Chapter 9
Popular Song Types and Forms

            By the end of the 1800s, America's popular music industry had taken shape, with the following characteristics still firm today:


  1. Music was being written specifically and unashamedly for commercial gain,

  2. It was often aimed at a particular ethnic group or socioeconomic class,

  3. It was produced, packaged, and marketed with all the inventive energies that go into such business activities,

  4. The music arose from, and left its mark on, the immediate social milieu of the day, and

  5. Because of the above four characteristics, popular music was scorned by classical musicians and their audiences.



The Sentimental Ballad

            In pop music, the term "ballad" means, generally, a slow and emotional song.  Two kinds are common.  First is the love song, with its "boy-girl, moon-June, croon-tune, honeymoon" lyrics.  These stock phrases and personal declarations of undying love never wear out.  Love songs will be around forever.  Why?  Because the perpetuation of the species is important business, and it's a completely new and magical experience for each generation.

            Second is the song of deep emotion.  The musical gestures are much the same as for the love song, but the topic is religion, patriotism, friendship, or, perhaps, the beauty of nature.  If the song is set for a choir or large group of singers it will have an added dash of majestic dignity.

            The specific character of the sentimental ballad changes from generation to generation, of course, and from style to style.  A love song in the 1920s was substantially different from a love song in jazz or musical comedy.


The Narrative Song

            Two kinds.  The historical narrative holds everyone's interest because a good story is always fun to hear, and the story gains power and depth from its musical setting.  The story may be long or short, happy or sad, fully detailed or sparse, with many characters or only a few.  Folk singers call this kind of narrative song a "ballad", incidentally, while pop musicians mean a slow sentimental tune when they say "ballad."

            The second kind of narrative song is the topical narrative.  Quick and clean, like a television commercial perhaps, or a war tune or political tune, it describes a condition or situation in bold, memorable, strokes – the purpose being to make a strong imprint.


The Humorous Song

            Again, two kinds.  First, some tunes are just plain nonsense tunes, with no specific purpose other than to deliver whimsical and clever lyrics that turn out to surprise and delight the audience.

            Second, the dialect song, which has almost disappeared from show business.  Once a major source of comedy material, vaudeville routines were loaded with songs that drew their humor from the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of anyone with other than an Anglo-Saxon speech manner.  Imitation Italian, Scandinavian, Jewish, German, Irish, and African-American accents were exaggerated for humorous effect.  The dialect song is most rare today, with good reason.


Strophic Design

            There are two kinds of strophic design – the single-unit and the verse-refrain construction.

            The single-unit package has the same music, over and over again, stanza after stanza, until the complete story has been told, as is the case with "Tom Dooley", "Amazing Grace", and "Blowin' in the Wind".  Economy of musical materials is the goal here, and the single-unit strophic design is usually one-part or, occasionally, two-part form, which will be explained shortly.

            The verse-refrain strophic design will likewise appear in Spartan simplicity and economy, but in a double package, with the refrain serving as a recurring interlude which throws the verses into bold relief to carry the message.  Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susanna" and hundreds of similar camp songs owe their longevity to the psychic pleasures of the crowd joining in on the refrain each time, while the song leader runs through the many verses.


Binary Form

            Generally speaking, binary forms will be songs that have only two main parts, regardless of how many times each section is repeated.  Two kinds of binary form are found in music.  Scholars show the design scheme of these forms, and other musical forms, with a system of letters and numbers, with each letter designating a distinct melody and numbers designating slight variations on a distinct melody.


A-B Design

"America" is a good example of the A-B kind of two-part form: two little sections, one complementing the other:

My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims' pride.
From every mountain side, let freedom ring.


A-A' or AB-AC Design

A slightly different kind of binary form is often found.  It might be diagrammed as A-A' (A and A-prime) or AB-AC: two sections of music, the second being nearly identical to the first except for a change at the end to tie things up in a satisfying manner.  Good examples are Henry Mancini's "Moon River" (as diagramed below), which consists of four basic 8-measure units.  In this particular song, the final 8-measure unit has been extended an additional two measures to provide a sense of finality to the whole experience.


AB-AC Design:  Moon River

Moon River, wider than a mile,
I'm crossing you in style, some day.
Old dream maker, you heart breaker,
Wherever you're going, I'm going your way.
Two drifters, off to see the world.
There's such a lot of world to see.
We're after the same rainbow's end,
Waitin' 'round the bend,
My huckleberry friend,
Moon River and me.


Other excellent examples of A-A' or AB-AC design are Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust", Jerry Herman's "Hello, Dolly!", Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World", and the jazz standard "Fly Me to the Moon".


Ternary Form

            One of the most common forms of all of music, ternary design satisfies a deep human need for the return of familiar melodic material.  Of the two kinds of ternary form, the A-B-A design is very common in classical music and very rare in popular music, Consuelo Velazquez's 1944 hit, "Besame Mucho," being one of the few pop tunes in A-B-A form.  Here's another tune that may be more familiar:


A-B-A Design:  "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.


            Often, a psychological need is felt to repeat the first little section of music, to fix it firmly in mind, before the contrasting center section is offered.  Thousands of pop tunes come in this A-A-B-A design.  From the late 1800s to the 1960s it was almost universal.  Each unit has 8 measures, 32 measures in all, with the center section changing key and melodic contours as a kind of "bridge" between or "release" from or a "channel" through the opening and closing sections which are nearly identical except for a few notes at the end.


            A-A-B-A Design:  "Deck the Halls" 

Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

'Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

Don we now our gay apparel,
Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la.

Troll the ancient yuletide carol,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.


            Ternary form was used often, by everybody from Irving Berlin to the Beatles, although the Beatles' "Yesterday" has 7-measure units (instead of 8-measure units) for the first two "A" sections.  Ternary form got stretched, occasionally, by Cole Porter and others, and recent works deviate a bit from the pure A-A-B-A scheme, but ternary form still reigns supreme in pop music.

            Incidentally, some traditional popular tunes have introductions or lead-ins before the familiar part of the song begins.  Many of these lead-in "verses" were important when sung in their original theatrical presentations, as a way to explain a plot point or give details about the emotional state of a character.  Since these verses don't always make sense when taken out of context, and because they were very often more spoken on a pitch (usually without a strict tempo) than sung, many traditional pop singers will simply drop the verse to get to the more melodic refrain.  And in the days of dancing to instrumental popular tunes, bandleaders dropped the verses to get to the well-known parts of the songs, so the dancers would know what tune they were dancing to.

            A fairly recognizable example of a song that usually does not have its verses sung is "Over the Rainbow":


Verse 1  (A)
When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around,
Heaven opens a magic door.

Verse 2  (A)
When all the clouds darken up the skyway,
There's a rainbow highway to be found,
Leading from your window pane
To a place beyond the sun,
Just a step beyond the rain ...

Refrain  (B)
Somewhere over the rainbow way up high,
There's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.

Refrain  (B)
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.

Bridge  (C)
Someday I'll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops a way above the chimney tops that's where you'll find me.

Refrain  (B)
Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow why, oh why, can't I?

Coda  (C')
If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why, can't I?


            An interest in verses has returned, though.  Many cocktail pianists and cabaret singers, especially in the better clubs around the country, take pride in knowing and singing the introductions to all the great standard tunes from 1920 through 1950.


Blues Form

            The blues is a term used to denote an early historical period in the field of jazz (performed by the likes of Bessie Smith and others); it is also a term used to denote a special kind of authentic and soulful singing-performing.  For over one hundred years, the 12-bar blues has carried texts of astonishing depth and diversity.  A history of the blues will follow later; for now, a quick sketch of the form will suffice.

            As a musical form (that is, a set of chords), the blues is a rigorous structure for the I chord (also known as the tonic), the IV chord (also known as the subdominant), and the V7 chord (also known as the dominant) in the following scheme (in the key of C):


Measures of music Chord played

1 through 4 C

5 and 6 F

7 and 8 C

9 and 10 G7

11 and 12 C

            Scholars and theorists use Roman numerals when analyzing classical music.  Jazz and pop musicians nearly always use the names of the specific chords.  The Roman numerals correspond to the degree of the scale in each key.  So, in the above example, if the C is the I chord, going up four tones in the scale brings you to F, so it is, then, the IV chord.

            Lots of harmonic deviations can occur within the basic structure.  Here is one popular iteration found in many jazz arrangements of blues tunes:


Measure(s) of music

Chord played












F minor






D minor



11 and 12



            The blues patter, so universally appealing, shows no sign at all of wearing out.  Drawn, essentially, from three basic chords (called the primary triads), the blues pattern permits all melodic gestures because the three chords contain every note in the standard diatonic scale.

            Hundreds of early rock and roll standards are in blues form.  After its eight-measure introduction, "Rock Around the Clock" is pure blues form, as are "Kansas City", "Johnny B.  Goode", "See You Later, Alligator", and countless others.


Ragtime Form

            Taken from European march construction, ragtime swept the nation in the early 1900s.  Seldom with lyrics, ragtime pieces grew out of 16-measure units in a fairly consistent prescription.

            Hundreds of titles appeared – "My Ragtime Baby", "Mr.  Johnson, Turn Me Loose", "Alexander's Ragtime Band", "Hello, My Baby", and others – which were not true rags, just popular songs generously sprinkled with syncopated rhythms.  Genuine rags have a stately charm when played, as they should be played, at a moderate tempo.

            Many exceptions occur, however.  In Scott Joplin's famous "Maple Leaf Rag", for example, the A-section returns for a single hearing again, after the repeated B-section.


Ragtime form: "Maple Leaf Rag"

* Introduction (optional 4 or 8 measures)
A First Section (repeated)
B Second Section (repeated)
A First Section
C Third Section (repeated)
D Fourth Section (repeated)

Motown Form

            The above music forms carried popular music for years, and no one felt a need for change.  Not until Motown composer-arrangers Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, and Eddie Holland began to offer a special binary form, A-A-B, did the industry move away from traditional forms.  The Motown form steps out from the hundred-year 12-bar blues tradition, which may account for the fresh breeze it brought into rock in the early 1960s.  "Stop! In the Name of Love" by the Supremes is a prime example, with its intro "hook" – a catchy phrase or melody that would instantly grab the listener's attention.


A-A-B form: "Stop!  In the Name of Love"

Stop, in the name of love, before you break my heart.

Baby, baby, I'm aware of where you go
Each time you leave my door,
I watch you walk down the street
Knowing your other love you'll meet

This time before you run to her,
Leaving me alone and hurt,
Think it over.
Think it over.

Stop, in the name of love, before you break my heart.
Stop, in the name of love, before you break my heart.
Think it over.
Think it over. 

Modified Forms and other Developments

            Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach, the Beatles, and others have consciously or unconsciously come up with some slightly different forms, but the very nature of pop music precludes any kind of extended roaming around.  Pop music, like political cartoons, must pack a lot of meaning into a few swift strokes.

            The Beatles' "Michelle", for example, is a binary form "A" (6 measures), "B" (10 measures) with the "A" section used as an introduction and conclusion.  All of this is followed by a 5 measure tag.  It's different from, but sufficiently similar to, mainstream pop traditions.  The diagram of "Michelle", then, turns out to be AAB-ABB-AC.

            Burt Bacharach's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" is A-A-B-A, but the numbers of measures in each section are 9-9-10-12.  Carole King's "You've Got A Friend" grows out of 16-measure units:  AB-AB-CB but the "C" is 10 measures and the final "B" 15 measures.

            Two other devices have expanded the psycho-emotional territory a bit: modulation and the fade-out.

            First, the modulation up a semitone.  Near the end of the 1950s, Nelson Riddle's arrangements for Frank Sinatra would often go up from, say, the key of G to the key of A-flat for the last 8 or 16 measures of a tune.  This charming technique kicks new energy into the strict A-A-B-A formal design without running the risk of new melodic material which would overload the pop tune aesthetic.  It works well, and can be easily detected in Sinatra's version of "New York, New York".

            The modulation up a semitone can be over-used, though and it often is in the field of gospel music when the tune is propelled up a semitone, then another, and another.  It's too much of a good thing, and knowledgeable gospel musicians quite understandably grow weary of such spectacular productions.  They know that a strong tune need not be driven through the ceiling every time it is performed.

            Second, the fade-out.  Maybe it was only coincidental, but the fade-out began to appear in popular music in the late 1950s, along with the modulation up a semitone.  It has the opposite function.  By fading out on a memorable passage, the tune lingers in the mind, leaving a gentle imprint.

            As rock and roll tunes replaced the old standards of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Jerome Kern as the main body of America's pop industry, subtle problems emerged as the younger musicians struggled with how to bring their aesthetic experience to a close without being too abrupt and without using the ritards and tags common to the older style.  Their solution was ingenious – don't end at all, just fade out.  The true ending of the piece then occurs at different times in the minds of different listeners.

            But the fade-out can be violated too, just like the semitone upward move.  It began modestly at first, but nowadays disc jockeys seldom permit a tune to play out; they come crashing into the fading acoustical time and space with the next tune, full volume.  This jolt to the sensibilities precludes any complete musical and aesthetic symmetry and balance, of course, but the disc jockeys fear more than anything else that the listener will move to another station, and they will gladly sacrifice artistic considerations for financial ones.  The fade-out as a solution to an aesthetic need has been compromised then, at least during air play.  It may still serve to close the musical experience with some style and grace, however, when the listener is in control at home.



            The American popular tune had assumed nearly all its central identity by the middle of the 1800s.  Except for a few technological and marketing techniques, and an occasional timid effort to expand its psycho-emotional territory, pop music is today very much what it was when it first took shape.  It has to be.  It cannot be anything other and still be "popular".

            Absolutely critical to being "popular", is, of course, a song's ability to be grasped and retained immediately, or at most, after only one or two hearings.  The 32-measure binary and ternary forms and the 12-bar blues form reigned supreme for most of the history of popular music because they satisfied all criteria.

            A song's ability to touch individual hearts and minds is one of the reasons the music is written the way that it is.  However, all artistic aspirations aside, popular music is also meant to be a commercial endeavor.  It is that aspect of the music business that will be discussed in Chapter 24.