The Elements of Song Form
There are many musical pillars to consider while playing a song. Some of these include rhythm, tempo, melody, harmony, dynamics, and orchestration. Some music requires musicians to play rigidly and metronomically, while other music may allow for openness, interpretation, and interaction. In other words, while remaining controlled and always doing what’s best for the music, this approach allows for the musician to play with a higher degree of improvisation and interactive play with other musicians. We find this most common in bebop jazz music. Regardless of the style you play and the approach to music, every song is played with a structure. This is what we call song form. The song is organized and arranged, as opposed to being spontaneous. In jazz, some of the most common song forms include: AABA form or 12 bar blues. As we get more in depth with music, we can also encounter a ternary form, which is a 3 part musical form (ABA). Or, a strophic form, which is a one-part song form (AAA). Knowing the form of the song especially if you have a lead sheet in front of you is absolutely paramount to your success of the music. This is because you’ll always know where you are at in the song, and play what is best for the music in that particular section. Moreover, if the bandleader stops a song and asks the band to pick up in the bridge section, you will know exactly what this is and where it’s located in the reading chart.
In contemporary music, we typically deal with an intro, verse, chorus, bridge, and outro. Some will also involve a pre-chorus, interlude, and other elements. In this resource, we will define each of these elements to song form. As you delve into music, it is our hope that you develop a profound understanding of these elements to song form. Not only will this enhance your music theory skill, but also help you identify what you’re playing. As a result, you will be a skilled musician that will play and adapt to any musical setting.
*The Intro - the intro is another word for entry, introduction, or beginning. Simply put, it's the start of the song. The intro generally does not have lyrics involved. It helps set the tone, tempo, and mood of the song. For instance, listen to the section 0-53 seconds of "Eye of the Tiger". https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEjgPh4SEmU. This is an example of the intro section. Some intros are shorter that can be only played for 4 bars, while other intros can be extended to 8 or 16 bars. Regardless of the duration, the intended purpose of the intro is to set the mood and attitude of the song.
*The Verse - is known as a song that tells a story. It is when the lyrical part or singing section of the song starts. What is the song about? Is it about love, peace, politics, or courage? Reading the verse section of the lyrics will give you insight on what the song is all about. There are often 2-3 verse sections in contemporary music. For instance, listen to the song, "Don't Stop Believing". At the 18 second mark, this begins the verse section of the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1k8craCGpgs.
*The chorus is often called “the hook”. It contains the main message of the song. We remember music most by listening to the chorus section. Further, in most instances, the title of the song will be sung during the chorus section. Lastly, it’s important to know that the chorus isn’t merely when the title of the song is sung. It will include that entire section until a new section begins. Listen to “Happy” from Pharoah Williams. The moment the section begins-“Cuz I’m happy...” you’re in the chorus section. It’s the overall message of the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbZSe6N_BXs.
*Bridge - A section that is different or contrasted from the verse and chorus section. The purpose is to bring variety from the repetitiveness of verse/chorus/verse/chorus. The bridge will often have a different background (melody, tempo can be different, lyrics, and chord progressions). The bridge is not the end of the song. It usually builds up the anticipation and excitement of the chorus section. Listen to the song, “What Love Got To Do With” from Tina Turner. At the 2:22 mark, you’ll see how the lyrics and background changes from the normal theme, “What’s Love Got To Do With”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGpFcHTxjZs.
*Outro – This is the opposite of the intro section. The outro is the ending or conclusion of the song. The outro can end in three ways: First, there is an abrupt stop to the music among all the musicians. Listen to the end of the song, “Sad But True” from Metallica. You will see how the music abruptly stops: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krpnMA-N3-c.
The second way a song can end is a fade out to the music. This is sometimes called a poco a poco decrescendo. "Poco a poco" in music means little by little. You are gradually and evenly reducing or minimizing the sound until you are no longer able to hear it. This can extend for an entire section of music since the sound incrementally gets softer. Listen to our intro example of “Eye of the Tiger” again to capture how the song fades out toward the outro section. Finally, we can have a breakdown outro. This means that instruments are being eliminated as the outro progresses. You will first hear all the instrumental parts, but then the vocals and drums may be taken away, followed by the piano, and the guitar may be the remaining playing instrument until that ends. Listen to the ending of “Shape of my Heart” from Sting to see how the vocals/drums breakdown before the guitar melody: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlwIDxCjL-8.
*Pre-Chorus - this is the part that proceeds the verse and precedes the chorus. It sets up the chorus. It is generally played the same throughout the song (e.g., pre-chorus 1 before chorus is the same to pre-chorus 2 before chorus 2). The key purpose of this is to build the energy of the chorus section. It is a pathway to the primary part of the song that builds excitement and anticipation. Listen to the song "Firework" from Katie Perry. You can clearly hear the pre-chorus just before "the hook" when she says "Fire Work": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGJuMBdaqIw.
*Interlude – this is a section in music that bridges the first chorus and second verse together. It normally does not include lyrics. Common instruments to play during the is section are the guitar, bass, and drums. The interlude can be very short like two bars, but can also be extended to 4 or 8 bars. Song writers will often play this so the transition is not too abrupt going from the chorus to the verse. There can be an excessive amount of vocals abruptly transitioning from the chorus to the verse, so the interlude helps widen the space of the song to get into the 2nd verse. Listen to the song, “Like a stone” from Audioslave. Between the 1:30-1:37 mark, you’ll hear the interlude: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4zdoXgGnKdc#.
*Breakdown means to break something down. You are taking an instrument away during a part. For instance, instead of all the instruments being played during a section, you would take away the drums or the guitar. There are two basic rules to the breakdown: First, any instrument can be taken away. Second, the breakdown is typically toward the end of the song around the 3rd chorus. It helps change up the monotony of hearing the sections as they constantly are. By breaking down a part, it will bring a different sound to the listener. Let’s go back to our interlude example of "Like a stone" from Audioslave. You will hear the breakdown toward the end of the song where the song writer eliminates the drums during that section. This is right around the 3:32 mark of the song.
*Solo Section - is a section where an individual of the band performs a solo. A solo means one. This means that one person within the band will improvise during a section. The emphasis is on that person. The instrument can vary. For instance, John Bonham of "Moby Dick" is the soloist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2N_xP67utPk. In "Here I go again" from Whitesnake, the guitarist is the focal point of the solo or in "November Rain" from Guns N’ Roses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyF8RHM1OCg, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SbUC-UaAxE. Additionally, while the solo is being performed in that section, generally, the rhythm section (drummer and bassist) are still keeping a steady time in the background.
*Vamp is a section of the song that is based on a repeated groove or riff. Sometimes the vocalist will improvise over the repeated instrumental part. Other times, an instrument will vamp over another repeated instrument. For instance, listen to "The Way You Make Me Feel" by Michael Jackson. You can hear how Michael Jackson is vamping from the 2:17-2:34 mark over a repetitive synthesizer. This is an example of a vocalist vamping over an instrument: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0neY33G1emQ. Conversely, you can have an instrumentalist vamping over another instrument. For more on this, check out the James Brown song, "Super Bad". Listen to the bassist toward the beginning of the song vamping over the guitar section. Eventually the guitarist also vamps: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJ9CLOEOB5U.
As we learned, the elements to song form are very important to learn. By mastering each one, we will be able to distinguish between each one. Too often, students cannot decipher between the verse and chorus section. Mastering the song form elements will help us be a proficient supporter of the music, and always play what is best for each of those sections. Do not merely use this resource to understand the definitions of each section. Listen to various songs from different genres and time epochs to cultivate your understanding of each part. The more you listen to music, the more you will train your ears to identify what each of these parts are, and their significance in the song.