VII. Popular Music

Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

  • is a versatile song form that rapidly took over rock-and-roll in the 1960s and has dominated the genre ever since.
  • In verse-chorus form, the title lyrics, the most memorable music, and the main narrative are split between two : the  and the .

Verse-chorus form is so named because the two most important sections are the  and the . Other possible sections in verse-chorus form are , , and .

As an example, look at the form of Bon Jovi’s song “Livin’ on a Prayer,” given in Example 1.

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“Livin’ on a Prayer” follows a typical verse-chorus form. It also illustrates common usage of five in verse-chorus forms (and a bonus truck driver’s modulation!).

Cycles

Notice that the sections used in “Livin’ on a Prayer” recur and seem to follow a pattern. Sections within a verse-chorus form have certain prototypical orderings and groupings. The verse, prechorus, chorus, and postchorus sections, for example, always progress in this order (though they don’t all need to be present). These groupings are referred to as . In “Livin’ on a Prayer”:

  • After an extended intro, the first cycle begins with a at 0:47.
  • Then at 1:18, a increases energy and tension…
  • …into the at 1:34.
  • After a brief interlude, this cycle is repeated beginning at 1:54, with the addition of a at 2:56.
  • A final cycle at 3:00 is atypical and abbreviated, and it’s followed by a repetition of its final chorus multiple times, during which a fadeout ends the song.

A prototypical verse-chorus form song is illustrated in Example 2.

Illustration showing sections as follows: intro, verse, prechorus, chorus, verse, prechorus, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus
Example 2. A prototypical verse-chorus form, not referencing a specific song. Click to enlarge.

Sections within Verse-Chorus Form

Terms, concepts, definitions, and notational guidelines are taken from common convention and a combination of the resources listed below under Further Reading.

Verse (V)

  • Verse sections are and often contain lyrics that advance the narrative.
  • Until the 1960s, verse sections tended to be .
  • Beginning in the 1960s, verse sections became more and more likely to be (Summach 2012, 114).
  • Verses (like ) tend to begin on-tonic.

Prechorus (P)

  • Prechorus sections can be recognized most easily by .
  • They bear many of the functional characteristics of the phrase in , acceleration of , movement away from tonic harmony, and .[1]

Chorus (C)

  • Chorus sections are and contain the primary lyrical material of the song (the title lyrics and/or lyrical hook).
  • Chorus function is also typified by heightened musical intensity relative to the verse, including features like “a more dense or active instrumental texture; prominent background vocals; and/or a higher register melody” (Summach 2012, 106).
  • Choruses most frequently (but not exclusively) begin on-tonic.
  • Although the terms  and  are often used interchangeably when speaking colloquially, take care to keep them separate when discussing music theory. Chorus sections are distinct from refrains because choruses constitute an entire section by themselves, whereas refrains are contained within a section (as described below).

Postchorus (Z)

  • A postchorus is a short section that follows a chorus and serves only to close the (not to introduce or transition to the beginning of the next cycle) (Spicer 2011, para. 9).
  • A clear postchorus can be heard in “Independent Women, Pt. 1” by Destiny’s Child at 1:18, beginning with the lyric “Girl, I didn’t know you could get down like that.”

Bridge (B)

sections are a flexible section type in verse-chorus form.

  • In verse-chorus form songs, the bridge tends to appear once, followed by the last chorus (or the last prechorus and chorus) of the song.
  • Within a cycle, bridges will replace the verse and/or prechorus sections instead of being added in as an extra element. Thus, you will not usually see all five types in a single cycle.
  • A verse-chorus song may not have a bridge at all.

Each of these points contrasts with the way bridges are used in AABA form.

Standout Lyrics within Sections

Refrain

While are primarily associated with and , they can occasionally be used within sections of a verse-chorus form song. However, take note that refrains are distinct from choruses—refrains are a lyric within a section, whereas a chorus is an entire standalone section.

Climb

A climb is a phrase with prechorus function. Like the refrain, because it is only one phrase long, a climb is too short to be its own section. The climb is always the last phrase of a or .

An example of a climb is in “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners (1982): listen for the one-phrase climb at the end of its verses and bridge (“Tu-ra-lu-ra…”), as heard at 1:13.

Further Reading
  • Barna, Alyssa. 2018. “The Dance Chorus in Recent Top-40 Music.” SMT-V 6 (4). https://vimeo.com/societymusictheory/smtv06-4barna.
  • Covach, John. 2005. “Form in Rock Music: A Primer.” In Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, edited by Deborah Stein, 65–76. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Everett, Walter. 1999. The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Spicer, Mark. 2011. “(Per)Form in(g) Rock: A Response.” Music Theory Online 17 (3). http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.11.17.3/mto.11.17.3.spicer.html.
  • Stroud, Cara. 2014. “The Postchorus in Millennial Dance Pop.” Paper presented at the Graduate Association of Musicologists und Theorists Conference, Denton, TX.
  • Summach, Jay. 2011. “The Structure, Function, and Genesis of the Prechorus.” Music Theory Online 17 (3). http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.11.17.3/mto.11.17.3.summach.html. Reading Guide
  • Summach, Jason. 2012. “Form in Top-20 Rock Music, 1955–89.” Ph.D. diss., Yale University.
Assignments
  1. Pop Music Form—The Shape of Music Around You (.pdf). Writing assignment that asks students to find songs on their own; identify them as strophic, AABA, or verse-chorus; name the sections of the song; and justify their analyses using form vocabulary.
  2. Listening to Pop Forms (.pdf, .docx). This worksheet uses two unusual verse-chorus form songs to challenge students’ analytical abilities. Uses Audacity to have students mark the form of .mp3s. Purchase “Terrified” and purchase “Broken Clocks” as digital audio.

Media Attributions

  • verse chorus form

  1. This is because prechorus sections originate historically in the d section of an [pb_glossary id="1410"]srdc[/pb_glossary] pattern. Think of an srdc strophe becoming longer until sr forms its own two-part verse section, d forms its own prechorus section, and c forms its own chorus section.

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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Bryn Hughes and Megan Lavengood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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