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Forms in Music for Songwriters

We talked about working on arranging as part of developing your writing skills in a past post. This time we're going to go into more detail about the different forms in music. Going through all of the different forms is too much for one article, so we're going to focus on forms used in popular music. If you're an aspiring songwriter, you should be familiar with all of these forms. It's a good idea to know about the different forms, be able to hear the form in music, and be able to apply them to your own work.

The Ubiquitous Verse-Chorus

Pretty much the de-facto standard for today is the verse-chorus form. Most of the hits  you hear on the radio follow this form. It's basically an intro, followed by a verse-chorus.
There is generally a bridge just before the last chorus out but may be omitted. There are a number of ways that the bridge is handled. It's usually lyrically and harmonically different than the rest of the song. It can bring a new point of view or another side to the story. In most rock/pop songs there used to be the ubiquitous guitar solo but. since the 90's the solo has been replaced by a rap in pop music. The intro is usually pretty short, the second verse may be shorter than the first, and the final chorus will be repeated on the outro. There are many variations of this including a pre-chorus, a little section that sets you up for the chorus. If you're new to songwriting, this would be the form to start with.

a) intro - verse - chorus - verse - chorus - bridge - chorus
b) intro - verse - pre-chorus - chorus - verse - pre-chorus - chorus - bridge - chorus

AABA

Every decade of pop music has had a specific form that was used more than others. One style stays popular for a while and then slowly loses favor to another form. For example, in the 30's when jazz was the most popular music going, the AABA form (also known as the 32 bar form) was the one that was used the most. To this day, jazz standards use this form more than any other. So, if you were setting out to write the newest jazz standard, this would be a good place to start. The 'A' section would have the basic storyline and 'hook' of the song where the 'B' section would be contrasting to the first section. The last 'A' section may end slightly different than the first, using a turnaround to bring you back to the beginning of the form.

A1 - A1 - B - A2

The Refrain

A song form made popular by folk singers is the verse-refrain. This consists of a verse followed by a short one or two sentence refrain. While not used as frequently it's still a viable form that can be used to great effect. Dylan would use this form a lot. Artists like Bruce Springsteen still use this in a number of their songs.While not nearly as popular as the verse-chorus, this form can be effective in bringing a short memorable idea.

verse - refrain - verse - refrain - etc.

The Blues

Not only is the blues a style of music, it's also a very popular form that has been used in all styles of music. The basic blues consists of a 12 bar chord progression that is repeated over and over. At the end of the 12 bars there is a turn-around that brings you back to the beginning. There are other forms as far as the length; from 8 bars to 32. There are also tons of variations on the chords but the basic I-IV-V remains.The entire song repeats this form over and over. There is also an underlying form in the phrasing. It's closer to the refrain style mentioned earlier in that each verse has a single idea (usually repeated in 4 bar phrases) with a refrain at the end. The blues is used in tons of jazz standards as well as rock and pop songs. It pretty much dominated rock in the 70's. There have been many variations on this including using the verse-chorus form over a basic blues progression. Masters this style of rock would be Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top.

||: I   |        |        |       |  IV     |         | I      |         | V      | IV     | I     | V    :||
 
Dance Music

Dance and club songs have a form of their own. It stems from the importance of the build and breakdown. Whereas pop music likes to get to the song right away, dance remixes take their time getting to the lyric; mostly because establishing the groove is extremely important There is an opening groove that sets the song up. Then there is a small breakdown before the song and main lyric actually start. It may follow the verse chorus form or sometimes it's just a repeated phrase (usually with effects or spliced up). Then there is a big build up, followed by another breakdown and then finally the last section of the song. The groove is usually kept up until the end of the song where the producer will usually take out most of the elements, just leaving the groove. This makes it easy for DJ's to beat match and mix songs seamlessly.DJ's like David Guetta have started to dominate the charts with variations of this form.


intro (beat) - melody (riff) - breakdown - build - lyric - build - breakdown - build - lyric - out (beat)

Metal

Metal also has a form all its own. Some may argue that there is no from but it usually follows some rules. The form follows a basic verse-chorus form but makes changes along the way. A classic example would be Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man'. It starts with an opening lick that is usually (but not always) the general theme of the song. That would be repeated a number of times and then another section, with a different riff would be introduced. That would be repeated a number of times and then the 'chorus' of the song would be repeated. Then, another section would be introduced which may have something to do with the earlier sections, but may be a completely new idea. The 'chorus' would then be repeated again. There would usually be at least one guitar solo and there sometimes be a section that was in half time or double time. The general form would look something like this:
intro - A1 - B (Chorus) - A2 - B - A3 -B - C (half or double time) - B
This form is pretty much the way metal songs are written even to this day. Of course there are many variations but these are the essential elements.

New Trends

As with all arts, songwriting is constantly evolving*. There are always current trends in the way songs are written and especially the way they are arranged and produced. There is the aforementioned guitar solo being replaced by a rap in pop songs. But there have been other developments that have been showing themselves more often. One thing that has gained more popularity is songs starting off immediately with the chorus. While this has been around for some time (think of 'She Loves You' by the Beatles) it's being used more and more. It's mostly used in hiphop but has been gaining ground in other styles. Dance and club music has also had an affect on pop music.There are songs on the charts now that use the basic (verse-chorus) build-breakdown that is standard in dance. Likewise, there are 'heavier' pop songs that have used ideas from metal. There are 'metal' bands that have a poppier sound that use the forms found in metal. In this way, much like the rock from the 70's, the riff becomes a huge part of the success of the song.
*Art evolves but doesn't necessarily get better. It's mostly a reflection of society at the time.

Getting Creative

In some songwriting circles. getting creative with song structures is considered a bad idea. There's a general consensus that if you're an aspiring songwriter, it's best to stick with the tried and true verse-chorus format. While there are arguments made that it's better to get right to the chorus, it's not always that black and white. If you're writing songs and submitting them to publishers, it's better to keep it simple. That doesn't mean that you have to write one way only, but you do have to keep it simple. If they ask for something specific, give them what they want. They don't have time to listen to extended mixes and want to hear your best stuff immediately. If you're an artist, or if you're just trying to improve your craft, trying the different forms can be beneficial to your writing skills. Artists are always looking for something that will stand them out from others. Having a great song with a memorable hook and interesting form, may set you apart from all of the standard stuff.

Songwriting and Beyond

As you can see, we've barely touched the surface here. A couple of these forms have been around forever and are pretty much 'need to know' if you want to become a songwriter. Then there are variations and new forms based on different styles of music. It's a good idea to take note of the form in any music if you plan on doing any writing in that style. In some styles, like dance and metal, it's hard to separate the production (and instruments) from the songwriting. But, even with these styles it's still important to write a good line and lyric (appropriate for the style of course) so you have something of value to build upon. Happy writing.