What You Need To Know About Musical Form

house cartoon Chord progressions come in sections, like one room in a house. You can put several different rooms together to make a big house, or you can live in a one room house. Just like people.

house drawingIn most 3rd world countries people live in one room houses -- which means, of course, that much of the world lives in one-room houses.

Those of us who live in the West generally live in multi-room houses.

multi-room houseBut there are also musical houses -- we call them songs-- that are built out of several different rooms -- several different chord progressions. Some of them, like mansions and castles, go on and on and get quite involved.

divider

But most songs are like many modest houses -- they have 2 or 3 rooms, sometimes 4 -- built using 2 or 3 or 4 different chord progressions.

Each "room" in a musical house is called a theme, or a "motif." The first theme is always called "A." The next theme is called "B," the next theme is called "C," and so on. Most songs only have 2 or 3 themes, but these themes often repeat.

For example, let's say we have a chord progression that goes like this:

C Am7 Dm7 G7

...and then it repeats those same 4 chords...

C Am7 Dm7 G7

and then we have another chord progression that goes like this:

Gm7 C7 F Fm7 Bb7 Eb G7

...and then the first chord progression is used again as the song ends.

This song would have a musical form of A, A, B, A -- main theme, repeat of main theme, contrasting theme, main theme.

Theme

Theme

Contrast

Theme

This form is known as
A A B A musical form.

If the song went like this:

Theme

Contrast

Theme

...it would be known at
A B A musical form.

The "B" section of a song is sometimes called the "bridge," or the "release," or the "chorus." These terms usually mean the same thing -- depending upon the form used.

Can you guess what this might be called?

Theme
Contrast
Theme
Contrast
Theme
Contrast
Theme
Contrast

Right you are! A B A B form.
This is also known as "verse-chorus" form.

Most popular songs fall into one of these forms:

A   B   A

A   A   B   A

A   B   A   C   A

A   B   A   B

Why should you care?

Because if you know songs are constructed this way, you can look at songs with smart eyes -- you know what to look for, and once you determine the form, you have a " mental map" of the song -- you're not just wandering from chord to chord anymore.

In addition, most songs are proportional. That is -- 4 bars of section A, then 4 bars of section B, then another 4 bars of section A, and so on. You will find TONS and TONS of popular songs that are 32 bars long in A A B A form -- 8 bars of theme A, 8 bars of theme A repeated, then a bridge of 8 bars, finishing with 8 bars of theme A.

Does that give you an advantage knowing that?

It gives you a HUGE advantage because you know what to look for, and you know that if you learn theme A you have automatically learned 75% of the song! All that remains is to learn the 8 bars of the bridge, and you've got it!

And that's why you need to learn about form.

 

This page updated on October 26, 2013.