Form in pop/rock music – Terminology and basic concepts

This document is a glossary of terms and concepts that we will use in our analysis of pop/rock music. Terms, concepts, definitions, and notational guidelines in this document are taken either from common convention; the published or unpublished work of Jason Summach, John Covach, Walter Everett, Mark Spicer, or Daniel Harrison; or some combination thereof.

Poetic terminology

A combination of two or three syllables: typically one stressed syllable, and one or two unstressed syllables. Common poetic feet include the iamb (unstressed – stressed), the trochee (stressed – unstressed), the spondee (two stressed syllables in a row), the anapest (stressed – stressed – unstressed), and the dactyl (stressed – unstressed – unstressed.)


A group of poetic feet functioning as a single unit. Each poetic line is given its own line as printed/written text. If the line is part of rhyming poetry, the last syllable/foot participates in a rhyme with another line. (Internal rhyme is also possible.)


A pair of lines. If poetry is rhyming, the two lines making up a couplet typically rhyme with each other. They may also participate in a larger rhyme scheme (see quatrain below).


A pair of couplets (i.e., four lines). Common quatrain rhyme schemes are aabb, abab, abcb.


A set of poetic lines that work together as a single narrative unit. Typically one or more quatrains (i.e., total number of lines are a multiple of four).


Following is a stanza from U2, “Pride (In the Name of Love).” This stanza is a quatrain composed of four lines. The first and third lines have four feet (that is, four stressed syllables) with irregular rhythm. The second and fourth lines have three feet with irregular rhythm, and they rhyme with each other.

One man come in the name of love.
One man come and go.
One man come, he to justify.
One man to overthrow.

Other structures

For more poetic structures and terms, see Vanier College’s resource, Poetry’s Structure and Form.

Descriptors & rhetorical devices


A module or phrase is lyric-variant if each time it appears it brings (mostly) different lyrics.


A module or phrase is lyric-invariant if each time it appears it brings (mostly) the same lyrics. Lyric invariance tends to come at points of formal closure (tail refrains at the ends of strophes, choruses at the end of a verse-chorus song’s formal cycle).


A module or phrase is music-variant if each time it appears it brings (mostly) different music.


A module or phrase is music-invariant if each time it appears it brings (mostly) the same music.


Jay Summach uses the term “chorusification” (p. 321) to describe a process where modules are stripped away from the formal cycle until only the chorus module (C) remains. For example, a song that begins with the cycle {VPC} may appear near the end of the song without the verse {PC} and then again without the prechorus {C}. This process is part of a goal-directed progression toward the end of the song, giving special emphasis to the chorus.

Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” is a good example of chorusification. The first two cycles are similar in length and content, but the third cycle (beginning at 2:58) replaces the verse with an instrumental chorus, giving the third cycle two choruses. After this cycle closes, the chorus repeats forming a chorus-based outro.

HTML link:
Spotify URI: spotify:track:0J6mQxEZnlRt9ymzFntA6z

Harmonic aspects of form


A phrase or module is on-tonic when it begins with tonic harmony (I in root position).


A phrase or module is off-tonic when it begins on a harmony other than tonic.

Harmonically closed

A phrase or module is harmonically closed when it ends with tonic harmony (I in root position).

Harmonically open

A phrase or module is harmonically open when it ends on a harmony other than tonic.


The use of a non-tonic chord (usually dominant) at the end of a harmonically closed unit to transition into the beginning of the following on-tonic unit.

The song “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs contains a turnaround at the end of many of its strophes. One of these occur at 0:54 ― a simple V7 chord to prepare the return of I as the next strophe begins.

HTML link:
Spotify URI: spotify:track:2XkuSbp5say8nZW8g6156Z

Interestingly in this song, the guitarist doesn’t always remember the turnarounds. Notice that at 0:28 the bass and baritone saxophone play the dominant, but the guitarist keeps tonic. At 1:18, the singer yells, “Watch it now! Watch it! Watch it!” as if warning the guitarist not to miss the turnaround in the next bar. He does the same in 2:08. When the guitarist gets the turnaround with the rest of the band, the singer yells, “You got it! You got it!” as if congratulating the guitarist.

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