The Three Basic Song Forms

The Three Basic Song Forms

Quality songwriting is an interplay of variation and repetition.  Themes, motives and lyrics must occur often enough to build audience familiarity while providing enough new content to consistently engage their interest.  In order to facilitate this dynamic, contemporary songwriters have developed a few common song forms that recur frequently.  This gives writers a scaffolding around which to base their work while providing the audience with a similar framework of interpretation.  Each lends itself to certain narrative structures and musical design.

Verse/Refrain

A common song form in folk music, the verse/refrain uses a single repeating structure with a refrain line incorporated in either the end or the beginning of the section.  A refrain line is repeated melodic and lyrical idea which summarizes or comments on the theme of the stanza. The lyrics of each section vary while the refrain always remains the same.  As such, this is an excellent song form for storytelling. Bob Dylan provides excellent examples of this form in “Don’t Think Twice It’a Alright” and “Hard, Rain’s Gonna Fall.” 

The composition of a verse/refrain form builds tension both melodically and harmonically up to the refrain line, where it is resolved and typically cadences to the tonic both melodically and harmonically.  In a typical sixteen-bar verse/refrain section, measures 1-4 will expose a melodic and harmonic phrase that is repeated in bars 5-8 with slight variation and new lyrical content.  Bars 9-12 will introduce a new chord progression and melody designed to build tension.  This frequently entails an ascending melody and less space, sometimes incorporating chromatic harmony.  The refrain then cadences to the tonic in bars 13-16, ending on the downbeat of measure 15 or its anticipation.

Verse/Chorus

A Verse/Chorus song contains two separate sections, one which utilizes unique narrative content called the verse and another composed of a repeating summarization called the chorus.  The chorus contains the title or ”hook” of the song, the most memorable line of the song which also serves to define its meaning.  The hook may be use multiple times within the chorus.  Verse/Chorus songs are therefore very conducive for catching the ear of the listener and are the most common form in popular music as a consequence.  

The verse in this form contains new lyrical content in each section, but retains the same melody and harmony.  It may use asymmetry or imbalance to create momentum towards the chorus.  Towards the end of the verse, the phrase may become shorter, using less space and/or ascending phrases to build tension.  It may end a step below the first note of the chorus. A song may use multiple verses preceding each chorus.

The chorus typically is highest portion of the song pitch-wise and contains the longest notes with the most space.  The hook/title generally contains the highest, longest notes and is surrounded by space. It may cadence to the tonic harmonically and melodically, ending on the downbeat of second or third measure of a four measure phrase or its anticipation.  Popular examples of Verse/Chorus songs include “Like A Rolling Stone” By Bod Dylan and “Drops of Jupiter” By Train.

Verse/Prechorus/Chorus

This form incorporates a third section to “bridge” the verse and chorus, sometimes called a transitional bridge.  This should not be confused with a traditional bridge which comes later in a song as a means of providing contrast.  The pre-chorus builds intensity towards the chorus and often use chord progressions that do not include the tonic in order to build tension.  The lyrical content of a pre-chorus moves the narrative of the verse towards the main idea of the chorus.  The pre-chorus is shorter than both the verse and the chorus.

In this form the verse does not need to build any tension and the harmony and melody can remain relatively repetitive and stable.  The pre-chorus instead builds that tension, using unstable chord progressions, ascending melodic lines, shorter phrases and less space to “build” momentum towards the chorus, perhaps ending a step below the first note of the chorus.  The chorus retains its regular function as the carrier of the hook/title and main idea.  Classic examples include “Buddy Holly” by Weezer and “You Belong With Me” by Taylor Swift.

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