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Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Structure: The Blueprint of Music

When a contractor begins to construct a building, an essential part of the process is the blueprint: a two dimensional paper representation of what the three dimensional building will become. From the blueprint, the contractor can tell the height of walls, location of doors, and the placement of windows. The blueprint carefully delineates the path of air-conditioning duct work and electrical wiring. With the blueprint, the building evolves in an organized manner; without it, the chances of achieving a logical and safe structure are slim. The blueprint is the guide and formula for the final outcome.

In the same way, the composition of popular music happens according to a blueprint, a formula, a structure which guides the song as it unfolds in time. In fact, this blueprint can also be viewed as a series of building blocks placed one after the other in time.

There are several different types of structures that a piece of popular music may follow.

The most frequent song form in American popular music, a verse-chorus structure is made up of four simple building blocks: introduction, verse, chorus, and tag or ending.

The introduction at the beginning of the song is most often instrumental in nature (without the main voice) and may last between 2 and 16 measures (somewhere between 4 and 30 seconds of time). The main purpose of the introduction is to communicate the general emotional feel of the entire song. By listening to the first 5 seconds of an introduction, a listener has a relatively accurate idea of whether the song is happy or sad, uplifting or depressing.

The intro can set the mood for a song about love, anger, or humor. The intro can set up a song communicating hope and enthusiasm, or despair and dejection. The intro can also introduce musical ideas which will be repeated or expanded throughout the song. A guitar riff, flute countermelody, or piano pattern in the intro may appear at key moments in the song to provide a thematic connection and unity to the song.

Two internal building blocks occupy most of the space in a popular song: the verse and the chorus.

The key purpose of the verse in popular music is to objectively tell a story or set a scene for the listener. The key questions of who, where, and why are introduced and elaborated upon.

“The night seems to be colder now,

And loneliness invades my day.

I tried so many days to phone her.

I didn’t know why she stayed away.

And if I only had the chance again to tell her,

This is exactly what I would say:”

The plot of the story is introduced in the first verse and unfolded in each successive verse. The important musical characteristic of the verse is that although the words change and develop with each new verse, the music to each remains identically the same. No changes in music, but all the words are changed.

In contrast with the storytelling nature of the verse, the chorus completes the emotional part of the story. The “problem” set up in the verse is resolved by the determination and resolution of the chorus:

“I need your smile to make the sunshine work,

I need your heart to have the strength to see,

I need your eyes to find my way to love,

I’ll do what it takes to get you close to me.”

In addition to the difference between the facts of the verse and the feelings of the chorus, another difference between verse and chorus is that although the music stays the same for every verse, the words or lyrics change continually, while the words and music are identical for every appearance of the chorus.

The melody for the chorus also tends to be the most memorable part of the song. It’s the part that you remember the second and third time you hear it. It’s the part that you first learn to hum or sing along.

The chorus contains both the musical and textual “hook,” or key idea, around which the entire song is built. The above example may have a title built on the last phrase: “To Get You Close to Me.” The last thought of the chorus, which is repeated several times through the song, is the best place for the hook of the song.

After the introduction, which sets up the emotional mood for the song, verses (story-telling) and choruses (emotional resolution) alternate for two or three sets. The final chorus might be repeated an additional time or two, after which, a tag completes the song. The tag may be a repetition of material from the introduction or a final riff from the chorus or even (as is the case with songwriters who don’t know how to end a song) a continuous repetition of choruses during a gradual fade to silence.

One variation in the intro-verse-chorus-tag song formula is the use of something called a “bridge.” A bridge appears about two-thirds of the way through the song, after two verse-chorus sets have established the story and emotional flow. A bridge is completely new musical and textual material, in a contrasting key and only appears once in the song. It arrives suddenly, makes its point with new text, melody and harmony, and then disappears into one or two final choruses.

A Structural Analysis:

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

Study Units also have “Playdecks” – containing hundreds of chronologically organized audio examples of music in the study units, and “Study Qs” for unit chapters.

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