What is musical form and why is it important? How can we determine the form of a song just by listening? In this lesson, learn the different parts that make up a musical form.
You are backstage, preparing to audition for the show So You Imagine You Can Dance. You are sweating buckets, your knees are shaking, and you can barely remember your name, but it's okay, because you do remember the dance steps you are about to perform for the judges. You know the steps of the dance because they are organized into sections. First, you have the Charleston knee knocks, then the cabbage patch, back to the knee knocks, a few quick disco points, and a grand finale featuring a jump into the splits. Since you arranged your steps in an order, we could say that you have created a form.
Much like your dance, music is often organized into sections. The overall organization of these sections is called form. The form of a song shows its structure and can often help the listener relate to and understand what the composer intended to say.
Definition of Musical Sections
You hear form all the time. Think of your favorite song. Typically, the song has three sections: a chorus (or refrain), which sums up the song's topic and is repeated at times throughout the song; two or three verses, which explain or expand on the topic of the chorus; and a bridge, which adds a bit of variety to the music. When writing the song, the composer did not just pile all of the choruses together at the beginning, stuff a few verses in the middle, and end with a bridge. Instead, he or she followed a form.
There are several common arrangements of these sections. It can be as simple as Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus, as you would hear in Eminem's 'Lose Yourself' or The Beatles' 'Let It Be,' or it can be more varied like Verse 1-Chorus-Verse 2-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Chorus, which can be heard in Justin Bieber's 'Baby' and Linkin Park's 'In the End.' In each of these examples, the composer used form to help the listener understand and make a connection with the song.
Section Naming Conventions
However, not all songs can be pigeonholed into having verses and choruses. Instead, we can use letters to represent the sections of a song. The sections are named alphabetically, so the first section of music would be called A. When a new section appears, we call it B. We continue this alphabetical naming with each additional section of new music. If a section of music ever reappears, we call it by its original letter name.
For example, in your dance, you had four unique moves. Because each move is different, each move will be labeled with its own letter. This will help us tell the sections apart from one another. The sections would be labeled A for your Charleston knee knocks, then B would be for the cabbage patch because it's a different move, C would be for the point, and D would be for the splits. When we analyze the form of the dance as a whole, we would have A-B-A-C-D.
Lyrics and Simple Form Analysis
While the music alone is enough to determine the form of a song, using lyrics can be helpful too. Even something as simple as 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' still has form. Let's take a look.
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.
If you were to label each section, you would first look for differences. Because the first and second lines are different, they would be labeled differently. The first line would be labeled A, while the second line would be labeled B. Finally, we can see that the last line is an exact repetition of the first line, so it, too, would be labeled A. So the entire form of the song would be A-B-A.
Let's take a look at a more complex example. Here we can see the lyrics of 'Jingle Bells.' If we analyze the form of 'Jingle Bells,' we find that we still have A and B sections. However, there are also some sections that are similar to the A section but are not truly a repetition like we saw in 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.' In this case, we have a section that is called prime. Prime sections are marked with a superscript apostrophe. Each variation of the section is given an additional apostrophe. So, the form of the song is A-B-A`-B-A``-B-A```.
But what happens if there are not lyrics to guide us? We can still look for differences, but this time, we listen for them in the melody. We can also look for the smaller parts that make up each section, called phrases. Phrases are small musical sentences that help make up the sections of a song. Much like a paragraph, the sentences contribute meaning to a larger idea. In the case of your dance, we can find phrasing in each move.
Take the disco point, for example. We could say that the first phrase is the hand coming up to the point at the ceiling and the second phrase is the hand coming back down to the hip. The two actions come together to make a complete move. On a larger scale, like a full piece of music, you can think of phrases as Legos. Like music notes, individually the Legos don't do much, but when put together, they start to create meaning and structure. The blocks come together to make small identifiable segments, like arms, legs, or a tail. These segments represent the phrases. Before you know it, you have all the parts to make a dinosaur, or, in our case, a song.
While these concepts are quite simple, they lay the foundation for and often act as a basis for more complex forms in classical music. Phrases, or small musical ideas, help to build sections. The phrases come together to make sections, and sections come together to make the song. Like verses and choruses, the sections vary by musical idea and are identified by their uniqueness from one another. Any section can be repeated, either verbatim or with slight changes, which are marked as prime.
When this lesson is complete, you will be able to:
- Define form in regards to music
- Recall how sections are organized and named
- Define phrases and how they fit into music