Form in pop/rock music – Overview

Pop/rock songs of the late twentieth century tend to follow one of three large-scale structural patterns.

Strophic form

Consider “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins. This song contains multiple modules, all of which have the same basic underlying music. Though the instrumentation and the lyrics change, the section beginning at 0:19 contains the same – or, at least, very similar – melody, harmony, and phrase structure as the sections that begin at 0:58, 1:37, and 1:54. Listening a bit more closely, we can hear a similar, but abbreviated, version of the same patterns at the opening of the song. Even the instrumental sections at 0:41 and 1:21 have the same underlying pattern, just a different melody in the form of a guitar solo. The entire song is a repetition of this same basic pattern, or slight variations of it, modeled at 0:19–0:41. Songs that follow this structure of repeating the same basic multi-phrase unit throughout are called strophic songs. The form is called strophic form (sometimes abbreviated AAA, because the same basic material A is repeated), and the basic unit that is repeated is called a strophe. Strophic form is more common in early rock-and-roll (1950s–1960s) than in the 1970s and beyond.

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And here is a bird’s-eye-view sketch of the form of “Blue Suede Shoes” to follow as you listen:

  • 0:00 – Strophe 1
  • 0:19 – Strophe 2
  • 0:41 – Instrumental strophe
  • 0:58 – Strophe 3
  • 1:21 – Instrumental strophe
  • 1:37 – Strophe 1 (slightly varied repetition)
  • 1:54 – Strophe 4

While “Blue Suede Shoes” is composed entirely of strophes, it is important to note that strophic songs can also contain auxiliary modules such as intros, outros, and codas. However, if a song has more than one main musical idea other than strophes and auxiliary modules, it is not strophic, but likely one of the following two forms.

32-bar song form (AABA)

Another formal structure that is more common in early rock-and-roll is AABA form, also called 32-bar song form because of some of the features of earlier “Golden Age” songs that make use of this structure.

Consider “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles. After a brief introduction, the song begins with two strophes. However, where “Blue Suede Shoes” followed with an instrumental strophe, The Beatles move to a bridge at 0:52. This new section builds tension by contrasting and withholding the main strophe theme before it returns at 1:11. Note that the song begins and ends with the strophe, and the strophe contains the title lyrics. It also, for many people, is the more memorable part of the song. Thus, the strophe is still the primary module. But now it has a secondary module to add interest and tension, the bridge. (And an auxiliary module, the intro, to help get the song off the ground.)

Here is a bird’s-eye-view sketch of the form of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”:

  • 0:00 – Intro
  • 0:08 – Strophe 1 (A1)
  • 0:29 – Strophe 2 (A2)
  • 0:51 – Bridge (B)
  • 1:11 – Strophe 3 (A3)
  • 1:33 – Bridge (B)
  • 1:53 – Strophe 3 (A3)

There is no legal, open-access, embeddable audio for this song. However, it is easy to find, if you don’t already own a recording.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” is a typical AABA song in that it does not just have four modules, AABA. AABA songs almost always have a complete AABA cycle, followed by either another complete AABA cycle, or an incomplete cycle (typically BA). Once the first AABA cycle is complete, there tend not to be any new lyrics, only repetition of the whole or the end of the main cycle.

The convention is to label cycles with curly brackets: {}. So the large-scale form of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is


Verse-chorus form (VC, VCB)

The last of the three main form types, verse-chorus form is a versatile song form that rapidly took over rock-and-roll in the 1960s and has dominated the genre ever since. Like AABA form, verse-chorus form has multiple core (non-auxiliary) modules. However, where the title lyrics, the most memorable music, and the main narrative all tend to take place in the strophe of an AABA song (which both begins and ends the song), in verse-chorus form, those features are split between the verse (a secondary module, which contains the main narrative text, and which begins the song) and the chorus (the primary module, which contains the title lyrics, the most memorable melody, and which ends the song).

Consider Bon Jovi’s song “Livin’ on a Prayer.” After an extended intro, the first cycle begins with a verse at 0:47. Then at 1:18 a prechorus increases energy and tension into the chorus at 1:34. After a brief mid-song introduction, this cycle is repeated beginning at 1:54, with the addition of a postchorus at 2:56. A final cycle at 3:00 is atypical and abbreviated, and if followed by a repetition of its final chorus multiple times, during which a fadeout ends the song.

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Spotify URI: spotify:track:0J6mQxEZnlRt9ymzFntA6z

Like “Livin’ on a Prayer,” a verse-chorus song’s formal cycle will contain at least two core modules—verse (V) and chorus (C), with the chorus module being the primary module. Other possible modules in the cycle exhibit prechorus (P), bridge (B), and postchorus (Z) functions.

A full cycle containing all modules except for B would be {VPCZ}. These four functions always progress in this order, though not all need be present. Bridge modules are somewhat flexible. If a song has single bridge module, it tends to appear once, followed by the last chorus, or the last prechorus and chorus, of the song. Bridges often appear in place of the verse and/or prechorus modules in the last cycle, not as an extra element. Thus, songs that incorporate all five core module types rarely will place all five in a single cycle.

Common non-bridge cycles include {VC}, {VPC}, and occasionally (especially as the first cycle in a song) {VVC}, with Z potentially added to the end of any. Common cycles including bridge are {BC} and {BPC}, with Z potentially added to the end of either.

Simple verse-chorus form

Simple verse-chorus form is a term coined by John Covach, referring to songs in verse-chorus form where the harmonic progression underlying the verse is the same as that underlying the chorus. A prime example of this is U2’s “With or Without You.”

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Super-simple verse-chorus form

Super-simple verse-chorus form is a term coined by Jay Summach (based on Covach’s), referring to songs in verse-chorus form where both the harmonic progression and the melody are both the same for verse and chorus (Summach, p. 322).

Going into detail

The following sections go into greater detail about these large-scale structures and the component structures that make them up. Terms, concepts, definitions, and notational guidelines in OMT 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.