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When Is A Song

for and against the structured approach


Feel you're singing the same old song all the time? Andy Honeybone sorts out the verse from the chorus from the middle eight, and ponders the value of elegant structure.

WORDS SET TO MUSIC, roughly speaking, form a song. OK, Mendelssohn wrote some "songs without words" but then he would.

One thing that songs of all types have is form, and that's the main topic of this piece. Strangely, it's the facility of modern drum machines to chain rhythm patterns into "songs" that has rammed home the fact that music is structured.

Everyone knows about the verse and chorus. But there can be much more to it than that.

An introduction is fairly common, even if it's only drummers banging their sticks together (over their heads of course). For demos, intro length has to be cut to the minimum for fear of the A&R person's interest fading before the main course. Established acts can treat themselves to protracted mood-setting intros safe in the knowledge that the DJ will talk right the way through it. What follows the intro is anyone's guess.

Analysis begins by determining whether the same musical phrase (tune) is used to set successive lines of the lyric. If this is so, the song is said to be "strophic". Most tunes which have become popular have this feature in deference to the public. After a strophe or two it is necessary to introduce some new melodic material to prevent tedium creeping in too early. This addition made, the original theme is often brought back for some further mileage.

Having identified the two contrasting sections, they can be labelled A and B. So the structure described above would be designated ABA. To be even more scholarly, this form can be termed "ternary", having three sections. This same term holds good even if the initial A section is repeated.

The AABA format is that of the 32-bar popular song, typical of show tunes from the Thirties and Forties (so-called standards). Many of these tunes began with a verse which was all but recited in a scene-setting preamble. The B section of these tunes was termed the middle-eight, or the release, and there was an unwritten rule that modulations through as many keys as possible should be incorporated.

An example of the AABA form can be found in Alison Moyet's re-make of Billie Holiday's "That Ole Devil Called Love". The form of the single is as follows:

Four bars introduction
Eight bars theme A
Eight bars repeat A
Eight bars theme B (release)
Eight bars theme A

Because ballads are lengthy and singles aren't, the next section returns to the last four bars of the middle-eight, followed by the A theme again and then a quick finish:

Four bars, half of theme B
Eight bars theme A
Two bars tag ending

To my knowledge, it's rare to plunge back into the middle-eight halfway through but, as we'll see in some later examples, anything goes. The ending of "Ole Devil" is a two-bar tag with the clichéd II, V, I harmonic progression (eg Bbm7, Eb7, Abmaj7). Anything longer could lay claim to the title coda, Italian for tail. Music doesn't end these days, it just fades away. Not enough attention is paid to this area and it's only when a band has to play live that a non-fade ending has to be cobbled together. The coda is a rounding-off passage rather than a structural necessity.

The 32-bar form originates from European opera and in particular the Da Capo aria (Italian for "repeat from the beginning"). The sheer weight of material written in this form almost dictates that eight-bar phrases are to be used, but modern chart music is changing all that (dad).

Not that shorter phrase lengths haven't been around for a long time — "God Save The Queen" for example has one six- and one eight-bar phrase. The Beatles and George Martin were among the first popular users of asymmetric phrase lengths. "Eleanor Rigby" contains five-bar phrases where the extra bar is an instrumental break to heighten the irony of the re-entering vocal.

Analysis of Howard Jones' "Things Can Only Get Better" highlights a modern song format:

Four bars introduction (art style)
Six bars introduction (beat style)
Eight bars verse
Nine bars chorus
Eight bars hook (based on verse)
Eight bars verse
Nine bars chorus
Eight bars hook
Nine bars chorus
Eight bars solo on verse changes (OX-7)
Eight bars solo on verse (horns)
Eight bars hook (repeat until fade)

Howard, being an established star, can afford to have a pretty synth intro before the beat gets going. The following six bars introduce the verse riff for four bars and then mark time for the remaining two bars in anticipation of the vocal entry. After the verse comes a nine-bar chorus which demands the additional bar to allow the title in the vocal to sink in and to form a boundary. The hook ("wo, wo, wo," etc) is based on the chords of the verse and, because it is so strong, no one notices that the accompaniment hasn't changed much when the proper verse starts. Although the format is not the 32-bar pattern, it remains concerned with building a structure from just two musical ideas.

An example with additional sections can be found in Phil Collins' and Philip Bailey's "Easy Lover". Things worth noting about the piece are that the song begins with the chorus, and that the intro is used again within the body of the song. Structure is:

Eight bars introduction
Eight bars instrumental on chorus
16 bars chorus
16 bars verse
Eight bars episode (additional material)
16 bars chorus
16 bars verse
Six bars episode (shortened to lead into next section)
Eight bars intro (reprise)
16 bars solo guitar on chorus changes
Eight bars episode
16 bars chorus (repeat until fade)

The use of an episode gives a great increase in the permutations available to build a very interesting song sandwich.

One last analysis for luck: Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule The World". This piece has a six-bar chorus which has been achieved by doubling the rate of chord changes in the fifth and sixth bars. Again, the song structure is found to be fairly involved, but this arises from careful planning and subtle alterations of only a few musical ideas. Here goes:

Four bars intro
Eight bars instrumental on verse
Eight bars verse add vocal
Six bars chorus
Four bars vamp to prepare verse
Eight bars verse
Six bars chorus
Six bars episode
Six bars chorus
Eight bars intro riff
Six bars episode (variant)
Eight bars guitar solo on verse changes
Six bars chorus
Six bars chorus repeat
Four bars intro reprise
Six bars chorus
Eight bars repeat until fade guitar solo on verse changes.


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One Two Testing - Copyright: IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

 

One Two Testing - Jul 1985

Donated by: Colin Potter

Feature by Andy Honeybone

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