Song Structure 101 (why do all these songs sound the same?)

Many years ago this guy names Johan Sebastian Bach decided he was going to write an absurd amount of music. It was like his job. He wrote hundreds of pieces, ranging from chorals, sonatas, to string quartets. His music was then arranged over and over for every imaginable group of instruments so that anybody could play it. How did he write so much music in his 1 mortal life?

Formula.

He had a winning formula that he could apply over and over again to produce a new piece of music with very little creative effort. You simply pick a key, a time signature, and an instrument and then plug in notes in his formula until you get to the end. Does this method sound familiar? it should because it has been happening ever since, even to today’s “pop” music.

Over time the formula “meta” changed. Meaning a new formula would start to get popular and everyone would use that for a while, until a new one came out again etc. Around the time of Mozart a form called sonata form was very popular. almost every 1st movement of almost every symphony of that time period was in sonata form. sonata form is like this: exposition, development, recapitulation. (http://library.thinkquest.org/22673/forms1.html) To put it into lamens terms, first you write the beginning, which is supposed to introduce the theme of the piece, then you write another theme, then back to the first. Then you have the development, which leaves a bit more freedom to the composer, where the bulk of the music happens. After that you literally do the first part again with small variations, which mean maybe changing the rhythm a little or the order of notes, but the two themes are the same. Finally you have the coda, the end, the grand finale. Self explanatory what that usually sounds like. to make it even easier, you have part A, part B, part A, part C, part A B A again.

Now I’m going to try and force my opinion on you.

For this reason, I can’t stand to listen to Mozart. Don’t get me wrong, he contributed a lot to the world of music and has a few standout masterpieces, but all of his music follows this formula. once you have heard one song, you can essentially know exactly what is going to happen next. For some reason, people loved this aspect of his music.  They wanted to be able to sit down and enjoy the talent of the musicians and the spectacle of an orchestra without having to think anything about what was going to happen. The reason this works is over time, once you know what to expect, it makes the music more gratifying to the ear. You think to yourself “ah I love that part that comes next, I can’t wait for it to happen even though I already know what it is.”
“just wait for the drop!”

Do you see what I’m getting at?

Now that I got the boring history lesson over with, let’s see how a current song in american pop culture formulates itself, then see if we can find anywhere that the same formula duplicates itself. We will start with this one:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOubzHCUt48

The song starts off with the chorus, introducing what the song is going to be about (which I will leave open for speculation to stay focused on the song structure here)

Right at 37 seconds, did you realize you knew exactly what was going to happen, yet still couldn’t help but nod your head to the beat as it came in? how did you know that?

Shortly after this initial “drop” the into is over, and the first verse begins. Lets call it part A. Then a melodic line comes in at about 1:08, lets call this part B (even though the chord progression stays the same, it is different, just as the 1st and second themes in a Mozart piece would be). Now at 1:22 the chorus introduced at the beginning of the song comes back. From this point forward in the song, after reading this, you should be able to predict exactly when this chorus is going to come back again. We will call the chorus part C.

So far we have C A B C

After this at about 2:08 what i have called part A returns. Then part B again. After part B we are expecting to hear part C once again, instead the artist delays the entrance of C in order to add some flavor, or something. Well played Ke$ha.  Alas, after a few measures it does return with the final part c.

The structure start to finish was C A B C A B C

Exposition, development, recapitulation, development, recapitulation. looks like ke$ha knows a thing or two about our old friend Mozart. lets do another song, with an entirely different artist.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQkBeOisNM0

Again the song begins with part C, or the chorus, almost in exactly the same fashion as Die Young, the beat comes in immediately after. Once the beat is established, the verse starts, followed by a slightly different part, then back into the chorus.

C A B C

The second time, they change things up again. The audacity! they do two sets of A B, followed by another “variation” just like in die young, before once again going into the end half of part C.

C A B C A B A B C

Slightly different from die young, omitting the middle chorus section to spice it up. but still only 3 different parts, and it is still split up as exposition, development, recapitulation, development x2, recapitulation. Ke$ha and Fun should get together to talk about their love for Mozart, because clearly they are both big fans of his song structure.

Now for something a little different.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o1tj2zJ2Wvg

OH NO HE DIDN’T

Yes I did, time to break down an 80’s classic rock tune.

This one doesn’t start with the chorus, instead it is a bit more exciting by introducing the thematic guitar riff that then repeats throughout the song. Cool, good job GnR

then we have part A, part B (when the melody goes down a step or so in tone) then C

Then back to A, then B, then… gosh do you see what I’m getting at?

After the second C, a new part of the song comes in where slash plays a guitar solo, the key doesn’t change, nor do the chords, so this like in some nights and die young is to spice up the song, play with the formula.

Then back to another set of A B C

WHOA there mister know it all music guy, something different happens next! that means GnR is more creative and valid than the 2 songs from current times! yes you got me, this is what is often called the bridge. Rock groups often take this opportunity to play a guitar solo and then slowly build up back into part C one last time. we will call the bridge part D for consistency sake.

So the final form is A B C A B C A B C D C

Well gosh when you put it that way it doesn’t look THAT much more creative, and aside from the bridge there are still 3 parts of the song repeated over and over.

Continuing my rampage, lets take a swing at the Beatles

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iim6s8Ea_bE

A nice little guitar intro, which to be precise is brought back later in the bridge but one step at a time I suppose…

The verse is split up a little differently, that’s just how it was for the time period, but the similarity is still apparent. First it does part A, then goes directly into the chorus. Part B isn’t here. yet.
A C A C
Like in the Guns n Roses piece, at this point the song takes a turn, but since this part is repeated it can now be identified as part B.

A C A C B A C B A C

Alright so the Beatles played with the form a bit here, but if you take a broader look, the exposition is the first set of A C A C and the development is B A C B which then leads into the recapitulation A C.

Are you sick of it yet? well now its time to change it up, this next song I actually enjoy, and while at first seems astronomically different from the other examples you will soon see follows the same guidelines

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBUgYtRvvkQ

You see, metal is often looked down upon because of “screaming” and its overall aggressive tendency. Look how similar this song is too the ones above.
First, of course an instrumental introduction as most songs in the broader genre of rock always do. Then part A, then a chorus (half chorus to be precise as you will notice later), Then, using the instrumental part from the beginning, part B. then A, C, B again(two times this time). Whats going to happen next? that’s right the bridge/solo section.  Alas there it is. They go right back into C, repeating it  2 times. At this point the song is essentially over, so they have the outro, or coda as per sonata form.

so we have A C B A C Bx2 D Cx2

Again, if you look at the overall structure, the first time through A C B is the exposition, which is played 2 times, then the development section or bridge, and then the recapitulation. even in a genre as “obscure” as metal the form holds true. Mozart you clever bastard.

As you can see the specific parts can be played around with and have the order changed sometimes to add flare and uniqueness to the song, but the overall structure holds true. Surely after listening to the first or maybe by the second example you could predict what was going to happen next in the song, because you have heard it before, a thousand times.

Alright, so what if they all use the same structure? it works! I like all those songs! I can sing along and tap my feet, I don’t have to worry about thinking anything at all while listening, everything happens exactly as I would expect it to.

Is that really all you want from a song? If so, there is nothing for you here. Next time we will observe song structures that do not necessarily follow the rules, but instead use the structure to help tell the story or otherwise make the song more interesting.

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One thought on “Song Structure 101 (why do all these songs sound the same?)

  1. Pingback: Metal Monday #1 | metalmalarkey's Blog

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