This article is my examination and explanation on how musical form is utilised in much of modern media music (i.e. in video games and motion pictures). It includes a basic introduction to musical form itself and then follows up with the recommendations I follow myself.
What is musical form?
All songs, from popular to classical, are made up of parts. “Part” is a technical term, which means a clearly identifiable section of music. I’m sure you’re intimately familiar with what a chorus is, as well as a verse. You may even be able to identify what a bridge is. These three are the different kinds of parts that make up the most common musical form of all (in the Western part of the world, anyway).
Verse | Chorus | Verse | Chorus | Bridge | Chorus
Listen to Drops of Jupiter, by Train. (You know you love it.) If we analyse the form of this track from the perspective of pop form, we get the following.
- 0:00 Verse 1 (first four measures of intro)
- 0:48 Chorus 1
- 1:12 Verse 2
- 2:00 Chorus 2
- 2:24 Bridge
- 3:00 Chorus 3
- 3:36 Outro
Easily recognisable parts. The verses are the baseline and the choruses are the more dramatic, stronger parts. The way these parts come together forms a predictable and enjoyable progression. The first verse and chorus are very often softer than the rest of the piece. In this track, the drums don’t come in until the second verse, which is very common.
Pairing the gentler verse with a chorus results in good dynamics, which is variation in strength and type of expression. Rather than having a piece be just four minutes of powerful chorus, each part gets more room and sticks out more by use of dynamic variation. It creates contrast. Variety being the spice of life and all that.
A bridge is a part which appears once in the latter half of a piece. Its purpose is to relieve the verse-chorus repetition. Playing the same two parts over and over would work against the very same variation we want by pairing them together. Hence, after they have been repeated, we introduce a different part, the bridge.
Bridges typically sit between the verse and chorus in terms of dynamics, and they often start out softer and rise to become strong right before the third chorus. In other words, bridges serve the function of replacing the verse for increased variation.
Pop form examined further
If we look more closely at pop form, we’ll find that verses, choruses and bridges are actually not technical parts. They can be, but that is not their definition. Many verses, for instance, are made up of multiple parts, and the same is true of bridges. What this means is that the verse, chorus and bridge are functional definitions. This means we can apply them outside of a popular music context. (Although defining modern media as not being such may not be tenable, but I digress.)
- A verse is a repeated part or group of parts that is not used for the climaxes of the piece.
- A chorus is a repeated part or group of parts that is the used for the climaxes of the piece.
- A bridge is a part or group of parts that is only played once, not repeated, which typically occurs either before the final chorus or a final verse-chorus repetition. Some songs also end on the bridge.
Don’t let the word “classical” fool you. We won’t be talking about classical music. Classical doesn’t refer to music style, just a different perspective of looking at musical architecture. To show you what I mean, let’s being by analysing a piece that is beautiful, modern and relevant; Jeremy Soule’s Far Horizons from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
The way you analyse the musical form of a piece is to listen to it and write down where each new part begins and whether it’s new or a variation of one we’ve already heard before. We use capital letters to name each part, starting from A and then in alphabetical order. In the case of Far Horizons, we get the following.
- 0:00, start of the track, a part begins right away. There’s no intro. We’ll call this part A.
- 0:30, first part ends and another begins. We’ll call this one B.
- 1:02, a repetition of part A, with variation.
- 1:32, a new, unheard part begins. We’ll name it part C.
- 2:02, another new, unheard part begins. Part D.
- 2:31, the previous part, D, repeats with variation.
- 3:02, the very first part, part A, repeats, again with a different variation to the arrangement.
- 3:30, the second part, part B, is repeated again, with some variation.
- 4:00, another repeat of the first part, A, with a larger and stronger arrangement.
- 4:31, repeat of the third part, C.
- 5:00, outro of sustained notes.
We use apostrophes (‘) to mark each variation. They’re spoken as “prime,” so A’ is “A prime” and A” is “A double prime.” The result of our analysis is as follows.
A B A’ C D D’ A” B’ A”’ C’
If we were to apply the pop functions to this form, we would have to concede that part A serves the functions of both the verse and the chorus. We do have an obvious bridge, however, which is made up of two parts in the middle, D D’. The other repeated group of parts is A B A C.
By looking at this form, we can conclude that the piece has repetition at the start and end with a bridge for variation in between. We can also clearly see how the A and B parts rise in dynamics with each variation.
Why do we use musical form?
In its most basic intention, musical form is used to balance variation and repetition. At this point, keep in mind that whilst musical form is theory, it’s theory that’s based on convention. What sounds good comes from how our music has naturally developed over time. In other words, the pop form is good form because we like it and not the other way around.
Repetition and variation
These two concepts make up the entirety of our music. Observe the form below.
A B A B A A’
We’ve got two parts, A and B. By analysing the repetition and variation of this form, we can glean the following.
- Variation by having B follow A.
- Repetition by repeating a group of parts, A B.
- Variation by following the third A with A’ instead of B.
It’s not just from part to part where we find variation and repetition. A repeated part also does not always imply more repetition than variation. If you’ve established that part A is followed by part B, changing it and following part A with A’ or C will result in variation by way of repetition, also known as relieved variation.
The secondary function of musical form is to manage the dynamic curve of a piece. It refers to how the strength of expression varies throughout a piece. In a typical context, you want a rising curve with a late climax followed by a drop-off before the end. If you’re writing music for media such as film or a cut-scene, your dynamic curve might be constrained to the inherent dramatics of that media, in which case you’ll need to adapt your form accordingly.
A A’ B C A A’ D D’
Imagine that the form above belongs to a piece of music played in a film. The A part is sad and mourning. On-screen, a man is watching his wife die in hospital. Her death occurs in part B, which has a sudden and strong climax to accentuate the event. The coming A A’ is played during her funeral.
Then there’s a time lapse and all of sudden it’s years later. The man is climbing to the top of a mountain. When he gets there, he takes out out a picture of his wife and looks at it, smiling. The music, D D’, turns happy. End scene.
Without musical form, it would be hard to synchronise music to film this way, especially if we’ve got existing motifs to reuse.
When it comes to music, the ear hears everything in multiples of two. Thus, the smallest group of measures required to form a recognisable section is four measures (to give us enough space to move away from and back to the tonic chord).
Pop music has influenced the form of many other kinds of music. “Lyrical” in this context uses its classical definition, emotive expression. A song does not need singing to be lyrical. Jeremy Soule’s Far Horizons is a lyrical piece. It follows similar structure to pop music but is freer in arrangement and form.
In lyrical music, a part is made up of eight or sixteen measures and all parts in a composition have the same length.
This is based on what our ears have progressed to prefer and my recommendation is that you follow it religiously. I’m yet encounter a single instance when following it has been too restrictive or worked against what the piece needed. It works for all kinds of music.
A lot of classical music is non-lyrical. Non-lyrical music is typically based on parts made up of multiples of four. As an example, Bach’s Air on the G String uses twelve measures per part. The result is a more freestyle kind of sound without clear sections. It just kind of “goes on” and you don’t feel the length of each part as you would with lyrical music.
Final words on part length
Whether you want to go lyrical or non-lyrical, the most important rule to follow is the multiple of four. We’ve progressed past the point where a part can be six, seven, nine or eleven measures long. Our ears don’t like it. They’re too used to the nice predictable eight and sixteen measure parts.
I’ve heard it said that pop music’s influence on musical form is terrible and it’s ruined the beautiful complexity of the art. I don’t agree with this at all. Music is guided by all of us, not by a small bunch of purists who think that music must be complex. Why shouldn’t we make it as accessible and approachable as possible? Never once had doing so resulted in worse music.
As a final note, the ideal length in time for a part is between 30-50 seconds.
A secondary part is one of the following three types.
Let’s use another Jeremy Soule example for this one, Wings of Kynareth. First, an analysis.
- 0:00, presumably the first verse, part A
- 0:22, chorus, part B
- 0:49, repetition of part A
- 1:10, chorus repetition, B
- 1:37, repetition of part A
- 1:58, another chorus, B
- 2:20, unheard part, C
- 2:41, another unheard part, D
- 3:05, outro based on part A
A  B A’  B’ A” B” C D [Outro]
Whilst listening to this track, you may notice that before the first and second choruses, there is some extra space, two measures to be exact. These are filler parts. Soule uses them here to relax the ear from the lively verse and prepare it for the chorus. On the third chorus, it’s strong enough that doing so isn’t necessary, and it’s a good example of variation by removing existing variation. That chorus becomes all the more stronger because it starts right after the verse.
A filler part is separate from and exists only between its surrounding parts. They’re slot-in measures, used for certain effects, often as an extension of the previous part or preparation for the coming. It doesn’t have to be two measures; you could use just one, three or even four, but the longer you make it, the more it’ll interrupt the structure and you’ll move away from lyrical form.
As for intro and outro, the reason they’re written in brackets rather than as letters is because they’re not repeated and they don’t always follow part length. Sometimes the outro is just a repetition of a proper part, in which case you can write it as either.
There are many different ways to end a piece. Arguably the most common is sustained harmony, as in Far Horizons. The last chord progression is resolved and then held, slowly fading out, possibly with minor embellishments.
Another way is to repeat an earlier part in a conclusory fashion. Note that the repeated part should not be the chorus.
The last most common way is to have a dedicated outro with new material (or a heavily modified version of a previous part). Very long and through-composed pieces benefit the most from this type.
In short, form without any significant amount of repetition. Analysing it would result in something like A B C D E and so on, or possibly AABBCCDDEE and on. This is common in film music. The lack of repetition makes cohesion difficult, as one minute could sound very different to the next. For this reason, you should avoid through-composed form unless you specifically need the effect of unrelieved variation.
Good form relies not only on a well-structured linear arrangement of parts but also on how the parts relate to one another; just because we can assign letters to each part doesn’t mean we can create good form without modifying the individual parts.
This is known as synergy, which by definition means two or more entities (musical parts, in our case) coming together to form a greater whole. After all, any verse or chorus taken out of a popular song doesn’t have nearly the same effect on its own as it does along with the rest of the track.
Like the overall form itself, synergy is based on variation and repetition. If we were to briefly jump back to our analysis of Far Horizons, we can find a good example of this.
A B A’ C D D’ A” B’ A”’ C’
If we examine the parts A and B, we can note the following observations.
- A establishes a recognisable melodic pattern.
- B uses a very similar pattern to A with variation in pitch and some extra notes added to the rhythm.
In other words, B forms synergy with A by using both repetition and variation.
In our second example, Wings of Kynareth, we find that the verses are very different to the chorus, in other words, synergy by variation.
Both of these work well in their own right and there’s nothing intrinsically better or worse about either approach. They’re tools, and we decide which is appropriate based on the parts we’re working on. Identifying how to create synergy is the most important step towards achieving it. Look at your linear arrangement and think about the variation and repetition not just from part to part but of each group and inside each group.
Common form examples
These are a number of the most common forms, particularly in video game music. The number in parentheses is the amount of measures per part.
Pop form (8/16)
A B A B C B
Example: Drops of Jupiter, largely any pop song.
This is the default popular music form. Details on it can be found at the start of this article.
Inverse pop form (16)
A B A’ C B’ A”
Similar to the form of Far Horizons but with longer parts and thus less variation. A is the part that serves as chorus. B is the verse and C is the bridge.
Inverse pop form (8)
A B A’ C D D’ A” B’ A”’ C’
Example: Far Horizons.
Split-verse pop form (8)
A A’ B C D D’ B’
This form has a chorus, B, and a bridge, C, but two different verses made up of a single repeated part. The first verse is A A’ and the second D D’. This results in more variation and development throughout the piece, which is then resolved by playing the chorus again before the end.
Bridged ternary form (8)
A A B A C C’ D A A B A
Example: Journey’s End.
This one is quite similar to the inverse pop form. The central repeated group is AABA, with a bridge CC’D.
Evolving chain form (8/16)
A B C (…)
This is your typical battle track form. It differs from through-composed form by having a high amount of familiarity between each part.
Whether you’re composing for video games or motion pictures, good form is important. This article explains my own take on form as seen in modern media music, but it is by no means extensive or covering all styles. It’s influenced mostly by composers such as Nobuo Uematsu and Jeremy Soule but also Inon Zur, Alexander Brandon and Yasunori Mitsuda.
When creating your own form, remember that it’s all about variation and repetition and the interplay between the two, and even if you write more classical music than the average modern media composer, you still have a lot to benefit from utilising the pop form parts of verse, chorus and bridge. Deconstruct them into functions and learn how to use them effectively.
Most importantly, always be prepared to kill your darlings. If a particular part sounds awesome but doesn’t fit in the overall form, either revise it or discard it. We can’t be too attached to any individual part or idea or we won’t be able to compose fluidly. There’ll always be more ideas that we’ll like even better, and it is a composer’s ability to write music fluidly that makes them great, not a body of work.
All the best,