VII. Popular Music
Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood
- 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.
|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 seem to follow a pattern. 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 they don’t all need to 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 it’s 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.
Sections within Verse-Chorus Form
Terms, concepts, definitions, and notational guidelines are taken from common convention and a combination of the resources listed below under Further Reading.
- Verse sections are and often contain lyrics that advance the narrative.
- Until the 1960s, verse sections tended to be .
- Beginning in the 1960s, verse sections became more and more likely to be (Summach 2012, 114).
- 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 —, acceleration of , movement away from tonic harmony, and .
- Chorus sections are 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” (Summach 2012, 106).
- Choruses most frequently (but not exclusively) begin on-tonic.
- Although the terms and are often used interchangeably when speaking colloquially, take care to keep them separate when discussing music theory. Chorus sections are distinct from refrains because choruses constitute an entire section by themselves, whereas refrains are contained within a section (as described below).
- A postchorus is a short section that follows a chorus and serves only to close the (not to introduce or transition to the beginning of the next cycle) (Spicer 2011, para. 9).
- 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.
Standout Lyrics within Sections
While are primarily associated with and , 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 with prechorus function. Like the refrain, because it is only one phrase long, a climb is too short to be its own section. The climb is always the last phrase of a or .
An example of a climb is in “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners (1982): listen for the one-phrase climb at the end of its verses and bridge (“Tu-ra-lu-ra…”), as heard at 1:13.
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.” In Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, edited by Deborah Stein, 65–76. New York: Oxford University Press.
- 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. Reading Guide
- Summach, Jason. 2012. “Form in Top-20 Rock Music, 1955–89.” Ph.D. diss., Yale University.
- Pop Music Form—The Shape of Music Around You (.pdf). Writing assignment that asks 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 digital audio.
- verse chorus form © Megan Lavengood is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- This is because prechorus sections originate historically in the d section of an [pb_glossary id="12010"]srdc[/pb_glossary] 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. ↵
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.
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.
Sections that are lyric-variant and often contain lyrics that advance the narrative.
A core section of a popular song that is lyric-invariant and contains the primary lyrical material of the song. Chorus function is also typified by heightened musical intensity relative to the verse. Chorus sections are distinct from refrains, which 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.
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.
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 grouping that 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 module or phrase is lyric-variant if each time it appears it brings (mostly) different lyrics.
A phrase or module is harmonically closed when it ends with tonic harmony (I in root position).
A phrase or module is harmonically open when it ends on a harmony other than tonic.
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 perceived 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 four-part phrase structure in popular music: statement, restatement, departure, and conclusion. An srdc structure shares many features with the Classical sentence.
Making unit sizes smaller than the previously established size. For example, if units had previously been two measures long, fragments might be one measure long.
The rate at which chords change, usually expressed in chords per measure. A common rate of chord change in 18th-century classical music is one chord per measure, for example.
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 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.
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 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.