Princess Stomper

Who makes the rules for music?

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professor of music

By Princess Stomper

“…there must be room for some sort of experimentation in how music is written? Of course there is, but those who subvert the rules must understand them in the first place – why they’re there, how they work, and only the people who have a complete mastery of music can bend or break those rules” – Princess Stomper

“Who set these apparently rigid rules for what’s a great song and what isn’t? Where are they? Who wrote them?” – Darragh Murray

As with any of these things, they evolved naturally. Most of what we think of as pop and rock music is descended from blues and jazz, and mutated somewhere along the way into the common 32-bar form and verse-chorus form. In either case, the crucial elements are the verses and the chorus.

Pop songs typically begin with an introduction – a unique section that leads the listener into the song. The verse is the poetic stanza that follows. Some songs include a pre-chorus or transitional bridge, which often uses subdominant transitional harmonies. These can add variety when the verse and chorus have the same harmonic structure. You then get your chorus – the bit that repeats at least once musically and lyrically – and this is the most identifiable part of the song, where you normally get the main hook.

Connecting the chorus to the next part of the song is, of course, the bridge. It’s something different from the verse and the chorus and unlike those doesn’t need any lyrics. The bridge can either precede or replace the next verse. (If the latter, you then get the chorus again). The bridge is intended to surprise the listener, who is expecting the chorus, and the chorus will often be repeated to stress its finality when it is at last heard.

The middle eight is an eight-bar sequence that can appear mid-way through a song after the second chorus. The structure of that song might be intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-chorus-chorus-outro. Alternatively (or additionally) you might get a solo of the guitar or sax variety, and any song indulgent enough to include one will plonk one anywhere it bloody well likes. Lastly, the outro might include vocal ad-libbing, which is where pop divas play Look How Much I Can Sing. ‘Umbrella’ has the pattern intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle 8-chorus-outro

The 32-bar form is a variant on the typical pop structure, and is otherwise known as AABA because it’s made up of four eight-bar sections which form an AABA pattern. ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ is a prime example of AABA with an outro.

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8 Responses to Who makes the rules for music?

  1. Princess Stomper November 7, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    (Thanks should go to Hannah Golightly for the Penn State quotes, and of course to Paul and JG for answering my questions.)

  2. golightly November 7, 2011 at 10:08 pm

    You’re welcome.

    Great article. Just one thing I don’t understand… why you would judge MGMT on the song Electric Feel of all songs?? That’s my least favourite (too Disco sounding and dull for me), but it’s not typical of them, hence I love them. They are such an imaginative band and their songs cut right through all the other crap on the radio when their debut came out and I felt like some good muci was once again being made. If I were to recommend a song by MGMT, I would recommend ANYTHING except Electric Feel. If I were to suggest a song by them that was most typical of their sound, it would be anything BUT Electric Feel.

  3. Princess Stomper November 7, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    Oddly enough I hadn’t actually heard anything by them until ‘Electric Feel’ and wasn’t motivated to seek out more after hearing it. Do recommend other tracks if I’m missing out! 🙂

  4. Matt O'Neill November 8, 2011 at 7:59 am

    Fucking rad article. During my ill-fated foray into judging a section of a state’s music awards, I was shocked at how few artists seemed to understand the necessity of considered song structure.

    I don’t mind if a song is in the standard format or not – but songwriters need to understand that format exists to satisfy certain requirements of the listener and, if they don’t use that structure, those requirements will still exist and need to be addressed.

  5. Darragh November 8, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Hehe, I feel slightly proud that some random probably ill-thought comment of mine inspired this interesting article. Nice work, Stomper.

  6. Princess Stomper November 9, 2011 at 3:06 am

    Thanks for the kind comments, all.

    I noticed an interesting response on ET’s Facebook page asking who this article is aimed at, and it’s a good question because I hadn’t really thought about it. I thought Darragh’s question was really interesting and wanted to answer it, as much for me as for him (though I’m sure he was being rhetorical).

    So I guess the article’s aimed at people who know a little bit about music, but not enough to really understand why they’re reacting a certain way. For instance, if my husband asked for my view on a song he was writing (always a mistake!), I’d often say something like “that bridge needs to be about four bars shorter”, and that was an instinct thing. I knew that at certain points in the song I was expecting things to happen and if they didn’t, I’d get either bored or frustrated, and so it was interesting for me to find out that there are established patterns such as that 32-bar form that dictate our expectations of where the song is going to go.

    As for it not being in depth enough, I’m sure that’s fair – but people spend a lifetime figuring that stuff out, so I don’t think anyone can cover it in just four pages.

  7. Princess Stomper November 9, 2011 at 6:57 am

    Erika – great points! You might find this documentary about (experimental composer) Harry Partch interesting: http://ubu.com/film/partch_outsider.html

    He questioned the established “rules” so much that he even built his own instruments, messing around with microtones – basically increasing the number of notes within the scale.

    What you’re saying about confounding expectations is what provoked me to make the original comment about mastery of songwriting: I was thinking of Cardiacs and how Tim Smith could write something that would sound both familiar and alien at the same time. Take Dirty Boy for example, how at first glance it’s a really traditional, Beatles-ish pop tune, but the chords keep shifting in unexpected directions. (I’m still trying to work out how it’s physically possible for the girls to be singing those notes at the end.)

    I’d personally love to know why I have such a strong preference for songs in minor keys. I think that’s weird.

  8. Matt November 9, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    A friend of mine once told me John Frusciante believes you can never not write a song in 4/4. His belief is that, if you write a whole heap of songs in different time signatures, they will, when placed end on end, add up to 4/4.

    RE: Minor keys. I discovered recently when working on a song and hanging with some composers that most everything I like and everything I write is in Phrygian Mode. Given my knowledge of music theory is negligible at best (I can’t even play an instrument), it was a genuinely weird discovery.

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