Understanding Song Form
by Jeremy SteinkolerHaving taught rock band workshops at BandWorks (a rock band program for kids and adults based in the San Francisco Bay Area) for the past twenty-five years, I’ve worked with many hundreds of musicians who are in a situation where they’re trying to learn five or six songs in the course of eight weeks. While that may not seem like too difficult a task for some, with only eight two-hour rehearsals there is little time to waste in learning to play each tune with the appropriate groove, feel and character, and make sure all the parts line up where they should.
Many of us have been faced with the challenging (but fun!) scenario where we need to learn a large number of songs in a short amount of time. In my experience, the two most important requirements to learning new songs quickly are: understanding the song form, and learning the proper feel, or “getting into character.” I’ll tackle the latter concept in another article.
I can’t tell you how many times rehearsals with amateur musicians have stalled or ground to a halt because someone didn’t know what was supposed to happen next. So much rehearsal time is wasted and so many musicians become frustrated because other musicians don’t know the form of the song. Sometimes it can take repeated attempts before the band can play as song all the way through – not because they don’t know their parts, but because they don’t remember what happens next. Knowing the road map will save you time and embarrassment, and make it appear that you know the tunes well, even if some of the details may be missing.
Even with songs that are familiar, musicians will often not have a full grasp of the song structure. I’ve seen some drummers, for example, play all the way through a song perfectly on one try, then make arrangement mistakes on subsequent efforts. Or they rely on other band members to know the road map, catching hits, groove changes and dynamic shifts a couple of beats or measures late.
Once you have a full grasp of the form of the song, there’s no need to leave your playing up to chance.
Think of knowing the form like knowing the driving directions to some familiar destination, like school or work. If you ride as a passenger in the car each day, you might know the general way to get from here to there, and may recognize some familiar landmarks along the way. You can get to your destination without really paying attention, since someone else knows the precise route. But as soon as you’re in the driver’s seat, you realize that unless you know how to get all the way from A to B on your own, there’s a good chance you’re going to get lost.
On the other hand, once you know the way through a song like the back of your hand, you can get there almost without even thinking about it. You can know who made the mistake where, and what was supposed to happen when. Better still, you can lead the band along the way, putting in fills or visual cues at the proper times to set up transitions, helping your band mates with a turn signal or two.
What You Need to Know
For drummers, even if you don’t know the groove or haven’t come up with a part, having a sense of when to make changes to support the composition will help you define your parts and can really bring out the contrast and dynamics of the song.
If you have a drum chart or can look over a chord chart or lead sheet, the form is usually indicated for you. But if you don’t have the luxury of charts or can’t read, you’re left with your ears to figure it out. Like so much else regarding playing music, it comes down to listening.
The vast majority of rock and pop songs use the same building blocks, or types of sections of a song, and arrange them in some (usually) predictable order. Once you become familiar with these common elements, you’ll be able to recognize the form of a tune and “know how it goes” after only one or two times listening through it. Furthermore, you’ll become so familiar with a handful of common arrangements that you’ll almost be able to predict what happens next in a song – even if you’ve never heard it before! (Naturally there are many exceptions, but you’ll be surprised how good at guessing you can become).
The basic elements of the rock/pop song form are:
The intro of the song may be played by any number of instruments, from one instrument to the entire band. Sometimes the intro will be subdivided into a number of parts (e.g. the piano plays the first 4 bars, then bass enters for 4, then drums for 8 more). Usually the intro lasts until the first verse begins. On rare occasions, a chorus will precede a verse.
This is the part with the singing. Songs usually have different lyrics for each verse, though sometimes, especially in Blues, verses can be repeated. Typical length: 8, 12, or 16 bars.
The pre-chorus is much less common than the chorus, but you will run into it on occasion. It sounds very different from the verse, and will usually have the same words each time, distinguishing it from the verse. Typically the pre-chorus sets up the chorus in a very obvious way. Depending on the song, the pre-chorus might be considered part of the verse. Typical length: 4-8 bars.
When you hit the chorus, you know it. It’s usually fuller sounding, often louder than the verse or pre-chorus, and has the same words every time. It’s the hook, the refrain, the part that makes you smile and want to sing along. Often it adds harmony vocals. It’s the payoff from the verse, the release, the catchy part of the song that everybody knows. Typical length: 8, 12, or 16 bars (sometimes there will be an additional 4 or 8 bars of verse groove to set up the following verse).
Bridge (or Interlude, or Middle 8)
The Bridge is an often-misunderstood section, mainly because it sounds like neither the verse nor the chorus. Often it will change key (modulate), or have a distinct feeling from the verse and chorus. Typically there will be some kind of feel change that accompanies the bridge, though not always. The bridge isn’t usually very long, as it acts to bridge the chorus to the verse and offer a break from the monotony of the verse/chorus. Typical length: 8 bars, sometimes longer.
A vamp is a repeating section of a song, usually 1, 2, or 4 bars long, which repeats over and over some set number of times or until some cue. Solos will often be played over a vamp. A vamp is often of undetermined length, to be ended by spontaneous decision of the soloist or bandleader. When bands jam or rock out, it’s usually over a vamp.
Not every song has a solo. When they are played, they can be as short as 4 bars, or as long as 10 minutes or more. Solos can be played over the verse form, chorus, bridge, vamp, or any combination of sections. Most often solos will be over either a verse, chorus, verse/chorus, or vamp. The vamps can be either a set length or open-ended until cue.
Outro or Coda
The outro or coda (ending) of a song can take many different forms. Some songs will fade out over a chorus vamp. Or they may revert to the intro. Other times the band will play a set number of bars or repeat the turnaround until hitting some rhythmic figure together.
Songs may have any combination of the above elements, arranged in different sequences. Some songs may have only a verse and chorus. Others, like a standard Blues, will have a 12-bar form that repeats over and over, whether there are verses or solos. Still others may have additional sections, where there is an elongated or shortened verse or chorus, a double chorus, or a different section entirely that doesn’t really fit into any of the above categories (though this is more rare).
There are no absolutes regarding form, since the possibilities are limitless after all. But the vast majority of rock and pop songs are arranged in very predictable patterns, using the same handful of building blocks. Once you recognize these form elements and the patterns they’re arranged in, you’ll be able to learn songs much more quickly and efficiently.
A Great Exercise
Put on a rock or pop album and try to analyze the form of each song. Jot notes down on paper. If you’re not sure what to label each part of the song, write a short note to describe what’s happening at each section, then check the above criteria to see what makes the most sense. After you do this a few times, you’ll be surprised to find the form of most songs fitting into very logical sequences that are easy to discern. As you get the hang of this, try keeping track of the number of measures in each section (4-intro, 16-verse, 8-chorus, etc.). Before you know it, you’ll become an expert at understanding and recognizing the form of any song you listen to, and will be able to commit it to memory much more quickly. Then you’re on to the fun part—figuring out what to play!
Jeremy Steinkoler has been teaching drums for over 25 years and running BandWorks rock band workshops for kids and adults since 1993. He is the author of Drum Wisdom, a collection of essays on drumming, teaching, and life. He is proud to be endorsed by Vic Firth Drumsticks, Aquarian Drumheads, Protection Racket Cases, and Istanbul Agop Cymbals.
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