In pop music, there are three main song forms that are most commonly used today: Verse Chorus, Verse Speech Chorus and Verse Title. To complete our picture, at Allihoopa.com we will take a look at song forms in light of history and see which song forms were popular in the past. This can be helpful, for example, if we want to write songs in other styles or just want to venture into something new and break out of existing conventions.
Remember that one of the reasons the Beatles were so successful was because they were constantly trying new things. At this point, it should not go unmentioned that the song forms have constantly evolved. The song form “Verse-PreChorus-Chorus”, which is so popular today, has only been used since about the mid-1980s. So it may well be that in 10 or 20 years, completely different song forms will exist.
The original verse
What we mean today by the term “verse” or “verse” is the part of the song that changes in content, is melodically very similar to each of the other verses, and contrasts with the chorus. The verse is where the story is told, the situation is described, and so on. But it was not always like this.
First, we must go on a little digression. So-called standards, or jazz standards, are songs that have made it into the realm of evergreens or classics. Who now thinks of Last Christmas by Wham! is mistaken. Because the jazz standards are an older collection that has gradually emerged. They belong to the fixed repertoire of instrumental musicians and represent a kind of “intersection” of songs whose mastery is expected of instrumental musicians. Jam sessions, in particular, often feature only jazz standards.
Jazz standards and Broadway tunes are perfect showcases for songwriting because they have managed to survive over the decades. For example, who couldn’t hum along to the melody of (Somewhere) “Over The Rainbow” or “I Got Rhythm”?
Different from today, however, is the song structure. Because all those songs start with a verse, but it’s fundamentally different than the verse concept we use today. In those days, the verse was more of a preparation for the actual song. It set the lyrical stage and conveyed the right mood for the song.
So the familiar melodies of (Somewhere) “Over The Rainbow” or “I Got Rhythm” are really just the choruses of the particular song. Even though these choruses are quite long.
So the verse was not always sung along at that time. It was rather the case that it was still sung at the beginning of the release of a song and later simply omitted.
So the song form of the songs back then is definitely different than the songs that are successful today. At the same time, the verse has developed from an absolute marginal figure in the sense of an intro to an important component.
So here is (Somewhere) “Over The Rainbow” with its verse:
And here “I Got Rhythm” with its verse:
The title is the most important feature of a song. It should be inviting and make you want to hear more. Imagine your CD is on a music publisher’s table next to 20 other CDs. How many CDs do you think have similar, “08/15” titles?
Besides finding a good title that stands out from the crowd, it can also be more common in song form.
For example, the first verse may already start with the title. Or end with it. The chorus can also start with the title or stop with it. The chorus can also consist solely of the title.
Repetition helps to remember the title better. However, you should not fall into the temptation to destroy the song through excessive repetition. It must fit musically and make sense. As a rule of thumb you could say: “Use the title as often as possible without the listener consciously noticing it”.
Frequent title placements in four-line choruses:
Common title placements for five-line choruses:
Whether your chorus is four lines or five lines depends on many factors. By nature, songwriters who, unlike you, have not studied the theory behind songwriting tend to make choruses and verses four-line (eight-line, sixteen-line). However, this is not always the best way to support the song.
First of all, the choice of line count is about conveying or countering the content of the song. A four-line verse or chorus, indicates purity, clarity and meets the expectations of the listeners. You therefore use it best when the chorus/ verse are also positive, clear and pure in content. So a song about fulfilled love or the beauty of life can definitely tolerate a four-line verse/chorus.
However, if you are singing about unfulfilled love or the ugliness of life, try an odd number of lines. This does not meet the listener’s expectations and thus can mean the difference between a good song and a very good song. This connection between words and music is called “prosody”.
It’s always worth playing around a bit and trying things out. The Beatles, for example, in many of their songs that were written in 4/4 time, simply inserted a 2/4 time signature at one point or another, which made the song very varied and helped it stand out from the crowd of other songs. The layman does not notice what is different. He only notices that something is different.
The AAA song form
The AAA form can also be called the “verse-title” form. However, in this tutorial we will not only look at the song on a macro level (i.e. analyze what an “A” consists of), but at how these small macro units become a complete song. So an “A” is the combination of a verse with a title.
The AAA form usually consists of three verse-title combinations of 16 bars each. It contains no chorus but always repeats the same verse with different lyrics. What remains the same is the title, which is either at the beginning of each “A” or at its end (or both). It does not always have to consist of only three verses, but can also consist of several verses (although three verses is the most common number).
The AAA form was especially popular beginning in the 1960s and remains so today in American folk music. Also, many of the songs of the 1970s peace movement are written in the AAA form.
Some examples of the AAA form:
- We Shall Overcome
- Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
- Blowing in the Wind
AABA song form
The AABA form is the AAA form where two verse-title combinations are followed by a bridge, and then another verse-title combination appears. The bridge contrasts with the verse-title combination. It can make the song more interesting and varied in this way.
And – not to be forgotten – it can help to bring the song to the length of commercial 3:00 minutes, which a reasonably fast played AAA form cannot do. If one were to add another verse-title combination to the AAA form in such a case (i.e. create a AAAA or even a AAAAA form), the song would often finally be too boring. Whereby, again, there is nothing that hasn’t been done before and certainly one or the other song can be found that consists of more than three or four verse-title combinations and still was successful.
Some examples of the AABA form:
- Obla-Di, Obla-Da
- I Don’t Know How to Love Him
- Just The Way You Are
The AAAB song form
Possible, but very rare, is the AAAB form, where the bridge is at the very end. You can’t really call this form particularly commercial, since it doesn’t introduce the new thought until the end, making the song rather less memorable. But it’s like always in songwriting: fixed rules don’t exist. And if it’s good for your song to have the bridge at the end, that can be the crucial point that makes it successful.
Some examples of the AABA form:
- All Alone by the Telephone
Founded in the spirit of freedom, the southern states of the United States had quickly thrown these values overboard when it came to the issue of slavery. The flourishing business of trafficked Africans in cotton fields caused many tragedies and is one of the dark chapters, of US history.
Only a deep, firm faith helped the African-American slaves to bear their hard lot of being trapped in slavery and not being allowed to claim the human right of freedom.
Spirituals were the songs they sang in the cotton fields. Yet the form has always been what is called a “question-answer” form. Question-answer, however, does not necessarily refer to the fact that a question is also asked and an answer given to it in terms of content (i.e., in the lyrics), but merely designates the form in which one person “musically puts something in the room” and another person musically answers it.
Spirituals are distinct from gospel music in that they are generally about the Old Testament and are generally about the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery to the Egyptians (analogous to the slavery of African Americans and their longing for freedom). Whereas gospel music is more concerned with the New Testament.
Singer: when Israel was in Egypt’s land.
ALL: LET MY PEOPLE GO!
Singer: Oppressed so hard, they could not stand.
ALL: LET MY PEOPLE GO!
Singer: I looked over Jordan and what did I see?
ALL: COMING FOR TO CARRY ME HOME!
Singer: A band of angels comin’ after me…
ALL: COMING FOR TO CARRY ME HOME!
So, provided you ever get into the situation of writing a spiritual, orient yourself to a single message/line (see above: “Let my people go” or “Coming for to carry me home”) and then develop the phrases that the lead singer sings. These are the questions.
The message/line is the answer. Spirituals often have a chorus as well. This also usually ends with the message/line.
The blues song form
From the blues and later the rhythm-and-blues (RnB) should arise over the years rock’n’roll, from it rock and from it finally pop. So we are dealing here with one of the early forefathers of pop music. And surely everyone has heard a blues countless times and has a very precise idea of what a blues is.
The blues also came about because of the plight of African people who were kept as slaves in the United States. Unlike gospel and spirituals, however, the blues is not religiously motivated, but refers in general to the dreariness. In English, “blue” means not only “blue”, but also “sad, depressed”.
The blues, moreover, is not a choral situation, but a one-man show. A single person sings about his problems in the here and now. The blues consists of 12 measures and began with a single phrase usually repeated three times.
From this rather monotonous form, it was only a small step to a rhyming third line, so that the three repetitions became two repetitions with a third, resolving line.
So, for example, if the first two lines were about the singer having no money, the third line could resolve why this was so in a rhyme.
Song forms in hip-hop
And, in addition to spirituals, gospel, blues and from it the pop music, now again a musical genre that goes to the account of African Americans. The HipHop developed around the 1980er in the poor settlements of the United States of America.
Its distinguishing feature is rhythmic chanting. So it is not pure speech, but actually singing, which often takes place in a spectrum of a few notes (and often perhaps unconsciously).
Hip hop is all about the content. The music (in the sense of structure and harmonies) is rather incidental and often consists of samples and short phrases that are repeated for the entire duration of the song.
Of course, hip-hop has also undergone an evolution and has been quickly commercialized by commercial success. Genres such as “gangsta rap” often move deliberately below the belt to rebellious young people to facilitate identification and rebel against the prevailing social conventions.
Hip hop with meaning and political/intellectual message is however just as present, as it can thematize all other song contents.
The form usually consists of 16 bars of rap. Sometimes several people rap. Depending on the song, the chorus is also rapped. Often, however, the chorus is also sung, which of course increases the variety even more and can provide for easily memorable hooklines.
In terms of commerciality, it is generally advisable to have the chorus appear as early as possible in the song. For example, a rap song might start with the chorus, or the first verse might consist of just eight rapped bars, followed by the chorus and then 16 bars of rap.
Techno and modern song forms
Techno is also generally structured in 8 to 16 bars. Often techno is based less on a division between verse and chorus, but has a brick-like character. Thus, several tracks are placed on top of each other one after the other. For example, one starts with a bass and a hihat, after 8 bars a synthesizer joins the two looping (= repeating) tracks and gradually more and more until a large sound bed is created. Then usually follows a chorus-like hookline, before variety is added by switching off and on individual tracks.
So song forms differ to a small degree – depending on the style. We have learned about the most common song forms here. In addition, it must be mentioned that of course in all styles the three main songforms “verse-chorus”, “verse-pre-chorus-chorus” and “verse-title” work. As far as you want to write in a special style, it is always advisable to analyze some classics of the respective genre and look for similarities.