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

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Listening for form in popular music

13 Alphabetic representations of form

So far, this course has focused on song forms that make use of verse–chorus alternation, and this has involved introducing the terms commonly used to describe the component parts of those forms: verse, chorus, bridge, pre-chorus, introduction, interlude, and coda. There are other kinds of song forms, however, and some of these are easier to describe using alphabetic designations. The alphabetic system used in this course works as follows:

  • upper-case letters (A, B) represent larger sections
  • lower-case letters (a, b) represent subsections of larger sections
  • prime (′), double prime (″), triple prime (′′′) etc. marks are used to show that a section or subsection is repeated, but in varied form (e.g. AA′, aba′a″).

To start with a simple example, in AABA forms, the same musical material is heard three times: twice at the beginning and once at the end – hence the three As. Between the second and the final iterations of A, contrasting material is presented in a B section. Harold Arlen’s ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’, with lyrics by Billy Rose and E.Y. Harburg, is a good example.

Activity 9

Timing: Allow around 15 minutes for this activity
This is a photograph of Nat King Cole performing.
Figure 11 The Nat King Cole Trio. Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy.

Listen to Nat ‘King’ Cole performing ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’. Focus on the section in which Cole first sings the lyrics – between 00:52 and 01:45 of the recording – following the lyrics and the form in Table 11.

As you listen, try to determine what distinguishes A from B, considering both words and music. Write down a brief explanation in the box provided.

Table 11 Structure of ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’

Section Lyrics

It is only a paper moon hanging over a cardboard sea,

But it wouldn’t be make believe if you believe in me.



It is only a canvas sky sailing over a muslin tree,

But it wouldn’t be make believe if you believe in me.



Without your love, it’s a honky tonk parade;

Without your love, it’s a melody played on a penny arcade.



It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, just as phony as it can be,

But it wouldn’t be make believe if you believe in me.


(Rose and Harburg, 2004)
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The three A sections share some of the same words; each one ends ‘But it wouldn’t be make believe if you believe in me’. They also have related rhymes (sea/me, tree/me and be/me) while the B section differs (parade/arcade). Finally, the three A sections have the same melody.

If you wish, you can confirm this to yourself by singing or saying ‘It is only a canvas sky’ along with the recording while Cole is singing ‘It is only a paper moon’.


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