Form in Popular Music

Like all music, popular music relies on repetition, contrast, and variation. Repetition is especially critical in music that is designed to be memorable (like advertising jingles) or music that must be predictable (like dance music). Given the importance of repetition in popular music, it is no surprise that there are not many songs in the popular sphere that are through-composed (although a few examples were mentioned in Form Archetypes) or that follow a theme and variations form.

Popular music is dominated by songs with instrumental accompaniment. Over time, specialized terminology has developed to discuss song forms. Here are the important terms:

Verse-Chorus Form

Verse-chorus form is often used in classic rock of the '60s and '70s, but appears in a variety of popular sub-genres. Examples include "Get Back" by the Beatles (1969), "Proud Mary" by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969), and the "Hotel California" by the Eagles (1977). In this form, verses simply alternate with choruses for as many repetitions as the composer (songwriter) chooses. Thus, it is actually a variation of strophic form.

A A A ...
Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Verse Chorus ...

32-bar Form

32-bar form was particularly popular in the American songs of Tin Pan Alley and movie musicals of the '30s and '40s. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz (1939) is an example of this form. 32-bar form gets its name because each of the four sections typically contains 8 bars (measures), making a total of 32 bars for the whole song. There is no chorus in this form. Instead, there is a verse that is repeated (with different lyrics), which is followed by a contrasting bridge, and the piece is concluded with a final verse. This form is a variation on the ternary archetype.

Verse Verse Bridge Verse

Verse-Chorus Form with Bridge

Combining verse-chorus form and 32-bar form results in verse-chorus form with a bridge. This is the most common form in modern popular music. Examples include "I'll Follow You Into the Dark" by Death Cab for Cutie (2005) and "Poker Face" by Lady GaGa (2008). The final A section may have both a verse and chorus, but usually consists of only the chorus, which may be repeated several times.

A A B A 1
Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Bridge Verse (often omitted) Chorus (often repeated)

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." - Aldous Huxley

"Music in the soul can be heard by the universe." - Lao Tzu

"Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." - Ludwig van Beethoven

"Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue." - Plato

"Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." - Victor Hugo

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

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