
Verse sections are lyric-variant and often contain lyrics thatadvance the narrative. Until the 1960s, verse sections tended to be harmonically closed. Beginning in the 1960s, verse sections became more and more likely to be harmonically open (Summach, p. 114). Verses (like strophes) tend to begin on-tonic.
Chorus sections are lyric-invariant and contain the primary lyrical material of the song. Chorus function is also typified by heightened musical intensity relative to the verse, including features like “a more dense or active instrumental texture; prominent background vocals; and/or a higher register melody” (Summach 2012, p. 106). Choruses most frequently (but not exclusively) begin on-tonic.
Chorus sections are distinct from refrains primarily by virtue of their being sections in and of themselves, where refrains are contained within a section.
Prechorus function is most significantly typified in energy gain. Prechorus sections often use motivic fragmentation, acceleration of harmonic rhythm, movement away from tonic harmony, and harmonic openness.
Bridges tend to play a transitional role (neither the point from which to depart, nor the point of arrival) in the formal cycle, generating high expectation for the return of the primary section by contrasting with it and temporarily withholding it. Bridge sections tend to emphasize non-tonic harmonies and commonly end on dominant harmony.
A short section that follows a chorus and serves only to close the cycle—does not to introduce or transition to the beginning of the next cycle (Mark Spicer 2011, par. 9).
A cycle is a grouping of contains one or more sections, typically in the same order. Sometimes one or more sections are omitted in the repetition of a cycle, especially toward the end of a song.
A basic multi-phrase unit. In pop music, a strophe is a focal module within strophic-form and AABA-form songs.
A quality in a passage of music that heightens the "energy" of the passage. This can be through more active rhythmic activity, faster harmony changes, thicker texture, expanded range, crescendo, or drive toward a cadence or goal.
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.