Music Theory: Popular Genres and Forms - dummies

Music Theory: Popular Genres and Forms

By Michael Pilhofer

Discussing form when talking about popular music is tricky because the term is often misused. Think of form as being the specific way a piece of music is constructed, with governing rules to that type of music’s construction. Genre, on the other hand, refers to a song’s style, such as the instrumentation used, overall tone of the music, and so on.

However, some popular modern genres of music have been around long enough that specific patterns can be seen in their overall construction. These genres are

  • Blues
  • Folk/rock/pop
  • Pop
  • Jazz

Feeling the Blues

The blues is the first truly American folk music (aside from the unique music that the Native Americans had before the European invasion). The structure of the blues is the common ancestor of pretty much all other constructions of American popular music and has been influential around the world. Around the turn of the 20th century, field holler, church music, and African percussion had all melded into what is now known as the blues. By 1910, the word blues to describe this music was in widespread use.

Blues music uses song, or ternary, form in three parts that follows an AABA pattern of I, IV, and V chords in a given scale. The B section is the bridge, a contrasting section that prepares the listener or performer for the return of the original A section. (Plenty of people complain that rock music uses only three chords: the I, IV, and V chords. Well, that all started with the blues!)

The blues is almost always played in 4/4 time, with the rhythm beat out either in regular quarter notes or in eighth notes and with strong accents given on both the first and third beats of each measure.

The most common types of blues songs are the 12-bar blues, the 8-bar blues, the 16-bar blues, the 24-bar blues, and the 32-bar blues. The “bar” refers to how many measures are used in each style of blues. If you’re in a bluesy mood, check out the following sections for more on these common blues song types.

12-bar blues

The name is pretty self-explanatory: In 12-bar blues, you have 12 bars, or measures, of music to work with. In each verse of the 12-bar blues (you can have as many verses as you want, but usually a 12-bar blues composition has three or four), the third 4-bar segment works to resolve the previous 4 bars. The resolution, or conclusion, to the I chord at the end of the verse may signal the end of the song. Or, if the 12th bar is a V chord, the resolution to the I chord signals that you go back to the beginning of the song to repeat the progression for another verse. If the song continues on to a new verse, the V chord at the end of the song is called the turnaround.

The most commonly used pattern — read from left to right, starting at the top and working down — for the 12-bar blues looks like this:

I I I I
IV IV I I
V IV I V/I (turnaround)

So if you were playing a 12-bar blues song in the key of C, you would play it like this:

C C C C
F F C C
G F C G/C (turnaround)

If you can hit those chords in that order, you have the bare bones for Muddy Waters’s classic “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.” Change the tonic (I) chord to an A (AAAA DDAA EDAE/A), and you have Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues.”

If you’re playing the 12-bar blues in a minor key, here’s the common pattern to use:

i iv i i
iv iv i i
ii V i v/i (turnaround)

Count Basie’s famous and much-loved variation on the 12-bar blues took elements of both the major and minor keys, as shown here:

I IV I v
IV IV I VI
ii V I v/I (turnaround)

8-bar blues

8-bar blues is similar to 12-bar blues — it just has shorter verses in it and a slightly different common use of chord progressions. Here’s the standard pattern used for 8-bar blues:

I IV I VI
ii V I V/I (turnaround)

16-bar blues

Another variation on the basic 12-bar blues is the 16-bar blues. Where the 8-bar blues is four bars shorter than the 12-bar blues, the 16-bar blues, as you can probably guess, is that much longer.

The 16-bar blues uses the same basic chord pattern structure as the 12-bar blues, with the 9th and 10th measures stated twice, like so:

I I I I
IV IV I I
V IV V IV
V IV I V/I

24-bar blues

The 24-bar blues progression is similar to a 12-bar traditional blues progression except that each chord progression is doubled in duration, like so:

I I I I
I I I I
IV IV IV IV
I I I I
V V IV IV
I I I V/I (turnaround)

32-bar blues ballads and country

The 32-bar blues pattern is where you see the true roots of rock and jazz music. This extended version of the 12-bar blues pattern has the AABA structure, also called song form, that was adopted by rock bands in the 1960s. The pattern is also referred to as the SRDC Model: Statement (A1), Restatement (A2), Departure (B), and Conclusion (A3).

A typical 32-bar blues layout can look something like this:

(A1) I I VI VI
  ii V IV V
(A2) I I VI VI
  ii V IV I
(B) I I I I
  IV IV IV IV
(A3) I I VI VI
  ii V IV V/I

When it was first created, 32-bar blues wasn’t nearly as popular with “true” blues performers as the 12-bar structure was, partly because it didn’t work as well with the short call-and-response form of lyricism that earmarked the blues. It did work well for the country music genre, though, and Hank Williams (Sr.) used this construction in songs like “Your Cheating Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome (I Could Cry).” Freddy Fender used this structure in his hits “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” and “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.”

However, when this particular blues structure was picked up by people like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin; a lot — perhaps all — of the true heart of blues disappeared from the resulting music. The 32-bar blues transitioned into popular songs like “Frosty the Snowman” and “I Got Rhythm.”

The 32-bar blues also was significantly altered by the intervention of other classically trained composers, who mixed the ideas of the sonata and the rondo with the traditional American blues. The result was the eventual creation of non-bluesy-sounding songs that used such aspects of classical music as the ability to change keys during the bridge section of a song.

Having fun with rock and pop

Most early rock and pop songs follow the structure of either the 12-bar blues or the 32-bar blues (see those sections earlier in this chapter). Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is one variation of the 12-bar blues structure used in rock, as is the Rolling Stones’s “19th Nervous Breakdown.” The Beach Boys were masters of the 32-bar structure, using it in such songs as “Good Vibrations” and “Surfer Girl.” The Beatles also used this structure in many of their songs, including “From Me to You” and “Hey Jude.” Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire,” The Righteous Brothers’s “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” all also use the AABA 32-bar.In 32-bar pop music, the music is broken into four 8-bar sections. Songs like Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing” follow the AABA 32-bar structure, whereas Charlie Parker took the rondo approach (ABAC) to the 32-bar variation in songs like “Ornithology” and “Donna Lee.”

Compound AABA form really should be called AABAB2 form (but it isn’t), because in this form, after you play the first 32 bars, you move into a second bridge section (B2) that sends you right back to the beginning of the song to repeat the original 32 bars of the song. The Beatles’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’s “Refugee” all follow this pattern.The verse-chorus structure (also called ABAB form) is the most widely used form in rock and pop music today. Verse-chorus form follows the structure of the lyrics attached to it. You can, of course, write an instrumental piece that follows the same pattern as a verse-chorus rock or pop song, but the structure itself gets its name from the way the words in a song fit together.

Verse-chorus songs are laid out like this:

  • Introduction (I): The introduction sets the mood and is usually instrumental, although sometimes it may include a spoken recitation, like in Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.”
  • Verse (V): The verse begins the story of the song.
  • Chorus (C): The chorus is the most memorable lyrical points of the song — the song’s
  • Verse (V): Another verse continues the story.
  • Chorus (C): The second chorus reinforces the hook.
  • Bridge (B): The bridge, which may be instrumental or lyrical, usually occurs only once in the song and forms a contrast with the repetition of verses and choruses.
  • Chorus (C): The final chorus repeats the original chorus to fade, or it just stops at the I chord.

The typical rock and pop song structure, as we describe it here, is IVCVCBC. And just as in the 12-bar blues structure, the chords of choice are the I, IV, and V chords.

Thousands, perhaps even millions, of popular songs follow this structure. The Beatles’s “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” Tom Jones’s “Sex Bomb,” Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler,” Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” are all examples of this structure used in contemporary pop music. The really amazing thing is how different from one another, either by virtue of lyrics or the music itself, one song can sound from the next.

Improvising with jazz

The true spirit of jazz has always been improvisation, which makes identifying the actual construction of jazz most difficult. The goal in jazz is to create a new interpretation of an established piece (called a standard), or to build on an established piece of music by changing the melody, harmonies, or even the time signature. It’s almost like the point of jazz is to break away from form.

The closest way to define how jazz is constructed is to take the basic idea behind blues vocalizations — the call-and-response vocals — and replace the voices with the various instruments that make up the jazz sound: brass, bass, percussive (including piano), and wind instruments, along with the more recent inclusion, the electric guitar. In Dixieland jazz, for example, musicians take turns playing the lead melody on their instruments while the others improvise countermelodies, or contrasting secondary melodies, that follow along in the background.

The one predictable element of music in the jazz genre — excluding free jazz, where no real discernible rules exist but jazz instrumentation is used — is the rhythm. All jazz music, with the exception of free jazz, uses clear, regular meter and strongly pulsed rhythms that can be heard throughout the music.

Twelve-tone compositions

Twelve-tone music—also known as serial composition — is a compositional technique invented by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg in 1921, heavily influenced by the atonal compositions of Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky. Twelve-tone compositions are based on the twelve-tone chromatic scale, in which each note is separated from the next by a half-step, as opposed to the diatonic scale, which is the eight-note scale. The fun thing about twelve-tone compositions is that as long as you follow the pattern variations built on the prime row, you can jump around to different octaves to add interest to your composition. The goal of a twelve-tone composition is to use every tone in the chromatic scale before repeating any notes. Each sequence of twelve notes is called a “tone row,” and twelve-tone compositions are basically variations on the first presented tone row.

Let’s say your tone row starts on B natural and ends on F natural, as shown.

Prime row (P-form)
First tone row, or Prime row (P-form).

After you lay out your first tone row, or the prime row (or P-form), your second variation can be an inversion of the original pattern, in which you start with B natural again, but where, in the first pattern, you take one half-step down on the second note, you go a half-step up on the second note instead. This is called the inversion form, or I-form, as seen here. Basically, everything you did in the first pattern, you take the opposite approach in the inversion, which leads you to an F natural an octave above where you started.

inversion form
Inversion form, or I-form.

Another way to lay the notes out is called a retrograde pattern, or R-form. This is where you start on the last note of the first tone row (F) and present the entire line again backwards, ending on B, like shown.

retrograde pattern
Retrograde pattern, or R-form.

The last commonly-used form, retrograde inversion (RI-form) is when you take the R-form and make the exact opposite steps you made in the retrograde pattern. So in the following, starting on a high F, you go down three half-tones (ending on a D), which is exactly the opposite as you did in the R-form, where you started on an F and went up three half-tones to an A-flat, as shown.

Retrograde inversion form
Retrotrade inversion, or RI-form.

While there are many other combinations possible, these are the three basic compositional techniques used in twelve-tone compositions. Perhaps the best known contemporary twelve-tone/serial composer is Philip Glass, whose distinctive twelve-tone compositions have been used extensively in soundtracks for films including North Star (1977), Candyman (1992), The Truman Show (1999), and The Hours (2002).