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Beginning Theory 3: Song Structures

Music can be described as sounds and silences in time:

How we identify when and what to play is what notation is all about

Beginning Theory

Last time we looked at how we can use the staff and the treble and bass clefs effectively in notating our music.

This time we will be looking at formal structures: how we organise our musical material for maximum impact.

Song Structures

Depending on what type of song you are trying to write, there are some important structural ideas to consider. These ideas are related to

  • verses,
  • choruses,
  • bridges and
  • other structural devices,

but are best explained in terms of the development of popular song over the last two hundred years.

Theatrical forms

Songs written for the theatre or the music hall usually consisted of two related sections, which may or may not have been performed together outside of the theatre. The theatre song usually had a verse which introduced the song and the reason for the second section collectively known as the chorus. The verse was generally presented as a recitation, either in time or as a rubato recitative (what we might now call a pre-emptive rap). The second section consisted of two or three musical sections that communicated the actual message of the song, hence the use of the phrase chorus to describe this section. Songs written in this style will have a lyrical structure and probably harmonic and melodic structure along the lines of:

The last two types are what we usually think of when talking about 32 bar song form. Each section is 8 bars long and the repetition and variation gives us a total of 32 bars.

Jazz music tends to make use of this 32 bar song form, as a lot of early jazz was based on theatre songs. Improvisations, the heart of jazz, were based on these songs, using them as a vehicle containing a well-known tune whose chord progression and melody was then improvised over to show the soloists melodic, rhythmic, expressive and harmonic genius.

Rock forms

There several styles for structuring rock lyrics. Not every style can be represented here, but the main forms are included for your consideration. The only thing that can be said about lyrical forms in rock music is that if it works use it. Many songwriters have adapted and restructured existing formal structures to suit their needs or even dispensed with them entirely in the case of David Bowie and Brian Eno to mention two prominent songwriters of the last 40 years.

In the following structures, the sections of a song may have been reduced to single letters to save space. These letters have the following meanings:

Blues I

Multiple verse-choruses using a lyrical structure in each cycle of the progression of the form:


An example of this lyrical structure is:

I hate to see the evening sun go down,

I hate to see the evening sun go down,

'Cause my woman, she just done left town

The rhyming structure tends to be A A A within each cycle of the progression but may not extend beyond the progression; i.e. each verse may have its own end-of-line rhyming scheme.

Blues II

Multiple verses and multiple choruses with separate rhyming structures




These sections can be interspersed with solos and may use introductions, outros or tags to break up the structure. Note that in this style there may be very short call and response statements from the instruments or a single solo instrument: this does not necessarily create a break in the sense in which it is used later

Early Rock

Early rock made use of the blues forms described above. It also used a variation on the theatrical song form where the opening verse was dispensed with and the AABA, ABAC, ABAA forms were used.

It is important to remember at this point that the constructs of verse and chorus do not necessarily require separate chord progressions: some key songs from this period make use of the fact that the one chord progression may be used for both. This is particularly true of the 12 bar blues as used in song writing in the twentieth century.

In the theatrical song forms, once the structure had been played through once, any revisiting of the B section was usually done from a truncated form of the structure:





are quite common at this point of time in pop and rock song writing. This may be a reflection of the impatience of youth or simply a deliberately foreshortening of the structures for dramatic and musical impact.

Some new variations of the verse-chorus form were introduced at this time. Some of the main new forms were:



The second example is essentially the structural view of the lyrics for Rock Around the Clock. The end of the song was either a fadeout, an artefact of the recording studio, or a composed ending that had a definite finishing point. From a performance perspective, a definite ending makes better sense. From a radio perspective, the fadeout works by providing an indeterminate point to finish the song, letting it work within the confines of radio programming and advertising.


"That'll be the day" (Buddy Holly) is based on the ABAA form. It is an example of


"Everyday" (Buddy Holly) is based on the AABA form. It is an example of


"Hey Jude" (The Beatles) can be mapped as AABA and most likely



Motown (the record label created by Berry Gordy) was based in Detroit, Michigan, the Motor City of the USA. Motown inverted the lyrical structure of songs so that the verse came back into prominence. They used the same basic outlines as early rock, but now the structures had the verse repeating more often than the chorus:

AABA representing V-V-C-V

ABAA representing V-C-V-V

Modern Pop (1970ís/1980ís)

In modern pop/rock song, the formal structures start to acquire various flotsam and jetsam which tend to either bloat or mature the form depending on your viewpoint.

The new forms identified in early rock continued into the 1970ís and beyond. Along with these forms, new ideas in structure also appear, most notably the pre-chorus and the instrumental break:





As with any song, the bridge could appear many times or not at all. Some songs had multiple solo sections appearing in different spots, as evidenced in Rock Around the Clock

Final notes

We have now completed step three on our journey to understanding and applying notation.

Next Time:

Minimal Melodies: making the music sing for you