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By Julian Velard |

Whatever Happened To Song Form?

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I wrote my first song when I was 15 years old. It was an ode to Pee Wee Herman called, “Pee Wee, Why Can’t You See Me?”

Sadly there’s no recorded evidence of my nascent masterpiece, but I remember it being in traditional verse/chorus form with an eight-bar bridge.

As a sophomore in high school, I knew nothing about song form, let alone bars or beats. It was just what sounded right to me. I spent the majority of my teenage years immersed in the music of the ’60s and ’70s; while everyone else was wearing plaid and listening to Pearl Jam, my Discman had Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life on repeat.

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It may sound like I came of age a long time ago—and when it comes to the landscape of today’s pop music, I might as well have. Most of the traditional popular song forms that were developed from folk music and the American songbook are seldom heard today. I can’t think of a popular song from the past decade that used a verse with a refrain like Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ or Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, let alone a complex, through-composed form á la Radiohead’s Paranoid Android. Even in the lyric-driven world of Hip Hop, a rapper’s verse is subservient to the “hook” or chorus, which is usually repeated as much as possible.

Most of today’s hits are amalgams of verse/chorus forms where the verse is a part of a never-ending chain of choruses. Just think of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream or Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. If you were to pull them apart and ignore the narrative of the lyric, the verses, pre-chrouses and bridges of both songs work as stand alone choruses. 

Every section is an earworm, instantly stuck in your head as soon as you hear it. This type of action-packed songwriting is by design. The modern song form has evolved to compete for the ever dwindling attention span of the modern listener. In my Music Theory For Songwriters course, I show you how song form (and songwriting as a whole) is a tradition subject to culture. It makes sense that songs are evolving alongside the Internet, along with the written word and moving image.

Call me sentimental, but I still find the idea of building toward a singular, definable, musical moment not only compelling, but inspiring. The craft of winding a melody, harmony and lyric toward an inevitable (and therefore repeatable) musical statement has been my life’s work.

I bristle at the idea of losing the traditional, more subtle purpose of a bridge to provide variation and depth to a narrative. Sometimes the bridges of classic songs are my favorite part! Just thinking about the melodic and harmonic development that happens in the B section of Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows gives me chills. It’s sad to me that we’re missing that complexity of aesthetic in today’s pop music.

I like candy as much as everybody else. But to me, being catchy shouldn’t be the driving force behind a song’s form or purpose. Let’s leave that to advertising.

Learn more about song form in chapter four of Julian’s new course, Music Theory for Songwriters: The Fundamentals, on lynda.com.


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