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Listening for form in popular music
Listening for form in popular music

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1 Form and popular song

Fundamental to perceiving form in music is learning to distinguish repetition, variation, and contrast: that is, what you have heard before (repetition), an altered version of what you have heard before (variation), or something new (contrast). It may be helpful to think of the three as comprising a spectrum, with repetition at one end, contrast at the other, and variation in between, as shown in Figure 1. As this suggests, variation contains elements of both repetition and contrast.

This figure shows a horizontal bar that is coloured in a horizontal progression from yellow, through green, to blue (from left to right). These colours represent Repetition, Variation, and Contrast, respectively.
Figure 1 The spectrum between repetition and contrast

The best way to start recognising musical form is to listen for these three approaches to organising sound. It is often easier to hear them when lyrics are involved, and accordingly this course focuses on songs. Songs are also a good place to begin because many of them have uncomplicated forms, and because the terminology used to describe these forms is widely used in everyday talk.

For instance, many songs consist of a series of alternating verses and choruses. These are distinct in terms of both words and musical material, as indicated in Figure 2 through the use of different colours for verses and choruses. Verses are additionally distinct one from another, since each one has different lyrics, as indicated in the figure through a slightly darker shading of the box in the ‘words’ column and the ‘verses’ row.

This figure contains two rows and two columns. The first row is entitled Verses, and the second Choruses. The first column is entitled Words, and the second Music. The box at the intersection of Verses and Words contains this text: ‘Distinct from the words of the chorus and different from verse to verse.’ The box at the intersection of Verses and Music contains this text: ‘Distinct from the music of the chorus, but the same (or very similar) from verse to verse.’ The box at the intersection of Choruses and Words contains this text: ‘Distinct from the words of the verses, but the same (or very similar) from chorus to chorus. The box at the intersection of Choruses and Music contains this text: ‘Distinct from the music of the verses, but the same (or very similar) from chorus to chorus.’
Figure 2 Distinguishing verses and choruses