Song structure

For the song structure of classical song, see Art song § Art song formal design.

Song structure or the musical forms of songs in traditional music and popular music are typically sectional, repeating forms used in songs, such as strophic form and is a part of the songwriting process. Other common forms include thirty-two-bar form, verse-chorus form, and the twelve-bar blues. Popular music songs traditionally use the same music for each verse of stanza of lyrics (as opposed to songs that are "through-composed", an approach used in classical music). Pop and traditional forms can be used even with songs that have structural differences in melodies. The most common format is intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus (or refrain), verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge ("middle eight"), verse, chorus and outro.

The formal sections found in songs have been identified as the verse, chorus, bridge, hook, and refrain: "All songs are put together with some or all of these parts in a particular pattern."[1] The foundation of popular music is the "verse" and "chorus" structure. "Pop and rock songs nearly always have both a verse and a chorus. The primary difference between the two is that when the music of the verse returns, it is almost always given a new set of lyrics, whereas the chorus usually retains the same set of lyrics every time its music appears."[2] Both are essential elements, with the verse usually played first. Exceptions abound, with "She Loves You" by The Beatles being an early example in the rock music genre. Each verse usually employs the same melody (possibly with some slight modifications), while the lyrics usually change for each verse. The chorus (or "refrain") usually consists of a melodic and lyrical phrase which is repeated. Pop songs may have an introduction and coda ("tag"), but these elements are not essential to the identity of most songs. Pop songs often connect the verse and chorus via a bridge, which as its name suggests, is a section which connects the verse and chorus at one or more points in the song.

The verse and chorus are usually repeated throughout a song though the bridge, intro, and coda (also called an "outro") are usually only used once. Some pop songs may have a solo section, particularly in rock or blues influenced pop. During the solo section one or more instruments play a melodic line which may be the melody used by the singer, or, in blues or jazz influenced pop, the solo may be improvised based on the chord progression or the verse played.



"Jingle Bells"'s introduction  Play intro  or  full song  Structure: Intro, Verse I, Chorus, Verse II, Chorus, Verse III, Chorus, Verse IV, Chorus, Outro.
Main article: Introduction (music)

The introduction is a unique section that comes at the beginning of the piece. Generally speaking, an introduction will contain just music and no words. It usually builds up suspense for the listener so when the downbeat drops in, it creates a release or surprise. In some songs, the intro is one or more bars of the tonic chord (the "home" key of the song). The introduction may also be based around the chords used in the verse, chorus, or bridge, or a stock "turnaround" progression may be played, such as the I–vi–ii–V progression (particularly in jazz influenced pop songs). In some cases, an introduction contains only drums or percussion parts which set the rhythm and "groove" for the song. Alternately the introduction may consist of a solo sung by the lead singer (or a group of backup singers), or played by an instrumentalist.


"Jingle Bells"'s verse  Play verse  or  full song 
Main article: Verse–chorus form

In popular music, a verse roughly corresponds to a poetic stanza because it consists of rhyming lyrics most often with an AABB or ABAB rhyme scheme. When two or more sections of the song have almost identical music and different lyrics, each section is considered one verse. It is not to be confused with a pre-verse, which is an interlude between the introduction of a song and its opening verse. Although less common now, the pre-verse technique was popular with the surf music of the 1960s.

Musically, "the verse is to be understood as a unit that prolongs the tonic....The musical structure of the verse nearly always recurs at least once with a different set of lyrics".[3] Lyrically, "the verse contains the details of the song: the story, the events, images and emotions that the writer wishes to express....Each verse will have different lyrics from the others."[1] "A verse exists primarily to support the chorus or refrain...both musically and lyrically."[4]


An optional section that may occur after the verse is the "pre-chorus." Also referred to as a "build", "channel," or "transitional bridge," the pre-chorus functions to connect the verse to the chorus with intermediary material, typically using subdominant or similar transitional harmonies. "Often, a two-phrase verse containing basic chords is followed by a passage, often harmonically probing, that leads to the full chorus."[5] Often when the verse and chorus involve the same harmonic structure, the pre-chorus will introduce a new harmonic pattern in order to make the harmony reappearance of the verse harmonies in the chorus seem fresh.

Chorus or refrain

"Jingle Bells"'s chorus  Play chorus  or  full song 
Main article: Refrain

"The difference between refrain and chorus is not always cut-and-dried; both refer to passages of unchanging music and text providing a periodic sense of return."[6] "At times, the term 'refrain' has been used interchangeably with 'chorus.' Technically, the refrain may be considered anything that's not the verse....a song part that contains the hook or title and appears more than once in a song is usually called 'a chorus.'"[7] "The chorus contains the main idea, or big picture, of what is being expressed lyrically and musically. It is repeated throughout the song, and the melody and lyric rarely vary."[1] A refrain is, "a repeated line or musical phrase that ties a song together...A refrain is only a phrase, or a word, while a chorus contains many more words."[8] A refrain may be defined as a repetitive phrase or phrases that serve the function of a chorus lyrically but are not placed in a separate section and/or long enough so as to be considered a chorus.[4] For example, refrains are found in The Beatles' "She Loves You" ("yeah, yeah, yeah") AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long", Paul Simon's "The Sound of Silence", and "Deck the Halls" ("fa la la la la").[8]

The chorus or refrain is the element of the song that repeats at least once both musically and lyrically. It is almost always of greater musical and emotional intensity than the verse. "The chorus, which gets its name from a usual thickening of texture from the addition of backing vocals, is always a discrete section that nearly always prolongs the tonic and carries an unvaried poetic text."[9] In terms of narrative, the chorus conveys the main message or theme of the song. Normally the most memorable element of the song for listeners, the chorus usually contains the hook.


Main article: Bridge (music)

A bridge may be "a transition", but more often in popular music is "a section that contrasts with the verse...[,] usually ends on the dominant...[, and] often culminates in a strong re-transitional".[9] "The bridge is a device that is used to break up the repetitive pattern of the song and keep the listener's attention....In a bridge, the pattern of the words and music change."[8] For example, John Denver's "Country Roads" is a song with a bridge while Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" is a song without one.[8]

In music theory, "middle eight" (a common type of bridge) refers to the section of a song which has a significantly different melody and lyrics, which helps the song develop itself in a natural way by creating a contrast to the previously played, usually placed after the second chorus in a song. (Typically, a song consists of first verse, pre-chorus, chorus, second verse, pre-chorus, chorus, middle eight, chorus). Such sections often consist of new chords, but also frequently just alternate between two chords. It is called a middle 8 because it happens in the middle of the song and the length is generally 8 bars. Jazz players also call this "the release".

A typical song structure employing a middle 8 is:

       ....  ....    ....  ....    ........  ....     ....
Intro-{Verse-Chorus}{Verse-Chorus}-Middle 8-{Chorus}-{Chorus}-(Outro)

Middle 8s are often quieter than the remainder of the song, in contrast with the solo, which is generally more energetic. In slower songs, however, a middle 8 can be used to generate energy. By adding a powerful upbeat middle 8, musicians can then end the song with a hook in the end chorus and finale.

Conclusion or Outro

"Jingle Bells"'s outro  Play outro  or  full song 
Main article: Outro (music)

The conclusion or outro of a song is a way of ending or completing the song. For example, through a fade-out or instrumental tag.


An Elision is a section of music where different parts overlap one another, usually for a short period. It is mostly used in fast-paced music, and it is designed to create tension and drama. For example, during a chorus later in the song, the composer may interject musical elements from the bridge.

Instrumental solo

Main article: Solo (music)

A solo is a section designed to showcase an instrumentalist (e.g. a guitarist or a harmonica player) or less commonly, more than one instrumentalist (e.g., a trumpeter and a sax player). Guitar solos are common in rock music, particularly heavy metal and in the blues. The solo section may take place over the chords from the verse, chorus, or bridge, or over a standard solo backing progression, such as the 12-bar blues progression. In some pop songs, the solo performer plays the same melodies that were performed by the lead singer, often with flourishes and embellishments, such as riffs, scale runs, and arpeggios. In blues- or jazz-influenced pop songs, the solo performers may improvise a solo.

Ad lib

In Latin, ad libitum means "at will"; this is often shortened to ad lib. An ad lib section of a song (usually in the coda or outro) occurs when the main lead vocal or a second lead vocal breaks away from the already established lyric and/or melody to add melodic interest and intensity to the end of the song. Often, the ad lib repeats the previously sung line using variations on phrasing, melodic shape, and/or lyric, but the vocalist may also use entirely new lyrics or a lyric from an earlier section of the song. During an ad lib section, the rhythm may become freer (with the rhythm section following the vocalist), or the rhythm section may stop entirely, giving the vocalist the freedom to use whichever tempo he or she wishes. During live performances, singers sometimes include ad libs not originally in the song, such as making a reference to the town of the audience or customizing the lyrics to the current events of the era.

There is a distinction between ad lib as a song section and ad lib as a general term. Ad lib as a general term can be applied to any free interpretation of the musical material.

AABA form

Main article: Thirty-two-bar form

Thirty-two-bar form uses four sections, most often eight measures long each (4×8=32), two verses or A sections, a contrasting B section (the bridge or "middle-eight") and a return of the verse in one last A section (AABA).

Examples include "Deck the Halls":

A: Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
A: 'Tis the season to be jolly.
B: Don we now our gay apparel,
A: Troll the ancient Yuletide carol.

Variation on the basic structure

Verse-chorus form or ABA form may be combined with AABA form, in compound AABA forms. Variations such as a1 and a2 can also be used.

AAA format may be found in Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'", "The House of the Rising Sun", and "Clementine".[10] Also "Old MacDonald", "Amazing Grace", "The Thrill Is Gone", and Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald".[11]

AABA may be found in Crystal Gayle's "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue", Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are", and The Beatles' "Yesterday".[12]

ABA (verse/chorus or chorus/verse) format may be found in Pete Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (chorus first) and The Rolling Stones's "Honky Tonk Woman" (verse first).[10] ABAB may be found in AC/DC's "Back in Black", Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville", The Archies's "Sugar, Sugar", and The Eagles's "Hotel California".[13]

ABABCB format may be found in Smokey Robinson's "My Guy" and The Beatles's "Ticket to Ride".[10] Also John Cougar Mellencamp's "Hurts So Good", Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do with It?", and ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man".[13] Variations include The Pretenders's "Back on the Chain Gang" (ABABCAB), Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" (ABABCBAB), and Billy Joel's "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" (ABABCABCAB).[13]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Davidson, Miriam; Heartwood, Kiya (1996). Songwriting for Beginners, p.6. Alfred Music Publishing. ISBN 0739020005.
  2. Everett, Walter (2008). The Foundations of Rock : From "Blue Suede Shoes" to "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes": From "Blue Suede Shoes" to "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", p.145. ISBN 9780199718702.
  3. Everett, Walter (1999). The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver Through the Anthology, p.15. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195129410.
  4. 1 2 Cope (2009), p.68.
  5. Everett (2008), p.146.
  6. Whitesell, Lloyd (2008). The Music of Joni Mitchell, p.151. ISBN 9780199719099.
  7. Watson, C. J. (2003). The Everything Songwriting Book: All You Need to Create and Market Hit Songs, p.86. Adams Media. ISBN 9781440522666.
  8. 1 2 3 4 Davidson & Heartwood (1996), p.7.
  9. 1 2 Everett (1999), p.16.
  10. 1 2 3 Davidson & Heartwood (1996), p.8.
  11. Watson (2003), p.87-8.
  12. Watson (2003), p.89.
  13. 1 2 3 Watson (2003), p.90.

Further reading

  • Appen, Ralf von / Frei-Hauenschild, Markus "AABA, Refrain, Chorus, Bridge, Prechorus — Song Forms and their Historical Development". In: Samples. Online Publikationen der Gesellschaft für Popularmusikforschung/German Society for Popular Music Studies e.V. Ed. by Ralf von Appen, André Doehring and Thomas Phleps. Vol. 13 (2015).
  • Covach, John. "Form in Rock Music: A Primer", in Stein, Deborah (2005). Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517010-5.
  • Covach, John and Boone, Graham, eds. Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis. Cited in Covach (2005).
  • Everett, Walter, ed. Rock Music: Critical Essays on Composition, Performance, Analysis, and Reception. Cited in Covach (2005).
  • Forte, Allan The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950: A Study in Musical Design, Princeton University Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-691-04399-9.
  • Kaiser, Ulrich "Babylonian confusion. Zur Terminologie der Formanalyse von Pop- und Rockmusik". In: Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie 8/1 (2011) – ISSN 1862-6742.
  • Richard Middleton. "Form", in Horner, Bruce and Swiss, Thomas, eds. (1999) Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture. Malden, Massachusetts. ISBN 0-631-21263-9.
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