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

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15 Strategies for representing form

You have now encountered a number of ways of representing form. The first of these makes use of specialist terminology (e.g. verse, chorus, pre-chorus, coda/outro) and the second employs alphabetic designations (e.g. AABA, aa′). Musicians tend to use dedicated terminology for some song forms and alphabetic designations for others, but it would be entirely possible to use alphabetic representations across the board.

For example, earlier in this course, the structure of ‘Midnight Special’ was mapped out using specialist terms to designate sections, as shown in Table 14. The table identifies 20 sections in total, a multitude of parts that makes the form difficult to grasp at a glance. In such situations, it is often helpful to look for overarching structures that allow you to organise the detail in a more manageable way, for instance as a set of sections and subsections.

Table 14 Form of ‘Midnight Special’
Track timing Section
00:00 Instrumental introduction

Chorus 1

00:21 Verse 1 (Yonder come Miss Rosie ...)
00:40 Chorus 2

Instrumental interlude

01:01 Verse 2 (When you get up in the morning ...)
01:20 Chorus 3

Instrumental interlude

01:41 Verse 3 (If you ever go to Houston ...)
01:59 Chorus 4

Instrumental interlude

02:20 Verse 4 (When you get up in the morning ...)
02:39 Chorus 5
02:49 Instrumental interlude

Chorus 6

03:10 Verse 5 (I was standing at the station ...)
03:29 Chorus 7
03:39 Instrumental interlude

Chorus 8

04:00 Instrumental conclusion

Figure 13 does just this. It contains the same details, but distinguishes two tiers of musical structure: sections, indicated by upper-case letters, and subsections, indicated by lower-case letters. The figure also employs the prime symbol to indicate when a section or subsection contains a varied version of music that occurs elsewhere. For example, in the Subsection column, the choruses are labelled b and the instrumental breaks are labelled b′. This acknowledges that the choruses contain sung material and the latter do not.

Similarly, the Section column differentiates A and A′ sections. Both A and A′ start with the pattern verse–chorus–interlude, but each of the sections marked A′ appends an ‘extra’ chorus. It is as though the A sections ‘thicken’ to become A′ sections as the song progresses. This thickening is also reflected in the shading of the figure (a darker shade of blue is used for the A′ sections than the A sections).

This figure is another representation of the form of ‘Midnight Special’. It is a table with 20 rows and four columns. The columns are labelled ‘Track time’, ‘Section’, ‘Subsection’, and ‘Part of song’. Under the columns ‘Track time’, ‘Subsection’ and ‘Part of song’, the first row contains the text ‘00:00, (lower-case) b prime, Instrumental introduction (chorus-based)’ The second row has ‘00:11, (lower-case) b, Chorus 1’. The third row has ‘00:21, (lower-case) a, Verse 1’. The fourth row has ‘00:40, (lower-case) b, Chorus 2’. The fifth row has ‘00:50, (lower-case) b prime, Instrumental interlude (chorus-based)’. The sixth row has ‘01:01, (lower-case) a, Verse 2’. The seventh row has ‘01:20, (lower-case) b, Chorus 3’. The eighth row has ‘01:29, (lower-case) b prime, Instrumental interlude (chorus-based)’. The ninth row has ‘01:41, (lower-case) a, Verse 3’. The tenth row has ‘01:59, (lower-case) b, Chorus 4’. The eleventh row has ‘02:09, (lower-case) b prime, Instrumental interlude (chorus-based)’. The twelfth row has ‘02:20, (lower-case) a, Verse 4’. The thirteenth row has ‘02:39, (lower-case) b, Chorus 5’. The fourteenth row has ‘02:49, (lower-case) b prime, Instrumental interlude (chorus-based)’. The fifteenth row has ‘03:00, (lower-case) b, Chorus 6’. The sixteenth row has ‘03:10, (lower-case) a, Verse 5’. The seventeenth row has ‘03:29, (lower-case) b, Chorus 7’. The eighteenth row has ‘03:39, (lower-case) b prime, Instrumental interlude (chorus-based)’. The nineteenth row has ‘03:49, (lower-case) b, Chorus 8’. The twentieth row has ‘04:00, Instrumental conclusion’. Rows one and two are coloured grey and the ‘Section’ column contains the text ‘(upper-case) I (intro)’. Rows three to five are shaded light blue and the ‘Section’ column contains the text ‘(upper-case) A’. Rows six to eight are shaded light blue and the ‘Section’ column contains the text ‘(upper-case) A’. Rows nine to eleven are coloured light blue and the ‘Section’ column contains the text ‘(upper-case) A’. Rows twelve to fifteen are shaded darker blue and the ‘Section’ column contains the text ‘(upper-case) A prime’. Rows sixteen to nineteen are also coloured darker blue and the ‘Section’ column contains the text ‘(upper-case) A prime’. Row twenty is coloured grey and the ‘Section’ column contains the text ‘C (coda)’.
Figure 13 ‘Midnight Special’, form, second version, employing alphabetic designations

The two levels of analysis in Figure 13 allow a reader to keep track of the detail without losing the broader picture. Describing a piece of music as having the form abb′abb′abb′abb′babb′b is altogether too confusing; AAAA′A′ is much easier to grasp. In general, when analysing form, you should try to contextualise detail within a broader, simpler framework.

You may wish to listen to ‘Midnight Special’ again to see whether you can follow the broader structure outlined in Figure 13.

Although much of this course has focused on specialist terminology and alphabetical designations, almost all of the discussions of form have been accompanied by visual representations of one kind or another, some incorporating colour, including Figures 1, 2, 8 (‘hidden’ inside the Discussion for Activity 5), 9 and 13.

Figure 14 introduces a final image, for a song you have not yet encountered but may wish to investigate for yourself. The various parts of the form are colour coded: greens for verses and verse-like material, oranges for pre-choruses and blues for choruses and chorus-like material. The intensity of the colours reflects the loudness and softness of the music. The length, left to right, of the sections corresponds to their relative duration. As this suggests, a figure can convey all kinds of information about the musical object it represents.

This figure is a representation of musical elements in Céline Dion’s ‘Encore un soir’. There are thirteen rows. Each row is colour coded to indicate the section of the form; the lightness or darkness of the colour indicates the loudness or softness of the music. Verse-related material is green, pre-chorus material is orange, and chorus material is blue. From top to bottom the text and colour of each row are as follows: Intro (light green), Verse 1 (light green), Verse 2 (light green), Pre-chorus (light orange), Chorus Part 1 (light blue), Chorus part 2 (darker blue), Verse 3 (darker green), Pre-chorus (with new lyrics) (darker orange). Chorus part 1 (darkest blue), Chorus part 2 (darkest blue), Chorus part 2 (with new lyrics) (darkest blue), Outro Part 1 (light blue), Outro Part 2 (darkest blue). The rows vary in length, corresponding with the length in seconds of the various sections: the row marked Intro is shortest, followed by the rows for Outro Part 1 and Outro Part 2 and then the row for Verse 1. The row for Pre-chorus (with new lyrics) is longest. The other eight rows all have the same length.
Figure 14 Representation of musical elements in Céline Dion, ‘Encore un soir’