UNDERSTANDING SONG FORM
By Jeremy Steinkoler

Having taught rock band workshops for the past thirteen years, I’ve worked with dozens of drummers who are in a situation where they’re trying to learn five songs in the course of eight weeks. While that may not seem like too difficult a task for many drummers, with only eight 2-hour rehearsals, there is little time to waste in learning to play each tune with the appropriate groove, feel and character (especially when you consider that the rest of the band is just learning the songs too). Many of us have been faced with the challenging (but fun!) scenario where we need to learn a large number of songs in a short amount of time. In my experience, the two things most important to learning new songs quickly are understanding the song form, and learning the proper feel, or “getting into character.” I’ll tackle the latter concept in the next article.

FORM
I can’t tell you how many times rehearsals with amateur musicians have stalled or ground to a halt because someone didn’t know what was supposed to happen next. So much rehearsal time is wasted—and so many musicians become frustrated—because other musicians don’t know the form of the song. Sometimes it can take repeated attempts through a song before the band can even play it all the way through, not because they don’t know the parts, but because they don’t know the form.

Especially in situations where you have to learn a large number of songs in a short amount of time, understanding and recognizing song forms can be invaluable. It will save you time, embarrassment, and make it appear that you know the tunes well, even if some of the details may be missing.

Even with songs that seem familiar, drummers will often not have a full grasp of the structure of the song. I’ve seen some drummers play all the way through a song perfectly on one try, then make an arrangement mistake the next. Or they get by relying on other band members to play the arrangement, catching hits, groove changes and dynamic shifts a couple of beats or measures late. When you have a grasp of the form of the song, there’s no need to leave your playing up to chance.

Think of it like driving to some familiar destination, like school or work. If you ride as a passenger in the car each day, you know the general way to get from here to there, and may recognize some familiar landmarks along the way. You can get there without really paying attention, since someone else knows the route. But as soon as you’re in the driver’s seat and have to drive there on your own, you realize that unless you know how to get completely from A to B, there’s a good chance you’re going to get lost. Think of knowing song forms like knowing the driving route from A to B (from the beginning of the song to the end). Once you know the way like the back of your hand, you can get there almost without even thinking about it. YOU can tell the rest of the band who made the mistake where, and what was supposed to happen when. Better still, you can even lead the band along the way, putting in fills at the proper times to set up transitions, helping them with a turn signal or two. You’ll be amazed how much more in control you will feel when you really know the form.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Since drummers don’t need to know the chord changes of a song, the most important part other than the basic groove and feel (and keeping time!) is understanding the form, or structure of the tune. Even if you don’t know the groove or haven’t come up with one, having a sense of when to make changes to support the composition will help you define your parts and really bring out the contrast and dynamics of the song.

If you have drum charts, or can look over a chord chart, the form is usually indicated for you. But if you don’t have the luxury of charts or can’t read, you’re left with your ears to figure it out. Like so much else regarding playing drums, it comes down to listening.

The vast majority of rock and pop songs use the same building blocks, or types of sections of a song, and arrange them in some (usually) predictable order. Once you become familiar with these common building blocks, you’ll be able to recognize the form of a tune and “know how it goes” after only one or two times listening through the song. Furthermore, you’ll become so familiar with a handful of typical arrangements, you’ll almost be able to predict what happens next in a song even if you’ve never heard it before (naturally, there are many exceptions, but you’ll be surprised how good at guessing you can become).


The basic elements of the rock song form are:

Intro
The intro of the song may be played by any number of instruments, from one instrument to the entire band. Sometimes the intro will be subdivided into a number of parts (e.g. the piano plays the first 4 bars, then bass enters for 4, then drums for 8 more). Usually the intro lasts until the first verse begins. On rare occasions, a chorus will precede a verse.

Verse
This is the part with the singing. Verses usually have different lyrics for each verse, though sometimes, especially in Blues, verses can be repeated. Typical length: 8-16 bars.

Pre-chorus
The pre-chorus is much less common than the chorus, but you will run into one on occasion. It sounds very different from the verse, and will usually have the same words each time, which distinguishes it from the verse. Typically the pre-chorus sets up the chorus in a very obvious way. Depending on the song, the pre-chorus might be considered part of the verse. Typical length: 4-8 bars.

Chorus
When you hit the chorus, you know it. It’s usually fuller sounding, often louder than the verse or pre-chorus, and has the same words every time. It’s the hook, the refrain, the part that makes you smile and want to sing along. It’s the payoff from the verse, the release, the catchy part of the song that everybody knows. Typical length: 8-12 bars (sometimes there will be an additional 4 or 8 bars of verse groove to set up the following verse).

Bridge (or Interlude, or Middle 8)
The Bridge is an often-misunderstood section, mainly because it sounds like neither the verse nor the chorus. Often it will change key (modulate), or have a distinct feeling from the verse and chorus. Typically there will be some kind of feel change that accompanies the bridge, though not always. The bridge isn’t usually very long, as it acts to bridge the chorus to the verse and offer a break from the monotony of the verse/chorus. Typical length: 8 bars.

Vamp
A vamp is a repeating section of a song, usually 1, 2, 4 or 8-bars long, which repeats over and over some set number of times or until some cue. Solos will often be played over a vamp. A vamp is often open-ended, of undetermined length, to be ended by spontaneous decision of the soloist or bandleader. When bands jam or rock out, it’s often over a vamp.

Solos
Not every song has a solo. When they are played, they can be as short as 4 bars, or as long as 10 minutes or more. Solos can be played over the verse form, chorus, bridge, vamp, or any combination of sections. Most often solos will be over either a verse, chorus, verse/chorus, or vamp. The vamps can be either of set length or open-ended (until cue).

Outro or Coda
The outro, or Coda (ending) of a song can take many different forms. Songs will often fade out over a chorus vamp. Or they may revert to the intro. Other times the band will play a set number of bars until hitting some rhythmic figure together.

Songs may have any combination of the above elements, arranged in different sequences. Some songs may have only a verse and chorus. Others, like Blues, will have a 12-bar form that repeats over and over, whether there are verses or solos. Still others may have additional sections, where there is an elongated or shortened verse or chorus, a double chorus, or a different section entirely that doesn’t really fit into any of the above categories (though this is more rare). The bottom line is that there are no absolutes regarding form (since the possibilities are limitless, after all), yet the vast majority of rock and pop songs are arranged in very predictable patterns, using the same handful of building blocks. Once you recognize these form elements and the patterns they’re arranged in, you’ll be able to learn songs much more quickly.


Here’s a great exercise:

Put on a rock or pop CD and try to figure out when the band hits each of the different sections. Jot them down on paper. Even if you’re not sure what to label each section, make your own notes to remind you of what’s happening at each section. Then check the above criteria to see what makes the most sense to call each part of the song. After you do this a few times, you’ll be surprised to find the form of most songs fitting into very logical sequences that are easy to define. Once you get the hang of this, try keeping track of the number of measures in each section (4-intro, 8-verse, 8-chorus, etc.). Before you know it, you’ll become expert at understanding and recognizing the form of any song you listen to, and will be able to commit it to memory much more quickly. Then you’re on to the fun part—figuring out what to play!


Jeremy Steinkoler has been teaching drums for over 15 years and running BandWorks rock band workshops for kids and adults since 1993. 
Visit www.bandworks.com for more info!